Digging in to the Queer Subtext of My Fair Lady
Rebecca Renner Goes Behind the Scenes of an American Cinematic Classic
“Wouldn’t it be marvelous if we were homosexuals?” Rex Harrison, the actor who played Henry Higgins in the 1956 Broadway version of My Fair Lady joked to the show’s playwright, Alan Lerner. They were walking along Fifth Avenue, discussing their love lives while the play was still in rehearsals. More importantly, they’d also set out to discuss the trouble with Harrison’s character. His presence faded so much in the second act that Harrison became restless. Past love affairs with women had wrung Harrison and Lerner both dry. Higgins might feel the same way. Would making Higgins gay solve his star’s presence problem?
Higgins is certainly coded as a certain gay stereotype. He is a lifelong bachelor, an upper-class man of means, sophisticated and bored. He is a snob who lives with another man. He’s well-dressed, worldly, and knowledgeable about culture. He expresses a preference for men as well, but since this is the 50s, sexuality and the deed itself must always remain in the offing, forever the tension beneath the surface of the moment.
“I said that I did not think that was the solution and we walked on,” Lerner later wrote in his memoir, The Street Where I Live. “But it stuck in my mind.”
For many viewers, it is the sexual tension between Higgins and Eliza that creates the movie’s mystique. But for others, it’s the tension of ambiguity that draws us in.
By the time Lerner reached his hotel, he already had the idea that would become the song “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” which Lerner calls “a perfect second act vehicle through which Higgins could release his rage against Eliza for leaving him.”The possibility of things unseen was tantalizing for the mid-century American audience.
The anger is there. That’s true. But is it gay?
The lyrics to “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?” (which is also sometimes called “A Hymn to Him”) riff on the title phrase. In the sequence, Higgins asks his companion Colonel Pickering, “Well, why can’t a woman be like you?” They have a back-and-forth, with Pickering touting his finer qualities in short quips. While this song has caused a bit of speculation about Higgins and Pickering—are they living together or are they living together?—what’s more obvious about the song is the overt misogyny it shows in Higgins’s character:
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?
Despite an increasingly obvious amount of values dissonance between the musical’s era—the 1950s—and today’s consciousness of gender and sexuality in their myriad forms, it’s clear that the audience is not supposed to like Higgins’s character at this point. Even for the 50s, an era that has become the poster child for sexism, Higgins’s lines read as black-and-white, empty misogynist pomp. Lerner made it that way on purpose. Because while Higgins is cultivating a little good breeding in Eliza, she is charming him. Higgins never would have experienced such an emotional response to a woman’s actions if she wasn’t already burrowing into his heart.
Even in Pygmalion, the 1913 play by George Bernard Shaw, the emphasis is on the reversal, but it’s perhaps more a reversal of class than a commentary on gender roles. In Pygmalion, cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle seeks speech classes from Henry Higgins so she might someday work in a flower shop. It’s true that Eliza is poor, but her main problem is that she lacks class. So Higgins attempts to shape her speech as well as her etiquette.
The same basic premise remains in Lerner’s musical stage adaptation. Lerner stuck to his source material. But the two plays do diverge. Pygmalion deemphasizes love: Shaw was adamant that Eliza and Higgins aren’t supposed to end up together. Instead, he focuses on class and, surprisingly, the rights of women.
Pygmalion came out in 1913, five years before women in Shaw’s Britain won the right to vote. Unlike many men in his day, especially stuffy, old-guard academics like Higgins, Shaw believed in women’s suffrage. Instead of the romantic comedy that the story would morph into as My Fair Lady, Shaw intended his play as a challenge to Britain’s classist, sexist status quo.
Lerner’s My Fair Lady, however, brings the possibility of love between Higgins and Eliza back into focus. That possibility ramps up between the stage and the screen. On screen, Higgins and Eliza share no overt affection, and yet “tension between them is palpable from start to finish,” Dominic McHugh writes in Loverly: The Life and Times of My Fair Lady. The possibility of things unseen was far more tantalizing for the mid-century American audience. This tension between the platonic and the perhaps is why McHugh believes My Fair Lady is so perennially compelling.
But if the stage play and the screen play are largely the same, where does that tension come from?
You may know her as the woman in the little black dress. Her name is Audrey Hepburn.
In 1962, the Hollywood studio system was on its last legs, and Warner Brothers was far from immune. They needed a box-office smash, and so they decided to go with a known commodity: My Fair Lady, which had garnered glowing praise from critics and six Tony Awards, including Best Musical in 1957. With George Cukor directing and Jack Warner himself producing, the studio was going all in on this one. Warner Brothers spent upwards of $17 million on filming. But still, they were being cautious.Maybe Cukor was being overly cautious to protect himself. Or maybe he understood how little of a chance even the slimmest spark of homosexuality stood in the 1960s box office.
At that time, Julie Andrews, who played Eliza on Broadway, was not yet nationally known. Audrey Hepburn, on the other hand, had quickly become America’s sweetheart after starring in Roman Holiday and breaking rules as Holly Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Since Cukor planned to use the Broadway script and score almost in their entirety, Lerner remained attached to the production. But when Cukor and Warner decided on Hepburn to play Eliza, this alienated Lerner, and his control of the screenplay began to slip.
