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What the Manolo is… | Manolo's Shoe Blog

What the Manolo is…

Manolo says, it is Tuesday, time to see what the Manolo is…


Listening to…


The Manolo, who last evening engaged in the spirited round of Twittering with his internet friends about the topic of My Fair Lady, has gone back and reviewed the evidence. In doing so, he has reached the twin conclusions:
My Fair Lady
Conclusion the First: Eliza Doolittle is the prostitute.

This is the unspoken subtext of both the Broadway play and the movie, one, which acknowledged, even in passing, gives more depth and richness to the story.

What is the Manolo’s evidence for this seemingly heterodox idea? The vending of fruits or flowers in Covent Gardens was long considered the pretextual occupation of the prostitutes. The most famous of such ladies of ill repute was Nell Gwyn, the mistress of Charles II, who began her career as the Covent Garden seller of oranges.

There is other evidence, not the least of which is that the father of Eliza, Alfie Doolittle, attempts to sell his daughter to Professor Higgins for the few pounds, with the little bit of luck…

And there is much more, if only one looks.

The acknowledgment of Eliza Doolittle’s scarlet past deepens and explains her reluctance to return the love of Freddy. It is not her low birth which makes for the problematic match, for indeed, low birth can be ignored if love is true.

It is that Eliza herself knows that she cannot be with Freddy, ever, for that even if she were to love him in return, her previous occupation renders her untouchable. (Only the kings, such as Charles II, have the power to render this stain socially nugatory.) If Eliza loves Freddy, she must protect him from her past by rejecting him. There is no other way.

Conclusion the Second: Audrey Hepburn is most horribly miscast as the Eliza Doolittle.

Yes, she is the lovely-lovely girl, sylph-like and elegant, but she is not the credible street girl. When the Professor Higgins removes the costumery and the faux dirt, she is already unapproachably beautiful, incapable of being improved upon. Thus, Professor Higgin’s triumph of transformation is revealed as negligible, reduced to the mere diction lessons and dress fittings.

Worse, Audrey Hepburn is the uninteresting actress. Indeed, she is the xenon of actresses; the inert noble gas, unable to react with any other substance.

Witness the beginning of this scene…

Do any of the Manolo’s friends accept that Audrey Hepburn could ever, for the single second, be the “impudent hussy”?

And because she cannot convincingly play the impudent hussy, because she can only and always be Audrey Hepburn, the movie is poorer for it.

Who then should have been Eliza Doolittle?

Julie Andrews is the immediate reply, but even this, to the mind of the Manolo, is not completely satisfactory.

The role deserves someone more lively and exuberant, some who can be both the impudent hussy and the convincingly transformed high-society Eliza.

Debbie Reynolds? Mary Martin? The young Liza Minelli? The Manolo admits to being confounded.

25 Responses to “What the Manolo is…”

  1. Valerie in San Diego November 16, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

    As mentioned in Twitter, I agree with the suggestion of the young Liza Minelli. The young Jamie Lee Curtis persuasively played this role in the ’80s film Trading Places, and might conceivably suit the role with the appropriate accent…

  2. Manolo the Shoeblogger November 16, 2010 at 3:50 pm #

    It is the deceptively difficult role, because not only is the brilliant singing voice needed, but the two halves of Eliza must fit together seamlessly, and suggest each other.

    We must be able to see the nobility in the Cockney girl before the transformation, and the liveliness of the street girl in the society woman after it.

    This is why the Manolo is stumped by this problem of casting.

  3. Nancy November 16, 2010 at 4:13 pm #

    Is the Manolo aware that in the original George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion” upon which “My Fair Lady” is based, Eliza does marry Freddy?

  4. class factotum November 16, 2010 at 4:28 pm #

    Perhaps Vanessa Redgrave, who went from virgin to scarlet woman in “Camelot?” Opposite direction, for sure, but still both sides.

    And can you blame her? Franco Nero! Hottie!

  5. Manolo the Shoeblogger November 16, 2010 at 4:51 pm #

    Is the Manolo aware that in the original George Bernard Shaw play “Pygmalion” upon which “My Fair Lady” is based, Eliza does marry Freddy?

    Yes, the Manolo is aware of this. But, frequently, GBS’s plays are both powerful and powerfully tendentious.

    It seems to the Manolo that marriage to Freddy cannot be effected unless both Freddy and Eliza are transported to Australia.

