Audrey Hepburn has never been more "loverly" than in this breathtaking musical extravaganza that won 8 Academy Awards in 1964, including Best Picture.
In this beloved adaptation of the Broadway stage hit, Hepburn plays a sassy, working class London street vendor, whom an arrogant professor (Rex Harrison) attempts to turn into a sophisticated lady through proper schooling. But, when the humble flower girl blossoms into the toast of London's elite, her teacher may have a lesson or two to learn himself. Hepburn's performance, style, and sweet spirit have made My Fair Lady a timeless classic.
Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe wrote a handful of memorable musicals, but 'My Fair Lady' remains undeniably their crowning achievement, and stands, along with 'Oklahoma!,' 'South Pacific,' and 'West Side Story,' as one of the most revered, revived, and quintessentially classic theatrical shows in history. Though most people remember the movie version of 'My Fair Lady' for its melodic score, captivating performances, witty script, and colorful sets and costumes, few realize George Cukor's Oscar-winning adaptation also stands as an awe-inspiring success story in the field of film preservation and restoration. Faded, scratched, and almost crumbling after years of neglect, 'My Fair Lady' presented a monumental challenge for Robert A. Harris and James C. Katz, who in the early 1990s undertook the arduous task of revitalizing the picture. Film fans will forever appreciate their efforts (I still remember my open-jawed reaction when I first viewed the 2004 DVD), but unfortunately the Blu-ray rendering of 'My Fair Lady' doesn't do their work justice. More on that in our video review section below, but even a subpar transfer can't completely diminish the impeccable style, sophistication, and sheer delight of this beloved musical, which took home eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
George Bernard Shaw's scintillating tale of how Henry Higgins, an egotistical elocution expert, turns Eliza, a flower-peddling guttersnipe, into the epitome of grace and refinement in old London is well-known, and although many scoffed at the idea of wrapping songs and dances around Shaw's refined prose, most skeptics ate their words when 'My Fair Lady' premiered on Broadway in 1956. Studio chief Jack L. Warner quickly joined the chorus of admirers and paid the then astronomical sum of $5 million for the screen rights. Rex Harrison, who originated Higgins on the stage, quickly signed on to reprise his role, but Warner believed his co-star, Julie Andrews, who at that time had yet to make a feature film, lacked the national renown to draw large enough crowds to make what surely would be a pricey film successful. Much to Andrews' disappointment, Audrey Hepburn would play Eliza. (Andrews, however, eventually got her revenge, winning the Best Actress Academy Award for her debut role in 'Mary Poppins' the very same year. Hepburn, surprisingly, wasn't even nominated.)
Much has been written about the controversial hiring of Hepburn, a non-singing actress, for such a major musical. And although professional dubber Marni Nixon (who was also the voice double for Deborah Kerr in 'The King and I' and Natalie Wood in 'West Side Story') eventually would be hired to record 95 percent of her vocals, Hepburn still turns in a spirited, passionate performance worthy of Oscar recognition. More dimensional than Higgins, Eliza brims with complexities, and Hepburn boldly depicts her inner struggles, yet shades her portrayal with a fragility and tenderness that is, at times, heartbreaking. As is mentioned on the disc's commentary track, Andrews' Cockney accent might have bested Audrey's, but nobody can play a princess like Hepburn, whom many still regard as Hollywood's most regal and glamorous star.
Harrison, of course, so embodies Higgins, it's tough to tell where the character ends and the actor begins. Relishing every nasty putdown and thunderous rant, Harrison romps through the film with an infectious energy and debonair style that make us somehow forget his character's cruel and exasperating nature. Like Eliza, we wind up embracing Higgins' faults and (almost) forgiving his shameless sexism. When he ultimately confesses 'I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face,' the admission resonates like shockwaves from an earthquake, and we think maybe he's not such a hopeless case after all.
'My Fair Lady,' however, is so much more than Hepburn and Harrison. Cukor directs the feature in a Minnelli-esque fashion, with meticulous attention to color, set decoration, and costumes. (The eye-popping gowns and outrageous hats by Cecil Beaton adorn not just Hepburn but even the most insignificant extras, lending the production its inimitable sense of style and class.) Always a champion of actors, Cukor also extracts excellent portrayals from such seasoned veterans as Stanley Holloway, Gladys Cooper, Wilfrid Hyde-White, and Theodore Bikel. Pacing can drag at times — an extraneous subplot involving Eliza's father easily could have been excised if it didn't include two of Lerner and Loewe's best tunes — but, on the whole, he keeps things moving while maintaining a frothy, ethereal feel that perfectly complements the material. This is big-budget moviemaking at its opulent best, and every penny is well spent.
Finally, what would 'My Fair Lady' be without its score? 'Wouldn't It Be Loverly?,' 'I Could Have Danced All Night,' 'On the Street Where You Live,' 'Get Me to the Church on Time,' 'Show Me,' 'Just You Wait,' 'With A Little Bit of Luck' — so many immortal songs in one show, and almost all advance the plot or delineate vital character traits. It doesn't matter a whit who sings them; they're part of our musical heritage, just as 'My Fair Lady' remains one of the last great musical achievements of 20th century cinema.