Funny enough, Andrews may have been pretty thankful in hindsight they passed over her for the role; her iconic performance as Mary Poppins debuted the same year as My Fair Lady and earned Andrews her first Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role, while Hepburn wasn’t even nominated.
For the other half of the Higgins-Eliza duo, Cukor and Warner waffled about casting. They briefly considered Cary Grant (too rough—and uninterested) and Peter O’Toole (too expensive) before settling again on Rex Harrison to reprise his stage role as Higgins. Yet still, Cukor and Warner had the gall to ask the veteran Harrison to do a screen test. Harrison refused and sent in pictures of himself instead. In these pictures, he happened to be naked, concealing himself with a magazine in one photo or a bottle of Chianti in another, according to Patrick McGilligan’s biography of Cukor, George Cukor: A Double Life.
“I don’t know why it was—perhaps because I was very thin at the time, and George may have been expecting to find me quite decrepit—but for whatever reason, those pictures appealed to him,” Harrison is quoted as saying in A Double Life. “The studios telephoned and said I had the part.”
That Cukor was gay seldom comes up in the discussion of casting, or really about the movie at all, perhaps because Cukor separated his private life from his public persona as much as he could. By the mid-40s, Cukor had come to be known as a “women’s director.” He worked with countless leading ladies: Greta Garbo, Marilyn Monroe, and Katharine Hepburn, just to name a few. But the moniker was not a compliment. Masculinity carries privilege, and not just in the motion picture industry. Many floated “women’s director” like a homophobic epithet, implying that Cukor did not have the strength of personality to manage male leads. Even as he was helping to create some of the most iconic movies from Hollywood’s Golden Age, including A Star is Born, The Philadelphia Story, and Wizard of Oz, Cukor was starting to realize he had to be more cautious.“Cukor could go to elegant houses in the afternoons and sip high tea with titled ladies—and he could live an active homosexual life behind closed doors—as long as those two worlds never intersected.”
So Cukor cultivated a public persona to obscure his homosexual private life, which, especially in those days, could be seen as unsavory or even illegal. “Cukor could go to elegant houses in the afternoons and sip high tea with titled ladies—and he could live an active homosexual life behind closed doors—as long as those two worlds never intersected,” McGilligan writes in A Double Life. “If they did, there might be scandal, damage to his career, revelation, and humiliation.”
With Cukor as My Fair Lady’s director, it’s possible that a pulse of homosexuality beats at the story’s core. But even with a close viewing, it becomes clear that what homosexual subtext there is, if there is any, became vastly downplayed.
One glaring instance is the dilution of Colonel Pickering, Higgin’s charming friend and life partner.
“The whimsical Colonel Pickering is given so little focus as to become almost irrelevant,” McGilligan writes. “Revisionist directors of the musical have spotted the homosexual subcurrent between Pickering and Higgins; none of that for the homosexual director Cukor. Their relationship is flattened, much of the affection and comedy between them stepped on.”
Maybe Cukor was being overly cautious to protect himself. Or maybe he understood how little of a chance even the slimmest spark of homosexuality stood in the 1960s box office. Remember, Warner Brothers was playing it safe with My Fair Lady. They needed to make money, so they stuck with the old heteronormative standby.
The idea that happy endings must involve heterosexual love is an old concept. “All tragedies are finished by a death, / All comedies are ended by marriage;” Lord Byron writes in his 1824 poem, “Don Juan.” It’s a sentiment that has echoed through centuries of western literature, from Shakespeare to Jane Austen to the campiest of modern rom-coms. (We all know Katherine Heigl gets married at the end of 27 Dresses just by looking at the movie poster.)
What complicates My Fair Lady even further is that it’s the end of a centuries’ old telephone game, the result of translations across time, place and dissonant values. So it’s no surprise that many audiences assume, despite so much ambiguity—despite almost no allusion to it in Pygmalion, the stage play or the screenplay of My Fair Lady—that Eliza and Higgins get together in the end: it’s what we’ve been trained to expect.
In Ovid’s tale of Pygmalion, a sculptor believes he isn’t interested in women until Aphrodite brings his beautiful, perfect statue back to life. Petrarch, a poet and Renaissance scholar, took the tale one step further (or backward), using the statue as critique of idolatry and as a model woman. (No, really: “The statue is a literalisation of metaphors that describe the Petrarchan beloved as cold, stonyhearted and unresponsive, and as such, an exemplar of chastity,” Sarah Carter writes in Ovidian Myth and Sexual Deviance in Early Modern English Literature.) Shaw used the story of his cockney flower girl to critique British class structure and women’s lack of voting rights. Each of these instances mirrors the preoccupations of the times when they were written. They play on readers’ expectations, try to teach, try to persuade.
Lerner’s My Fair Lady, first and foremost, seeks to entertain. It still makes commentaries on gender, but the directors left an undercurrent of the sexual unknown to entice the audience. Cukor attempted to strip away anything in the movie that might hurt its sales. What he left was a movie that, while delightful, allows the audience to assume what it wants.
If the only kind of happy endings you know involve heterosexual love, that’s what you’ll probably see. Use the lesson of My Fair Lady and train yourself to look deeper: there is more than one kind of happy ending.