Makeovers in the Movies: My Fair Lady

Every makeover holds some small promise of a new life – as we try a new hairstyle or outfit we might hope for renewed attention from outside ourselves – or we might feel bolder while going after our own desires. But is it possible to take the makeover too far? What happens when we change so much our old lives don’t make sense anymore?

My Fair Lady, the delightful movie musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s hit play Pygmalion, is a satirical look at class pretensions in Edwardian London. Henry Higgins, a conceited elocution teacher, brags to his new friend Colonel Pickering, that he could teach any young woman – even the Cockney flower girl they pass on the street – to speak like a lady, and even pass her off as a duchess at an embassy ball. What he doesn’t know is that the girl, Eliza Doolittle, has ambitions of her own to work in a flower shop, but her thick accent prevents her from getting the job.

When Eliza Doolittle shows up at Henry Higgins’ doorstep looking to take elocution lessons, he at first refuses her shilling-a-lesson offer. He’s used to far more prestigious clients. But Colonel Pickering wants to call Higgins’ bluff from the other day – can he really take this sad little creature and turn her into a refined lady? A wager is made over Eliza’s prospects, and she is sent upstairs to have her first ever bath – against her will.

Eliza doesn’t really have much say in this process – she’s submitting to the indignities of her training only to get her elocution lessons. She viciously defends her honor, as she must, because no one seems to care what happens to her. She’s inconsequential to the professors, who regard her as nothing more than a (possibly) trainable lab rat, and even her father, who “can’t afford morals”, is only interested preserving her virtues long enough to cash in on them.

But the real question is: can Henry Higgins make a lady out of this?

Eliza Doolittle the Flower Seller

As we suspend our disbelief that Audrey Hepburn was ever anything but ladylike, her character Eliza Doolittle undergoes strict and endless elocution training. Henry Higgins is a harsh teacher, and his regard for her as a person is nonexistent. And the Colonel is ecstatic – he’s going to win his bet, since there’s no way this miserable girl will ever learn to speak properly. But after enough sessions speaking with her mouth full of marbles, and much frustration on both sides, Eliza finally gets her first “A” – as in “The rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.” And there is hope.

Before she can go to the ball, Higgins takes her to the races as a test. Dressed up in the finest “horse race” fashion, she charms people with her new accent – but also with her Cockney words. While Higgins passes her lapses as “the new small talk”, young Freddy Eynsford-Hill falls for her and her funny ways. And when she finally makes it to the embassy ball, she dances with a foreign prince and fools everyone – even one of Higgins’ former students! Eliza is the talk of the ball – her manners and charm have emerged, and while she dances, Henry Higgins takes all the credit.

Eliza Doolittle the Socialite

But when you take a girl from Cockney to Lady, what happens to her? Eliza has a new accent, new manners, and a couple of new dresses. While Higgins is impressed with himself and his “extreme makeover”, he doesn’t give a thought about Eliza’s future. Eliza no longer fits in among the flower sellers in Convent Garden, and she may have overshot the mark in talking well enough to work in a flower shop.

But there’s another aspect to this. Eliza before her makeover was way at the bottom of the class system – a girl with no prospects, no education or manners, and nothing to offer but flowers and her chastity. Her defensiveness was a struggle to survive against the odds. If even her own father would sell her out for £5, what more could she do?

But now that Eliza has manners and elocution, she has options. Even at the races, she has a regal manner that demonstrates that she now has choices in life. And after passing at the ball she’s gained the strength to stand up to Henry Higgins – or to marry Freddy. Even if she doesn’t get to dictate the process of her makeover, she owns the results and demands that Higgins at least give her the honor of acknowledgement.

And with an extreme makeover, maybe that’s the point. Sometimes we grow past the point of comfort with our old lives. While a new hairstyle won’t change who we are, more extreme changes – weight loss, or going back to school – can change who we are to an extent that we can’t just pass ourselves off as our old selves. Like Eliza Doolittle (who actually did a lot), we can acknowledge those changes, and the new prospects they bring. And if old Henry Higgins won’t see it, there’s always Freddy.

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