  6. Sarah F November 16, 2010 at 4:55 pm #

    May I suggest a couple of current actresses? Either Miranda Raison or Tamzin Merchant have the ability to play the role beautifully. Though I have no idea if either can sing, that would not necessarily be a problem as Marni Nixon sang the role in the original movie. Apparently Audrey Hepburn is not a singer.

  7. YaYaDave November 16, 2010 at 5:25 pm #

    As for casting, I think either Bette Midler of Barbra Streisand could play this, and Bette Midler would really be lively.

  8. meave November 16, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

    Perhaps Shirley MacLaine? She did play a mistress redeemed by love in The Apartment, and was, at the time of filming My Fair Lady, lovely without being overwhelmingly, unapproachably beautiful.

  9. Sarah G. November 16, 2010 at 6:20 pm #

    Natalie Wood, she would be far more believable.

  10. The Accidental Tangoiste November 16, 2010 at 6:37 pm #

    But, the Manolo, what about when Eliza explicitly states that she was not a prostitute?

    “We were above that in Covent Garden […] I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself.”

    I thought this line might be an overlay by the Disney People, but it appears to be present in Shaw’s script as well–though he wrote “at the corner of Tottenham Court Road.” I’m sure he knew the inferences his audiences would probably make about her former life. However, I don’t know whether he did this as an active refutation of those assumptions or merely as a concession to make the play more acceptable to the public.

    On the other hand, I find the Manolo’s argument about why (at least in the musical) she couldn’t marry Freddie intriguing–and because of this, I am beginning to think it may not matter whether she actually was a prostitute or not. If Shaw’s audience would know the likely implication, certainly the other characters in the play would also know–and so she would still have a reputation (even if undeserved) to live down.

    (Not to mention her unorthodox living arrangements with Professor Higgins; everyone in the play knows what to make of that too, as you have noted.)

    Eliza is quite careful of her reputation, actually–you know, other than actually living in Higgins’ home. (At least, she is in the musical; I have to admit, I’m less familiar with the play. Haven’t read it in years.) She won’t eat the chocolates he offers her before he proves that they’re not drugged; and all her insistence that she’s a good girl… She knows what everyone thinks of her too.

    But that particular line is such a quietly dignified moment for her that I can hardly believe that she could be lying.

  11. grrg November 16, 2010 at 6:54 pm #

    BARBARA HARRIS. Anyone who has seen footage from the original Broadway cast of “On A Clear Day You Can See Forever” (I think she did some scenes on Ed Sullivan) will believe me that she could have pulled it off — and done her own singing. Okay so she’s not British, but her accent in her biggest role, Altman’s “Nashville,” was convincing. She has exactly the kind of protean neither-here-nor-there beauty that you’re looking for.

  12. raincoaster November 16, 2010 at 8:05 pm #

    It’s not the first time Audrey Hepburn played a prostitute. Remember Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Truman Capote said that he had Marilyn Monroe in mind for the part, and was really upset at the casting of Hepburn, for all the reasons you mention here.

  13. Elizabeth Sikkenga November 16, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    Barbara Harris, yes! Excellent call, grrg. She did sort of the opposite transformation in A Thousand Clowns – and come to think of it, also in Freaky Friday. She has the necessary underlying sweetness, too.

  14. Miss Louisa November 16, 2010 at 9:17 pm #

    Eliza was not a prostitute, although that is all she was fit for once Higgens and Col. Pickering were done. Even when she was first told to stay in Prof. Higgens’ home, she kept saying she was a good girl. The housekeeper took it upon herself to take care of Eliza. Mrs. Higgens was concerned about the same thing. The women, including Eliza, knowing that there were no opportunites for social mobility for them as their were for men, needed to know to what end this experiment would lead. Higgens and Col Pickering had the myopic view of passing Eliza off as a duchess with no forethought to the consequences. The point was that Eliza was poor, but earning an honest living; only someone of her station could work and not sell herself- even though many did. When she was “improved” she wasn’t fit for anything but being a consort because for women in higher stations it wasn’t done to work and they had no opportunites for self-sufficiency. Remember, women in the middle classes and higher were pretty much sold in marriage. That is what a dowry is after all.

  15. Peter Jensen November 16, 2010 at 10:39 pm #

    My father and I used to watch that movie every year, and he was such an innocent old man. I can’t fathom thinking that we were watching the show and that she was a girl of the night. That you might be right is even more shocking to my memory. Some things are sacred, like the Wizard of Oz and My Fair lady. Nobody else could have played that role like her.