And to think we almost lost it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'My Fair Lady' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard Blu-ray case, and that's a big disappointment. A film of this sort demands a more lavish presentation befitting its stature as both a classic piece of American musical theater and winner of eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Why not a digibook or a collector's edition with fancier packaging and a commemorative booklet? A missed opportunity, to be sure, and one film aficionados will rue for a while. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1. When the disc is inserted into the player, the full-motion menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The home video rights to 'My Fair Lady' have ping-ponged between Warner, Paramount, and Fox for the past couple of decades. As of now, Paramount owns the rights, but the video transfer on this Blu-ray release seems like it's merely an upconverted version of Warner's high-quality 2004 DVD transfer, with no additional remastering to remove the numerous instances of white speckling that litter the print. Those marks weren't visible on the DVD, and they're relatively faint here, but the enhanced resolution of Blu-ray makes them noticeable enough to merit mention and rankle fans of this visually sumptuous film. (Would Warner have put out such a treasured title in 1080p without meticulously removing any imperfections that would mar its distinctive look? I think not.) Such cavalier treatment of such a classic motion picture dampens enthusiasm for this release, even though the transfer improves upon the DVD in many ways.
'My Fair Lady' sports more clarity and vibrancy than ever before, but the difference isn't nearly as pronounced as it should have been. The overture and title sequences, which feature still close-ups of various types of flowers, don't pop like I expected they would, and the images look only marginally better than those on the DVD. Once the story begins, however, the quality boost becomes more apparent. Costumes exude more lushness, fabrics - from chiffon, lace, and feathers to satin and furs - exhibit a higher degree of texture, background elements are easier to discern (the intricate wallpaper patterns in Higgins' home are strikingly sharp), and there's more depth to the picture. The blacks, whites, and grays that dominate the horseracing scene at Ascot stand out well, as does Eliza's peach outfit during the 'Show Me' number. A bit of grain is present, but only enough to temper the image, and close-ups, though sparingly employed, render fine facial details well.
Yet despite these positive attributes, there's an underlying drabness that saps vitality from the picture. Contrast remains maddeningly muted throughout most of the movie, lending many scenes a strange anemic quality, and there's a haziness that often shrouds the left and right edges of the screen, almost as if a thin layer of gauze was applied. Factor in the smattering of faint marks, and there are just too many distracting issues occupying our eyes and taking us out of the story.
Because this appears to be the same transfer as the 2004 DVD, no edge enhancement or noise reduction seem to have been applied, and no banding, halos, or pixelation afflict the image.
A little more care and this could have been a spectacular transfer that really would have wowed both fans and videophiles. Instead, we have a decent effort that's certainly watchable, but a level or two below what this beloved film deserves. And that's a shame.
A DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track replaces the lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 audio that graced the DVD, and the enhanced fidelity considerably perks up the film. Tones are bright and full, and though surround activity is largely limited to the musical numbers, there's some pronounced stereo separation up front that nicely widens the sound field. Dialogue is always clear, well prioritized, and easy to understand, and the instrumentals boast a wide dynamic range. The songs integrate well into the mix, with no drastic level shifts, and the distinct vocal timbres of the leads come through with gusto.
The track's main stumbling block occurs during the Ascot horserace sequence, one of the film's high points. Twice, a pack of thoroughbreds gallop by, giving the subwoofer its only test. Unfortunately, it fails miserably. What should be a weighty, room-shaking event is marred by horrific distortion and ear-splitting breakup that ruin the scene's effect, and diminish the impact of Eliza's famous cheer of encouragement to one of the horses.
Once again, 'My Fair Lady' generally sounds quite good, but it's tough to quash the nagging thought that the audio could have been a bit better. When compared to the 7.1 DTS-HD track that graces the 'West Side Story' disc, this one pales, and once again, that's a shame.
All the extras, except for an awards listing and a trio of trailers for other Lerner and Loewe films (all in the Warner catalogue), have been ported over from the 2004 DVD, and the bounty is enough to flood the plains of Spain.
'My Fair Lady' received a massive makeover in 1994, but she could have been tweaked a bit for her Blu-ray debut. Though the video transfer improves upon the DVD, some nagging deficiencies keep it from looking as loverly as it surely should in 1080p. The audio is also a step up, but falls short of the perfection Henry Higgins would have demanded. As a film, however, this classic tale of transformation remains a charmer, thanks to impeccable performances, a first-class score, and a production that's as sumptuous as any in Hollywood history. It's just a shame this Best Picture winner and recipient of eight Academy Awards didn't receive a splashier release worthy of its lofty pedigree. 'My Fair Lady' cries out for a collector's edition, or at the very least a glossy digibook, and deserves transfers that are as meticulous as its hero and as breathtaking as the title character. This Paramount release is fine enough to merit a recommendation, but sadly not a hearty one. Here's hoping someday Warner gets the rights back and produces the kind of ultimate Blu-ray edition befitting this very fair lady.