I've been reviewing Paula James' excellent book (oops, spoiled the review!) on receptions of Ovid's version of the Pygmalion story for Classical Review this week, and among the many brilliant films Paula discussed was, of course, My Fair Lady.
As an example of the reception of the classical world, My Fair Lady is in an interesting position. It's based on a play called Pygmalion, so clearly it is in some way inspired by the classical myth of Pygmalion and has a closer relationship to the ancient world than, for example, the Buffy episode 'I Was Made to Love You'. On the other hand, there isn't much active use of the ancient world within the musical or the film itself. Although it might be informed by the myth, an audience coming out of My Fair Lady wouldn't have the same sense of having seen something mythically inspired as, for example, an audience coming out of Prometheus.
There are some fun, subtle touches that link the film back to the myth, though. The costume design in particular, together with Audrey Hepburn's performance, suggests the story of Pygmalion creating a statue which then comes to life. When we first meet Eliza Doolittle in Covent Garden, she's wearing fairly dark colours, mostly blues and greys and earthy browns - she looks very natural. She speaks and moves in a very natural and un-self-conscious way, as well as speaking in her own accent and dialect.
Once she's got the hang of the accent, though, the costumes change. The first thing we see her wearing after she gets it right is a white nightgown, then she wears a striking mostly white costume at Ascot and a white dress to the ball which has very simple lines - very '60s, but also a little bit like a column. These white costumes represent her as Pygmalion's statue (which is ivory in Ovid's Metamorphoses, because that makes it slightly off-white and closer to a flesh tone, but for the film, it's white that would remind a costume designer or viewer of the best known, marble, ancient statues). Audrey Hepburn's performance is also highly exaggerated, first at Ascot and then especially at the ball where, despite the fact that the whole point of the exercise was to change Eliza's accent and dialect, she barely speaks. She stands mostly quite still, looking elegant, and when she does speak she does so very slowly and carefully, as if she really was Higgins' living doll.
Finally, when she leaves Higgins and meets Freddy in the street, she's wearing a peachy-pinky coloured costume - i.e., Caucasian flesh tones. She still speaks with the received pronunciation accent, but she behaves in a more natural way. The costume emphasises the idea that the statue has now become a real, living woman, albeit a different woman from the earthy character she started out as. I really like this way of incorporating the myth into the film through design.
Depending how you interpret the ending, the film is also slightly closer to the ancient Pygmalion story than Bernard Shaw's play. In the play, Eliza marries Freddy, which did not go down too well with audiences. Bernard Shaw stuck to his guns and insisted that she couldn't marry Higgins. He wrote a very long explanation and epilogue to a later edition of the play, explaining that Galatea can never really love Pygmalion, because he is too godlike to her (since he literally created her). (Bernard Shaw also provided a whole life story for Eliza, Freddy and Higgins, almost worthy of a Tolkien Appendix).
Personally, I agree with Bernard Shaw, partly because I think Freddy's much more attractive and Higgins is a pain in the neck, but then if I'd been in Pirates of the Caribbean I'd quite happily have married Commodore Norrington, so what do I know. Audiences, however, continued to see the play as a love story, just like the story of Pygmalion - almost the only story in the Metamorphoses that has a happy ending. The film is vaguely open-ended, but it pretty strongly implies some sort of relationship between Eliza and Higgins, going back to the myth and to the core of the story being about a man who creates something and falls in love with it. I find this very depressing, especially since Higgins still seems to expect Eliza to simply pick up after him. I prefer more modern stories which take apart the idea of a man desiring a woman of his own creation and emphasise how spectacularly creepy it is, like 'I Was Made to Love You' and The Stepford Wives.
I don't mean to say I don't like My Fair Lady, which is a classic and has some great tunes, though it's kinda long. My all time favourite scene has to be Ascot, which is a weird and glorious gem anyway, topped off by 'Come on Dover, move yer bloomin' arse!' But I do think the musical, although it keeps most of the play's dialogue as well as its own songs and extra scenes, ultimately misses the point Bernard Shaw was trying to make, which was about the inherent selfishness of trying to make someone else into what you think they ought to be. By putting Eliza and Higgins together (more or less) in the final scene, the film forgives Higgins' selfish behaviour perhaps a little too easily.
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