MY DEAD LADY

Director George Cukor became so entangled in his snooty conception of My Fair Lady that he neglected to see how its excessive superficiality transformed into an undertaker’s parlor. The performers are like fossilized corpses, the decorations and appointments are overly mahoganized (Gene Allen’s sets presaged in Let’s Make Love), most of the coloring—in spite of Robert Harris’ expensive enhancement—a dingy trifecta of browns, grays and whites. Brought into view by taxidermist Harry Stradling, even the real flowers look fake and the cast absurdly asexual. That Lerner’s lyrics and Loewe’s music survive are testament to the score’s fool-proof power, not by anything vital from the cast, suffering as it does from moribund staging. (At least in the nincompoop Gigi we could breathe some air.) The “energy” of Rex Harrison’s Higgins is also bogus—so rehearsed as to be minus any spontaneity. It’s not acting, it’s mechanics. He has, though, two good bits: when he’s sneaking a gulp of port to fortify himself for the ball and when Eliza quietly shames Higgins into extending his arm. And he’s not laid waste by the bane of lip-synching; a hidden mic allowed his verbiage with pitch to be recorded on set. Audrey Hepburn is a dream of royalty and Cecil Beaton creates two masterpieces to hasten the coronation: the “Ascot Gavotte” jobbie (which includes a Gainsborough-inspired Duchess of Devonshire mushroomed chapeau that would be borrowed by Seth MacFarlane for Stewie) and the other for the ball. However, we first have to get through her screechy cockney baggage, and never have I wanted to wallop an actress out of shrillness as much as when Audrey keeps repeating “I’m a good girl I am.” (None too soon, her daffy elongation during the “Ascot Gavotte” sequence, recalling Edith Evans in The Importance of Being Ernest, is reprieve.) In “The Making of My Fair Lady” Audrey’s “Wouldn’t it Be Loverly?” is included and when hearing it, we all know how much more sensible if aesthetically less pleasing her own voice (or some truly anonymous one) would have been for the characterization than the immaculate dubbing by Marni Nixon, who, God bless her, fails valiantly to try to match Audrey’s vocalism and still be competitive with the Broadway originator. If never an excuse for not using Ava Gardner’s own singing in 1951’s Showboat, there’s no doubt that Audrey didn’t have the range for even minimal scaling but using Nixon became injurious, not only because she was already famous as the singing voice of Deborah Kerr (in The King and I and An Affair to Remember) and Natalie Wood (in Westside Story), but also because the abrupt insertions of her voice exacerbated Audrey’s limitations. Negating some of Nixon’s impeccancy, Audrey’s beauty does elevate “I Could Have Danced All Night,” despite the nanosecond delays noticed between her mouthing and Nixon’s voice. Since passing in 1993, Audrey’s been given a pass by receiving plaudits for the performance. Hope no one is fooled by the mushy revisionism: she was trounced by the critics of influence in 1964 and by the more discriminating section of the public, while Julie Andrews reaped the benefits of sappy commiseration. (Some years later an Academy member told me that when he checked the ballot, “I was really voting for Julie’s work in The Americanization of Emily.”) Then there’s that bore of bores Stanley Holloway as Eliza’s father; putting him to sleep would be a justifiable act of euthanasia, right? The two pluses in Cukor’s inorganic mess are Gladys Cooper as Higgins’ mommie and Jeremy Brett, whose Freddie is so appealing that you start to believe Eliza’s gone nutty for not preferring him over the misogynist professor. One of the credits is the ultimate incomplete insult: “From a play by George Bernard Shaw.” Oscars for best picture, actor (Harrison), director (a career award, really), color cinematography (Stradling), color art direction-set decoration (Beaton, Allen, George James Hopkins), color costumes (Beaton), sound, scoring of music—adaptation or treatment; nominated for best supporting actress (Cooper), supporting actor (Holloway!), screenplay—based on material from another medium, film editing. Filmed in Super Panavision 70.

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ralphbenner@nowreviewing.com  

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