My Fair Lady (1964) – Ace Long Review

My Fair Lady
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Rex Harrison, Wilfrid Hyde-White
Written by: Alan Jay Lerner
Play: Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by: George Cukor
U.S.A., 1964

This is my favourite movie musical of all time – so obviously I think pretty highly of it! This is what happens when you combine a great play with catchy music, a good cast, and lovely sets and costumes. If I have to criticise it, I’ll say that it downplays Eliza’s initiative a bit and up-plays her naïveté, and that I find the ending rather unsatisfying. However, it compensates with some really great musical numbers. I’m particularly fond of “Why Can’t the English?”, the “Ascot Gavotte”, and “A Hymn to Him”. It’s also a remarkably timeless movie. I loved it when I was eight years old, and I still love it a quarter-century later. The issues it deals with – class, prejudice, and gender relations – may have changed over the years but are still relevant. And it has two main characters – one an anti-social language nerd, the other a stubborn, independent woman – both of whom I relate to, and who both embody ace themes, albeit in very different ways.

Henry is a “confirmed old bachelor” who shows no interest in sex and a disdain for romance. He insists that he has no sexual designs on Eliza, and sings a song about why he will never get married. Although the language didn’t exist back then, he is quite possibly asexual and almost certainly aromantic. Unfortunately, he’s also something of a jerk, who bullies Eliza and shows no empathy for her feelings. One could possibly read his boorishness as an effect of his aceness, or his apparent aceness as a product of his poor social skills. Personally, I think his attitude is run-of-the-mill patriarchal misogyny which, having no desire for romance or marriage, he has never had an incentive to correct.

Eliza shows much clearer signs of heterosexuality. In “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” her fantasy life includes having a man to love, and in “Show Me” she seems frustrated that Freddy is not more demonstrative. On the other hand, she is not overly preoccupied with sex and romance. She is not impressed by Henry’s reassurances of her marriageability, and her main goal in improving herself is to find a better job, not a husband. And, though she has a romantic sub-plot, it’s a secondary part of her story.

But what I find most interesting is the relationship between the two characters. This relationship may not be a romance, but it is also closer than a conventional friendship – especially between a man and a woman in pre-war England. This causes confusion in others, who often mistake Eliza for Henry’s mistress. It also becomes a stumbling block for Eliza and Henry themselves. In the last act of the movie, Eliza struggles to explain that Henry needs to be more sensitive to her emotional needs. Henry, refusing to see the relationship in anything but binary terms, insists that he should be able to treat her the same way he treats his male friend Col. Pickering, and that if that’s not good enough it can only mean she wants a romantic relationship. Eliza insists that this is not the case, however. As she says, haltingly:

“What I did was not for the taxis and the dresses, but because we were… pleasant together, and I came to care for you, not to want you to make love to me, and not forgetting the difference between us, but more… friendly-like.”

Essentially, she is trying to explain to her male friend that she cannot be just another of his male “chums”, but doesn’t want to be his girlfriend, either. This is a dilemma familiar to many women, but should also resonate with ace people who want more than regular friendship without desiring romance.

Henry, though he pretends not to understand, clearly also cares about Eliza in a way that defies categorisation. In his final song, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”, he, too, struggles to put his feelings into words. Though the language of romance fails him, he is forced to admit that Eliza has become “second-nature” to him, “like breathing out and breathing in”. And, though he may not want to marry her himself, he is appalled by the thought of her marrying someone else.

How you view the ending, in which Eliza seems to go back to Henry, depends on how you interpret it. Is Eliza still going to marry Freddy but also stay friends with Henry? Is she leaving Freddy in favour of a permanent queerplatonic partnership with Henry and Pickering? Or is she leaving Freddy in favour of a romantic relationship with Henry? The second interpretation is the most ace-friendly, the third the most heteronormative. But it’s the first interpretation – which is also the closest to Shaw’s original play – that I like best. It allows Eliza to have both of the things she wants: both a loving husband and a close platonic relationship with a man. And it forces Henry to question his either-or assumptions and allow that a woman might be a part of his life – even if she also has a husband, and even if she is “just” a friend.