  16. Carla November 16, 2010 at 11:05 pm #

    Audrey Hepburn is just beyond. She could never be replaced.


  17. Megan Messymethod November 17, 2010 at 1:58 am #

    Since someone else already suggested young Shirley MacLaine, who was my first choice, I’m going with young Romy Schneider.

  18. ChaChaheels November 17, 2010 at 7:39 am #

    Count me in on the “it would make no difference whether she were a prostitute or not” group. I think Shaw made a point of that–the important thing was that she would be judged as a whore when she was a poor flower seller who looked and sounded poor (even if, as she protests, she was a good girl) but she would not be judged as one once she was cleaned up, smartened up, and “sold off” in marriage to Freddy, as a pretty girl from “respectable” circumstances. Okay, she doesn’t marry him in the musical (because I don’t think we like the idea of being bound by economic and social class so much in America–and My Fair Lady was an American film based on an American play, after all), but she does in Shaw’s play, because she knows that she has no other choice if she wants to keep her new life.

  19. class factotum November 17, 2010 at 9:25 am #

    Bette Midler or Barbra Streisand

    Bless their talented hearts, but Eliza needs to be pretty.

  20. class factotum November 17, 2010 at 10:38 am #

    What the Manolo needs to read next, perhaps, is Alexander McCall Smith’s new book in which one finds the line, “There are some shoes that say to us: ‘Buy us and we shall change your life.'”

    That Mr McCall Smith knows of which he speaks.

  21. marvel November 17, 2010 at 10:44 am #

    What about Vivien Leigh? though perhaps too old by 1964.

    I don’t think a good singing voice was required for the actress who played Eliza; although Audrey did sing her own tracks for filming, I believe the voice of Marni Nixon was dubbed over for the film: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0633262/bio. That opens up the field a little.

  22. Hester from Atlanta November 17, 2010 at 11:10 am #

    Remember the time period when this movie was made. I was a teenager in 1964 and having Audrey, the beautiful pure waif, play the roll helped to keep the skepticism about Eliza’s prior life to a minimum. I remember seeing the movie when it first came out and thought the whole thing was wonderful. This was before the revolution of the 1960’s became commmon.

  23. Manolo the Shoeblogger November 17, 2010 at 11:55 am #

    @Tangoiste Yes, the Manolo admits that he stumbled over the line you mentioned when constructing his thesis:

    “We were above that in Covent Garden […] I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself.”

    But, the Manolo would reply that they were not above that in Covent Garden, as it was well known for centuries as the place of unsavory assignations. And as for Eliza’s reputation, among her set, her living arrangements with Professor Higgins actually appear to enhance her reputation “She has made the career!” shouts Alfie joyfully.

    @Miss Louisa The Manolo thinks your thesis has much merit to explain that which had bothered the Manolo about the ending of the film. But he must think about this more because it is such the intriguing problem.

    @Meave The Manolo thought of Shirley McLaine and she would have been quite good, but the Manolo has his doubts about the range of her singing voice. Eliza has so many wonderful songs.

    @YaYaDave The Manolo would love to see the Bette Midler or the Barbara Streisand as Eliza, but either version would be delightful if unrecognizable, indeed, to imagine either is to imagine the vastly different film.

    @grrg Barbara Harris! Yes!

  24. The Charlotte Allen November 17, 2010 at 12:07 pm #

    I’ve got to agree with Tangoiste. I haven’t read “Pygmalion” in years, but I’m pretty sure that Shaw, ever the explainer, made it clear that Eliza, although dirt-poor, was proud of her tenuous hold upon respectability. This was a common attitude among working-class people until the sexual revolution. Those who weren’t licentious boozers–like Eliza’s father–were puritanical in their straight-laced insistence on respectability, and they could be quite censorious toward young women who strayed, or even worse, got pregnant. That’s why there were many shotgun marriages. In both “Pygmalion” and “My Fair Lady,” Eliza reacts indignantly to any suggestion that she might have loose morals.

  25. Pshaw December 21, 2010 at 9:37 pm #

    Shaw was most upset when his play was changed such that Eliza marries Freddie. That was not his intent.

    He was also upset when in the movie version she goes back to Professor Higgins. Again, not his intent.

    In Shaw’s original, Eliza stands on her own. It is actually an early attempt at feminism.