The following scene from My Fair Lady (1964) forces me to involuntarily exclaim “I LOVE That Scene!” whenever it is brought up in conversation.
THE FILM: My Fair Lady (1964)
THE PLOT: Adapted from the Lerner/Lowe stage musical of the same name (which was itself based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion), My Fair Lady centers on Eliza Doolittle and Prof. Henry Higgins. She’s the cockney flower seller who wants to learn to speak like an upper class individual, and he’s the cruel, snobbish gentleman who teaches her phonetics While the Shaw play ends with bitter, derisive laughter, Lerner and Lowe chose to emphasize the romance between Eliza and Prof. Higgins.
It’s easy to see the plot as silly and trite. It’s also easy to see Prof. Higgins as completely despicable. I remember being shown the film in high school, and everyone groaning at the very thought that Eliza could fall in love with Higgins, considering all he ever does is belittle and insult her. The film could almost be seen as misogynist were it not for the fact that the viewer is on Eliza’s side throughout the film, and that Henry Higgin’s final song reveals the carefully guarded emotions at his center.
- (SPOILERS BELOW. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.)
THE CONTEXT OF THE SCENE: The film is drawing to a close. Eliza has left Prof. Higgins, telling him that she no longer needs him. She will marry another man (the likable, if bland, Freddie). Higgins declares he does not care and that he can do without her. However, as he walks back to his now empty house, he reveals his true feelings (by not revealing them at all).
He goes inside, puts on a record he had made of Elize during her first visit, speaking in the coarse, cockney accent she possessed before he tutored her, and he silently grieves over her departure. However, she enters the room behind him, turns off the recording, and finishes the lines by herself. He smiles in relief, a smile unseen by Eliza, but all he can say is, “where the devil are my slippers.”
WHY I LOVE IT: The story goes that lyricist Alan J. Lerner struggled with this song, uncertain how to write a love song that couldn’t really be a love song. One day, he was sitting, looking at his wife and was struck by how attractive he thought she was. He told her he probably didn’t say it enough, that he took her for granted. He said he guessed he’d just grown accustomed to her face. It was a “lightbulb moment” for him, and he was able to write the song.
It’s that “not a love song (but really it kind of is)” quality that I love about this song and the scene in which it is found. Higgins leaves his encounter with Eliza angry and frustrated, but seemingly uncertain as to why he feels that way.
It’s only when he stops and examines his feelings that he has his epiphany: he loves Eliza. However, he cannot admit it to himself. She has confessed her feelings to him, indicating more emotional development and maturity than he is capable of showing. All he can say is, “I’ve grown accustomed to her face.” The viewer knows what this means: he no longer knows how to live without her, but he lacks the emotional maturity to say it out loud. His claims that everything about her is “second nature to [him] now” is as close as he can come to saying that he needs her in his life for it to continue to function. Lerner’s lyrics can sometimes be criticized for being too flashy, too clever for their own good, but these lyrics fit Higgins perfectly. It’s a lovely, sweet moment, made all the more so because we’ve seen Higgins at his nastiest and cruelest. We’ve seen his emotional reserve and his tendency to veil his emotions behind cruel barbs and contemptuous tendencies.
For him to actually admit his need for another individual, even in the small, limited admission, is a revelation.
The ending leaves the viewer secure in the knowledge that the professor-pupil dynamic has irrevocably shifted to a more equal, balanced relationship. Eliza has heard Higgins playing her record, with the voice of the more innocent girl she once was. She knows the feelings he has for her, and even though he tries to conceal them with a dismissive question, she understands how he feels. They are equals now, whether he will admit or not.
My Fair Lady is widely available for purchase or rental, and there are multiple recordings of the Lerner/ Lowe score.
Do you have a favorite scene from My Fair Lady, similar or different than the one I highlighted? Do you hate the film/ musical and find Higgins an irredeemable jerk? Let us know in the comments.
- Saturday Night Cinema: My Fair Lady (atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com)