In the summer before I was 12, my father was working for several months at Victorine Studios in Nice. He took a furnished suite on the Promenade des Anglais overlooking the beach and my mother, my 13-year old cousin Pauline, and I spent a wonderful summer in the south of France. Pauline and I learned some French, turned a deep shade of brown, and generally had a really good time.
However, some days were rainy or too cloudy to spend time at the beach or wandering the alleys. We found ourselves stuck in the apartment with little to do. This was 1961, pre-screens of any kind. Pauline had a portable turn-table but didn’t have any records. For reasons that are beyond me now, I had a Shadows’ 4-song EP and a long-playing recording of the London staging of My Fair Lady. We played them endlessly. By the end of that summer I knew every lyric and every bit of phrasing in the musical. And my enjoyment of those tunes has stuck with me through all these years.
I guess it was that sixty-year fascination that drew me to read Digging In To The Queer Subtext of My Fair Lady, a fascinating and illuminating view of the writing of the show and then the movie by Alan Lerner in the context of homosexuality in the late 1950s.
“[Henry] 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 … 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.”
As an 11-year old in 1961, I was not yet woke to the misogyny of Why Can’t A Woman Be ore Like A Man? and certainly the ambiguity of the relationship between Higgins and Colonel Pickering in their repartee flew over my head.
The article goes on to discuss the double life of the movie’s director, George Cukor.
“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 … If they did, there might be scandal, damage to his career, revelation, and humiliation.”
There is a suggestion that, “with Cukor as My Fair Lady’s director, it’s possible that a pulse of homosexuality beats at the story’s core.” However, with the Higgins-Eliza love angle accented in the movie (compared to the stage musical), and the playing down of Pickering’s character, Cukor was playing it safe.
“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.”
Well worth the read.