Before the showing of my most favorite Redford Theatre movie on Nov. 6, 2009—the 1964 musical My Fair Lady—I treated myself to the 1956 soundtrack from the stage show that starred Rex Harrison and a young (21-year-old) Julie Andrews. The music of the film is so strongly ingrained in my senses that it’s easy to forget that the stage recording is the version of the musical that people came to know and love for almost a decade before the story hit the big screen.
Just image the anticipation that people felt in the fall of 1964 as the opening of My Fair Lady approached. How would Audrey Hepburn compare to Julie Andrews, whose film debut in Mary Poppins hit the theaters a few weeks before My Fair Lady? Would Rex Harrison’s performance work as well in closeup as it did on the stage? What new interpretations of this musical version of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe would be revealed on the silver screen?
Before I saw My Fair Lady at the Redford for the first time in Nov. 1997, I don’t think I had ever watched it all the way through. I knew there was this song called “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” and of course everyone knows that the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain, but that was about all. At the time, my two favorite musicals were probably West Side Story (1961) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Thanks to the Detroit Movie Palaces, I get to enjoy these two classics at the Michigan Theater in the fall of 2009 and at the Redford in the Jan.-April 2010 schedule.
My first viewing of My Fair Lady at the Redford came just a few months after I had started attending the theater regularly, and the novelty of both the theater and film combined to make it a magical experience. I think what touched me the most was Audrey Hepburn’s delightful and charming performance of the song “I Could Have Danced All Night,” of course with a little help from singer Marni Nixon. That song seemed to be the heart of the movie, the same way that “Tonight” anchors West Side Story and the title track of Singin’ in the Rain hits home.
My only regret about that weekend was that I didn’t come back Saturday to see it again. I didn’t make that mistake four years later in Nov. 2001 when it showed up again, and I remember being completely absorbed by one of best re-creations of a stage experience in movie history. Of course that was the fall of 9/11, and I’m sure that the charged political atmosphere of the time helped with the escapist feeling of the movie. My Fair Lady next appeared at the Redford in 2006.
Here it was again at the Redford in 2009, kicking off a November that will include another much-loved musical treasure, The Wizard of Oz (1939), which will screen on Nov. 20 and 21. As I walked into the theater on this mild Friday evening, I could feel that November peacefulness that always occurs during this quiet time between Halloween and Thanksgiving. The Redford staff had gone all-out this year to celebrate Halloween, with four different events, and now they could relax a little with a more standard theater event, before ramping up for their annual Grand Finale—the Christmas season—which always includes two movies, a music concert, and other fun surprises.
I watched the first half of My Fair Lady from the balcony of the Redford, where I enjoyed the sounds of laughter rising from the main floor. I always look forward to the explosion of laughter at Rex Harrison’s great line from “Why Can’t the English?”: “There even are places where English completely disappears; In America they haven’t used it for years!”
The images of the movie jumped up at me, especially the big outdoor scenes with the period detail and the authentically dressed characters. At times, I looked up at the starlit ceiling, which seemed to embrace and intensify the warm feelings of this widescreen spectacular.
Later I moved to the main floor, where the different crowd reactions continued to be an entertaining part of the soundtrack. On the screen, Rex Harrison’s caustic wit brought more life to the articulate, clever script of Alan Jay Lerner than even the writer might have imagined. The humorous subplot of Stanley Holloway as Mr. Doolittle came to a grand climax with “Get Me to the Church on Time.” Years before Jeremy Brett played Sherlock Holmes on PBS, he gave My Fair Lady one of its most memorable scenes with his performance of “On the Street Where You Live” (along with singer Bill Shirley).
And then there’s the main reason why I, and probably many others, watch this film over and over again—Audrey Hepburn. If a case could be made for the power of movies to immortalize personalities, Exhibit A might be Hepburn’s performance of Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. It’s hard to know where to begin to describe everything great about her performance.
You might start with her mastery of different accents, and the way she used them to show how her character changed through the movie. Or you could talk about how she made the skillful efforts of costume designers, set designers, and others come alive with her many entrances—from her first appearance as a lowly flower girl in Covent Garden to her gloriously overdressed outfit at the Ascot races, to her elegant beauty on the staircase just before the Embassy Ball, to her final appearance in Henry Higgins’ study.
For me, several quick images of Audrey Hepburn revealed the most inner longings of her character. During “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” I’m always moved by the way she smiles and nods her head when she sings the lines, “…who takes good care of me…” Then, during “I Could Have Danced All Night,” there’s the soft closeup of her face as she lays in bed, just before launching into the final part of that song. And finally, after receiving the blessing of the Queen of Transylvania at the Embassy Ball, a quiet, joyful look of triumph and relief. You can always see the details of these scenes on television, but only in a theater can you feel their full emotion.
Ironically, Hepburn did not receive an Academy Award nomination for her role, even though Rex Harrison won the Oscar for best actor, perhaps because Hepburn did not do her own singing or because original cast member Julie Andrews was passed over in favor of Hepburn. But Hepburn probably would not have won the Oscar, because of Andrews’ outstanding performance in Mary Poppins, which Redford audiences enjoyed earlier this year.
But the long view of history has honored Audrey Hepburn’s performance as a memorable moment in movie history. And Redford audiences will soon get to enjoy her in another one of her famous movies—Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), which plays at the Redford on Feb. 5-6, 2010.
Copyright © 2009 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.