Pygmalion Picks

Pygmalion Picks

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Mar 15th 2018

My Fair Lady triumphantly opened on Broadway 62 years ago today to begin its record-setting original six-and-a-half year run and – by George, we’re getting it! – the eagerly anticipated new Lincoln Center Theater production of this loverly Alan Jay Lerner/Frederick Loewe musical based on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion starts previews tonight for the property’s first Main Stem revival in 25 years, set to officially open Thursday April 19. Beyond its endearing charms as a Cinderella story, it is also – in our more enlightened times – an archetypal tale of female empowerment in which a disadvantaged but defiantly spirited young woman is steered through rigorous tutelage, behavioral observation and hard work into reaching her greater potential. The dynamic of a driven mentor and a determined protégé symbolized by My Fair Lady’s matchup of persnickety phoneticist Henry Higgins and draggle-tailed guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle is one that has wafted through many movies across the decades. Though not propelled by the same quantities of indelible song and well-choreographed dance as Lerner, Loewe and original director Moss Hart brought to the Mark Hellinger Theater stage in 1956 and the original tunesmiths and director George Cukor adapted for the 70mm screen in 1964, here are three movies – a period drama of mysterious royal heritage, a meditative show-business chronicle about meteoric fame detouring into soul-wrenching sadness, and a whimsical comedy champagne-fizzed with dreams and magic – on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray in which fair ladies dance all night and alternately find happiness, heartbreak or something in between when the embassy ball’s over. 

Inspired by real events and adapted from a hit stage play, Anastasia (1956) was truly a tale of redemption and renewal, both in regard to its plot – the story of a destitute and suicidal woman in 1928 Paris who may actually be the fabled surviving daughter of Russian Czar Nicholas and thereby a grand duchess and heir to a fortune – and its circumstances – returning the exiled-for-“immoral behavior” Ingrid Bergman to her position (along with her second Best Actress Oscar®) at the top of screen eminences. What starts as a daring deception by her Higgins figure, the wily expatriate White Russian General Bounine (Yul Brynner), aimed at tapping into wealth becomes, through rigorous devotion and tough love, a reverberant tale of recovered identity and romantic fulfillment, delivered with sumptuous studio treatment in gorgeous Cinemascope as scripted by Arthur Laurents and directed by Anatole Litvak. (And the Anastasia property, with songs by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty contributed to the 1997 animated musical movie retelling along with others added 20 years later, is itself now a stage musical success about to start its second year on Broadway 21 blocks south of My Fair Lady.) Despite its comparably glamorous Mediterranean and Hollywood settings, the mood is darker and scalpel-sharp cynical, courtesy of the trenchantly witty writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, in The Barefoot Contessa (1954). Ava Gardner, at the pinnacle of her legendary beauty and popularity, plays the title character, an earthy Spanish peasant dancer who is taken under the wing of a struggling moviemaker portrayed by Humphrey Bogart and molded into an instant star with a succession of hit movies. Here, because the heroine becomes the objectified fascination of several twisted men of wealth and renown, fame and fortune do not translate to the restless lady’s ultimate happiness, but the cautionary journey is made memorable and haunting by the performances of its well-cast ensemble and stinging observations about the pitfalls of show business.

In Woody Allen’s delightful Alice (1990), Mia Farrow’s Manhattan hasufrau title character is more upper-crust that the Eliza, Anna and Maria covered above, but she’s nonetheless stuck in a rut of aimless consumerism, empty familial drudgery and unrealized potential. Her particular Professor Higgins is on first appearance perhaps the most ordinary and undistinguished of the lot considered here, a Chinatown acupuncturist named Dr. Yang (the fabulous Keye Luke in his final film role), but once he diagnoses her bad back and stress problems, his potions, herbs and Confucian advice empower this particular Ms. Doolittle to achieve so much more than improved posture. Thanks to his magical manipulations (way beyond the spinal), the spiritually repressed Alice is fantastically empowered to confront the ghosts of her past, see her present with crystal-clear vision (as well as a very handy power of invisibility!) and shed her inhibitions to inject way more life into her life. Perhaps, Alice’s foray into her own Big Apple Wonderland is a full-circle tribute by writer-director Allen to the dedicated way Farrow’s dedicated psychiatrist Eudora Fletcher helped the conflicted “chameleon man” conformist Leonard Zelig through his identity crisis seven years earlier in the equally remarkable Zelig (1983), although My Fair Gentleman doesn’t have the same ring. With a little bit of luck on the street where you live, you might find transformative entertainment in the mentor/apprentice narratives of Alice, Anastasia and The Barefoot Contessa – and even the gender-reversed Zelig – on TT disc.