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
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