The 1964 classic “My Fair Lady” has been playing in my mind since yesterday. In particular, I was reminiscing about its lovingly couched sexism and chauvinism.
When I first saw it in the late 1970s, my immediate reaction was to want to see it again immediately. In that, it was quite similar to “The King and I” which too I watched again instantly. Both great films, notwithstanding some of their attitudes.
For me, it was akin to eating a particularly delicious vada pav because I always go for a second immediately after that. It is as if I am trying confirm that my first response was correct and genuine.
For someone who does not particularly like musicals, this was a very unusual reaction. I have since understood why I liked “My Fair Lady” and “The King and I” so much. It is the delightful self-absorption of the protagonists—Professor Henry Higgins (a superb Rex Harrison) and King Mongkut of Siam (a superb Yul Brynner). For the purposes of today’s post I shall focus only on “My Fair Lady” and one particular bit from the movie.
I doubt if there is a more compelling example of male chauvinism and sexism having been made so charming and attractive and, dare I say, something to aspire to than this song written by the legendary Alan Jay Lerner. It was obvious that Lerner wanted to know more about women and understand what women want because he married eight times. So some of what he says through the medium of Professor Higgins has to have carried personal insights.
In my extended family there were many men who were unapologetically male chauvinists who practiced sexism as a matter of their birth right. Perhaps that explains why Higgins felt so familiar.
“Why can’t a woman be more like a man?” wonders/asks/ponders Higgins as if it is the most obvious thing women should be. The way Harrison’s intones that question it sounds like merely posing it is sufficient to settle the age-old gender conflict. In the scene Harrison keeps going in and coming out of his room. He goes in only so that he can come out with progressively harsh indictment of the female gender. For a moment I thought that neatly stacked inside the bedroom were his borderline misogynies, a new batch of which he brings out every time he emerges from it.
“Men are so honest, So thoroughly square, Eternally noble, Historically fair” is what Higgins thinks of men.
And women? Well, “Women are irrational, that’s all there is to that. Their heads are full of cotton, hay and rags. They are nothing but exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening and infuriating hags.”
Further down the song he says:
“Why is thinking something women never do?
And why is logic never even tried?
Straightening up their hair is all they ever do.
Why don't they straighten up the mess that's inside?
The song goes on in that vein, including at one point Higgins asking of his housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce (Mona Washbourne), as he comes down the staircase. “Mrs. Pearce, you are a woman,” Harrison says; and the expression on his face is ever so subtle in its realization that there is indeed a woman in the house and he could always ask her the question that has been bothering him, “Why can’t a woman be more like a man?”
The most troubling aspect of this song is that despite its content it remains so eminently watchable. I would attribute that almost entirely to Harrison’s performance and to a somewhat lesser extent to Colonel Hugh Pickering (the very Brrritish Wilfrid Hyde-White). For instance, the scene where Pickering calls a friend at the Home Office and says,"Whitehall, seven two double four please”. There is such grandness and expansiveness in that otherwise mundane request that he could well be calling on the Viceroy of India to resign. No one does grandiosity better than the English.
On an unrelated note, I have always found the dynamic between Higgins and Pickering very similar to that between Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. There is something about quirky English gentlemen and their perfect foils that is so cinematic. Someday I might write a but more about this equation.
P.S.: This post is so random but then what’s new?