4 Stars; 4 Aces

5 thoughts on “My Fair Lady (1964) – Ace Long Review

  1. the coe says:

    I have a quibble, or a queer-y? I feel your rating overlooks the heteronormativity of their relationship beyond whether it is sexual. Henry expects the performance of domesticity and care from Eliza while refusing to be emotionally available or interested in her wellbeing. That arrangement would continue presumably whether they were friends or sexually involved. Like seriously, he wants her to fetch his slippers? Who talks to a friend that way? No one…you talk to a ‘wifey’ that way. He does this at the same time he holds financial control over her (until she removes herself from that control). The movie ending blows up all her agency for the sake of the appearance of heteronormativity – it’s a pure moment of compulsory heteronormativity. The fact that it happens alongside a non-sexual relationship…is that really enough for four aces?

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    • Blue Ice-Tea says:

      Yes, the relationship is gender-normative AF! Unfortunately, however, films that deal with asexual themes are few and far between, and films that deal with asexuality explicitly are almost non-existent! As a result, I’m generally pretty generous in my ratings, rewarding films that contain moments of asexual possibility even if they are, otherwise, quite heteronormative. Remember, this isn’t just a queer or feminist review, but a specifically ace review. While it is, therefore, doing a queer and feminist critique, it is going to focus more on issues of sex and erotonormativity than queer or feminist critiques typically do. I’m not here to make the same points that other reviewers before me have made. I’m here to make the points that haven’t been made yet, because asexuality is so little understood and erotonormativity still so ubiquitous.

      Probably as a result of this, I approach the heteronormativity of Eliza and Henry’s relationship slightly differently from you. Your argument that the relationship is based on normative gender roles does not necessarily undermine its “aceness”. It may, in fact, reinforce it! Consider your comment:

      “Like seriously, he wants her to fetch his slippers? Who talks to a friend that way? No one…you talk to a ‘wifey’ that way.”

      You’re saying that Eliza and Henry’s relationship, though non-sexual, contains many elements peculiar to heterosexual romances. Which is exactly my point! By being a friendship that also looks like a marriage, it blurs the line between the two, disrupting erotonormative hierarchies and opening up possibilities for how we understand relationships.

      Is their relationship unhealthy? Of course! But no one said queerplatonic relationships were always perfect. In fact, the zine “Rotten Zucchinis” was founded specifically to talk about how such relationships can be abusive: https://rotten-zucchinis.tumblr.com/rotten. It’s important not to dismiss representations of aceness because they fail to conform to our ideals. In real life, not all ace people are feminists and not all queerplatonic relationships are models of egalitarianism. So, in fiction, a character can be a moment of asexual potential even if he’s also a misogynist, and a relationship can transgress the romantic-platonic dichotomy even if it otherwise adheres to traditional gender norms.

      I also want to point out that the film does not simply present these gender norms, but deconstructs, satirises, and ridicules them. Moreover, it shows, not just how they are bad for individuals, but how they reinforce heteronormativity. In other words, it demonstrates the kinds of harmful effects that gender norms can have on ace people and ace relationships. Eliza wants to have a close relationship with Henry, but is put off by his boorish behaviour. Henry wants to connect with Eliza, but his sense of entitlement means he demands too much and gives too little. The ending is very nearly a tragedy about two people who want to be friends but can’t because one of them cannot move beyond his own masculine privilege and heteronormative assumptions.

      You can argue that the final scene undermines all that. But, as I say, the ending is open to interpretation. I’ve always preferred to think Eliza ends up the way she does in “Pygmalion”: happily married to Freddy, running her own flower shop, and maintaining a relationship with Henry that is amicable but not servile. And even if you don’t accept that interpretation, I’m not willing to allow the final thirty seconds of the film to undo all of the good work of the rest of the movie. It might undermine it a bit, sure. But there’s just way too much good stuff for a little bad to spoil it!

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      • the coe says:

        Thanks for this, I appreciate the detail. I picked up some Rotten Zucchinis at a zine fair and need to find time to read them. Yeah, I am not trying to argue for representing only perfect relationships or that queer/platinoromantic relationships can be problem-free. Not only would that be unrealistic, it would also probably be quite boring. I also really appreciate thinking about ace-ness specifically – I’m working on figuring out how to do that, and I get that this is meaningful work to do. I like this lens for looking at this movie, too, because otherwise I’d probably just call it a hot pile of garbage and leave it at that 😉 !

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