Worst Best Picture: Is My Fair Lady Better or Worse Than Crash?

my fair lady

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1964 winner My Fair Lady. Is it better than Crash?

Sometimes you’ve got to get some perspective. When I reviewed The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, I talked about the tone-deaf strangeness of negative reviews of the movie that seemed to think that Peter Jackson invented Middle-earth. People were writing these damning pieces about how the idea of elves wasn’t “believable” and it made them seem like they didn’t have any idea what they were watching. I’m certainly not the most informed person on musicals, so when I went to watch one of the all-time greats, I had to ask some folks. I didn’t want to come at this with a “psh, boring” attitude and look uncouth, which, when you think about My Fair Lady, is pretty funny.

My Fair Lady is the classic story of Eliza Doolittle (Aubrey Hepburn), a Cockney flower seller and Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), a refined elocution educator who can’t stand people who don’t speak proper English. Higgins bumps into Eliza in the street and bets an acquaintance that he can coach her to speak like a high-class member of society and pass her off as a woman above her station. It’s a bet, as they say, and hijinks ensue.

Eliza is charming and absurd as a Cockney character, and Aubrey Hepburn plays her at a 13 out of 10 all the time. She has to live with Higgins for this all to work, apparently, and a scene where she doesn’t understand what taking a bath entails is as silly and broad as anything you’ll see in a Will Ferrell movie. She’s extremely fun through her transformation into “high status” which helps her seem less put-upon and more like someone who doesn’t know why all this fancy stuff matters, but she’ll do it anyway.

Higgins is a little harder to pin down. At times he’s berating the people around him for speaking poorly and at times he’s confused as to why his gruff attitude makes people uncomfortable. Rex Harrison plays him as though Higgins thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room all the time, but he also removes the humanity from him completely. For everything Henry Higgins knows how to do, he’s robotic in some interactions, which makes him more complicated than just a guy in an ivory tower who is a superhero. He can’t read people very well, and while he can make anyone feel dumb, that’s not always the way to “win” an interaction.

The film is gorgeous. It is difficult to pick one shot to express that, but the racetrack that they visit to test out Eliza’s new vocal talents is a good candidate. It’s entirely colored in black and white and touches of gray, except for Higgins himself. He wants to stand out to frustrate the crowd, and he does so in a brown suit. The idea that a brown suit, the simplest of the simple, makes people aghast is ridiculous, and that really sells just how little difference there is between everyone. Higgins knows all this social status bullshit is absurd, and the fact that he has some fun with it makes his character seem less ghastly.

All that said… it’s a little gross, right? I know this won’t be a popular opinion, but the love story in My Fair Lady is predicated on the idea that Higgins is smart and good and Eliza must become better in a specific way to be appealing to him. People slam Gigi for being a sexist musical, but My Fair Lady has to be in that discussion, even though it’s beautiful and pretty fun at the same time. There’s a lot going on with this, and it’s not entirely the story of Higgins demanding that Eliza change, but it’s a complicated series of give-and-take that makes for a compelling narrative but a frustrating set of gender politics. But then again, I mean, when there are elves in the book, there have to be elves in the movie, right? I can’t blame the film version of My Fair Lady for what the story is.

It’s visually appealing and it’s sweet in the right ways, mostly. There’s some complicated emotions tied up in the basic premise with regard to class and gender, but that’s to be expected, I guess. I don’t think it’s really possible to hate My Fair Lady, and while I still say The Sound of Music is the quintessential film musical, My Fair Lady won me over.

The Best Part: He doesn’t fit into the overall plot all the time, but Eliza’s dad is a goddamned hoot. He’s penniless and happy that way at the start of the movie, and his “With a Little Bit of Luck” song about floating through life drunk and lazy is my favorite song in the whole damn thing. “The Lord above made liquor for temptation – but / with a little bit of luck you’ll give right in.” You do you, pops.

The Worst Part: At the racetrack, a high society type falls for Eliza and is equally impressed by how she seems classy and how she “breaks character” to yell at the horse she wants to win. He’s supposed to represent a foppish, uninteresting character that Eliza could potentially end up with if she’s successful in her transformation. They nail the “boring” part, but man, it’s really tough to watch someone be boring. The scene where he unsuccessfully tries to court her in the street (“Show Me,” with lyrics like “If you’re on fire / show me”) is brutal in a good way, but he’s a real dunce.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? It’s better. My Fair Lady is complicated through a modern lens, to be sure, but it’s still striking to watch and it’s a load of fun. Maybe that’s a simple descriptor for a masterpiece of musical film, but “fun” really is the word for it. The songs are campy and silly, the acting is all so broad it’s impossible to not smile at, and the pacing moves along quick enough that you can’t be bored by it. Tom Jones shows how “comedy” can be rough when it’s elevated to Best Picture level, but My Fair Lady is a deserving “funny” movie on a list of dramatic epics, and it successfully makes Crash look terrible among the ranks.

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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