The story of Professor Higgins who makes a bet that he is able to turn the common flower-girl Eliza Doolittle into a true lady by teaching her to speak perfect English is probably well-known all around the world – but not necessarily because of the original play Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw but rather because of the later musical version My Fair Lady which is among the most beloved and successful musicals of all time. And if that wasn’t enough, the movie version of My Fair Lady took home 8 Academy Awards and connected the characters of Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle forever with Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn. But a ‘beloved’ movie does not automatically indicate ‘acclaimed movie’. Yes, My Fair Lady did sweep the awards in 1964 and critics adored the way George Cuckor brought the musical extravaganza to the screen but today, My Fair Lady is often considered one of the more overrated movie classics and especially the performance of Audrey Hepburn is often called one of the weakest efforts of her career – while critics in 1964 mostly complained about her non-singing, movie fans today often criticize her inability to become a truly believable flower girl because her charm, poise and grace are always visible and her attempts at a Cockney accent are often considered too over-the-top. Because of all this, Wendy Hiller’s performance in the original 1938 movie version of Pygmalion is often considered a superior effort, a kind of insiders’ tip since she was not a glamorous star but a British character actress who could be both – the common and the transformed Eliza. Do I agree with this? Let’s find out!
Right from the start, Wendy Hiller shows that her physics are just right for the part of Eliza Doolittle – her hard but strangely captivating face, her strong voice and her whole body language serve the character well and craft Eliza Doolittle as the common, uneducated flower girl she is supposed to be. Wendy Hiller does not possess the natural sweetness that Audrey Hepburn displayed in 1964 but Pygmalion and My Fair Lady actually strive for different goals – even though My Fair Lady consists of basically all the original dialogue (with some songs added in between), it’s still a much brighter and more entertaining look at the story of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, filled with more focus on a possible romantic relationship between these two characters. In 1938, Pygmalion appears much darker, more grown-up and neither Wendy Hiller nor Leslie Howard intended to turn their characters into loveable outsiders. Her Eliza Doolittle isn’t the kind of amusing girl she would become in the musical version but instead a more realistic and flawed character, a woman who does her best to survive on the streets of London and doesn’t care about how she might seem to others. In this aspect, Wendy Hiller clearly understood Eliza Doolittle and she can easily be admired for being so honest in her portrayal of both the early, unrefined Eliza and later the more self-assured, independent Eliza who not only found a new way of speaking but also a new way of thinking. She also never overdid any aspects in the transformation process – again, My Fair Lady is a grand spectacle and so it made sense that Eliza Doolittle turned into a beautiful, elegant lady but Pygmalion is much smaller and tries to be more realistic and because of that Wendy Hiller did the right thing by always keeping true to the original Eliza – in her work, Eliza Doolittle discovered a new world and a new life but this does not mean that she completely changed. There is a new intelligence in her, a new view on the world and also Professor Higgins but she is not a new woman who completely cut all the connections to her old life and her old existence. On the contrary, Wendy Hiller used the former life of Eliza Doolittle as a foundation for her transformation and displays that Eliza did not completely change but rather develop, becoming a combination of her old life and the new life Professor Higgins taught her.
Pygmalion mostly suffers from the fact that Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard have absolutely no noticeable chemistry. Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison knew how to work together to show two people disliking each other immensely but still growing closer and closer together. Neither Leslie Howard nor Wendy Hiller achieved the same in Pygmalion. Their constant fights and insults come and go without every defining effect since both seem to act almost independent from each other. Of course, it should normally not be necessary that these two characters develop a strong relationship or that the actors portraying them develop a believable chemistry simply because Pygmalion is originally not supposed to be a love story. Professor Higgins may show Eliza Doolittle a world beyond Covent Garden and beyond the limits of her own mind but he also symbolizes a certain type of man, of class who cannot accept human beings unless they are a product of his own demands. It’s a fight of classes and of the sexes, and a very serious one in which both characters try to keep their dignity and their own point-of-views. So yes, Pygmalion is not the romantic My Fair Lady but a certain kind of chemistry between two leads in a movie is necessary, especially if the relationship between these two lead characters is the foundation of the whole movie. And, of course, the fact that Pygmalion is not the same romantic story as My Fair Lady is only half the truth – because even though My Fair Lady is often accused of its ending in which Eliza Doolittle returns to Professor Higgins, this ending had already been added to the story in the movie version of 1938. But in this case, it comes so sudden, so unexpected and even…unwanted. The way Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard portrayed their characters, there is basically no reward in seeing these two come together at the end. It may be that Wendy Hiller wanted to portray a more independent and dominant Eliza but she also had to consider what was expected of her during the final moments of the story. Maybe this suddenness even makes sense because the question always remains if these two characters will ever be able to stay together but this is a question for the future – as for the presence, Wendy Hiller simply failed to build Eliza’s final decision on any believable foundation.
The whole process of turning Eliza Doolittle into a lady is done without any truly interesting moments – oh, they would be there but both Leslie Howard and Wendy Hiller fail to see them in their work. Only when Eliza Doolittle for the first time ‘tries’ her new personality during a tea party of Professor Higgin’s mother does Wendy Hiller find a shining moment. Her awkward delivery of Eliza’s learned lines and finally the story about her aunt and those who ‘had done her in’ shows that, if she took more careful attention at her material, she was able to bring a more captivating side to Eliza. But this one scene remains the only highlight in her work and even during her later, more dramatic moments she again feels too much like an actress reading her lines since she puts almost no feeling or emotion into her words. This way, the fate and the awakening of Eliza Doolittle becomes never as interesting as it might have been. In a way, the audience might look at Eliza Doolittle like Professor Higgins does – a bit appalled, slightly amused, but always distant and never truly interested.
Wendy Hiller achieved to be both completely logical but also strangely inadequate as Eliza Doolittle. The role seems to both over- and underwhelm her and as a consequence she stayed on one note for most of the time. She saves her performance in parts with her own personality that is certainly right for the role and her own instincts which make her mostly do the right things (but unfortunately the wrong way). Most of all, Wendy Hiller is a too subtle actress for this kind of character. The technical aspects of her performance may be fine but she never truly connects – maybe her work would have impressed more with the distance of a stage than the personal intimacy of a movie. So, for her work that is both correct and wrong, in which her instincts are always right but her acting mostly distant, uninspired and shallow, she receives an overall grade of