Warning: This post contains spoilers.
My Fair Lady has two faces.
The first face is the one of the classical musical, containing massive dance numbers, amazing costumes and some pretty catchy songs (even if I’ve heard better in other musicals to be completely honest.) It sparkles with stardom and the typical musical cheerfulness which makes me nod approvingly, saying: “see there, that’s a proper movie! Why don’t they make movies like that anymore?”
But then there’s the other face, a face which makes me confused and bothered, well, even pissed off to put it bluntly. And that’s what I’m going to talk about most in this post, because that’s where the controversy is.
One little line changed everything to me. It was the final words, uttered by Professor Higgins to Eliza, the woman he has transformed from a simple flower selling girl to a proper lady.
Leaning backwards in a lazy gesture, he says smugly:
“Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?”
And instead of turning the back to him, which would have every reason in the world to do, leaving him to brew in his own stew, Eliza walks towards him with a loving smile on her face as the violins start playing.
It’s an ending open for interpretations some would argue. Perhaps Elize will stick to her earlier vow never to see Higgins again? Perhaps she’ll go with Freddy, who treats her with respect, as an equal, open a flower shop and be happy for the rest of her life?
But my interpretation of this scene is the opposite. It looks to me as if she’ll end up marrying this creep of a man, regardless of how he treats her. She’ll willingly carry his slippers in the name of love. Just look at her eyes! Remember her previous love songs! If she would have had any intention to stick to her love for the far more deserving Freddy, of course we would have gotten a hint about it. She would have turned her back to Higgins, leaving for good. Perhaps we would even see him waiting outside for her.
The sad thing is that this way of ending the story, for how disappointing it is, isn’t taken out of the blue. This is the ugly, gritty reality. For some reason, which I’m unable to fully comprehend, there are quite a lot of women who are attracted to men who treat them like crap. They stay in abusive relationships, even if they’re risking their own and their children’s lives doing so. They send love letters to completely unknown men who are serving prison sentences for bestial murderers. I know those things happen.
You could argue that the ending of My Fair Lady actually is meant to highlight and question this situation, exposing the tragedy. The merry musical is suddenly and unexpectedly twisted into an edgy, dark and knife sharp criticism of society. But something tells me that while this interpretation is possible, it would be an after construction rather than the intention as they made a movie.
Look at all those flowers, listen to the violins, and think about this movie is marketed! I’m pretty sure it’s not meant as an irony. To me it seems more plausible that the music and the flowers are meant to reinforce what we’ve already seen – that the misanthropic professor’s heart eventually melted and that he fell in love with Eliza.
Previously she had rightfully called him out for using and dismissing her, but as she finally sees him clinging to his recording of her, she’s willing to forgive him and will overlook his flaws. After all – love conquers everything.
I got a little bit of comfort as I read a bit further about the original source of this musical, the play Pygmalion by Bernhard Shaw, which I’ve never read or seen myself. Apparently the ending has been up for discussions many times before, which prompted Shaw to make an addition with some clarifications.
“Will she look forward to a lifetime of fetching Higgins’s slippers or to a lifetime of Freddy fetching hers? There can be no doubt about the answer. Unless Freddy is biologically repulsive to her, and Higgins biologically attractive to a degree that overwhelms all her other instincts, she will, if she marries either of them, marry Freddy. And that is just what Eliza did.”
Thank you for that, Mr. Shaw.
There are still many women in the world who are locked into unhappy marriages with men who don’t deserve them. But at least Eliza wasn’t meant to be one of those.
And that’s how I’ll try to remember My Fair Lady – regardless of what I actually witnessed on the screen.
My Fair Lady (George Cukor, US, 1964) My rating: 4/5 (Because despite the ending and despite the fact that I didn’t care for Audrey Hepburn very much, especially not when she tried to fake a cockney accent, I’ve got a soft spot for old musicals.)
Addendum: I published this post at the Filmspotting forum a few days ago. This prompted another forum dweller, who has My Fair Lady as her number 1 movie to write a reply. Her reading was completely different to mine; there is no romantic love between Eliza and Higgins and there never was. It’s all about friendship. The final line from Higgins is just an ironic remark, referring to their previous discussion.
I can see her point; as a matter of fact she’s probably right. But on the other hand – if I was mislead to read in something different, weren’t many others this as well? I think it’s all the pink that wraps up the movie that lead the thoughts this way, reinforced by song numbers such as “I could have danced all night”, where Eliza certainly looks and behaves as if she just had fallen in love with Higgins. Why not be more clear on this point? For all I know it could be deliberate. The audience love to see a happy end, especially with a romantic touch. So if they see this, there’s no reason to correct them.
I may have been wrong about what happens in the end scene. But this doesn’t change the first impression it made on me.