Thursday, April 27, 2006

Ebertfest Report: My Fair Lady

I drove past the Virginia Theater on my way home from work about 5:00 p.m., and the line to get in for My Fair Lady already had a hundred or so people in it. The doors to the theater were not scheduled to open until 6:30 and the movie didn't start until 7:30, but people intent on snagging good seats were being prepared. This is overkill in my opinion because there are very few bad seats in the 1500-seat theater. You want to avoid the corner seats in the front because of the angle, but even the balcony seats have good sightlines, although the bottom of the screen might be cut off depending on where you're sitting.

When we got there at about 6:30 p.m., the line was more than a block long. Walking down the line to get to the end was like going down a receiving line, as every fifth person seemed to be a friend or acquaintance. That's one of the advantages of living in a small town (and of having lots of friends who like to go to movies.)

At 6:30, the line starts moving and goes very quickly as almost everyone had already exchanged their tickets for the festival passes that will allow one to walk in for the future showings. Our seats are fine, in the seventh row from the front, on the right side. After marking their seats, people are walking around chatting, it is like a big family reunion (at least if you're in an Amish family with hundreds of cousins.)

At 6:55, the organ console starts coming up out of the orchestra pit with Warren York wearing his trademark bright red socks vigorously pounding out tunes from My Fair Lady and other musicals.

At 7:25, it looks to me like there are about 50 seats left in the right corner, and people have stopped coming in, so although the festival is officially sold out, everyone who wanted to see the movie could do so.

At 7:27, the organ console and York start their recession back into the pit and a podium is rolled out.

At precisely 7:30, Roger Ebert comes out to hearty applause, but not the standing ovation he received several years ago when he came out after having survived a bout with cancer. He gives several golden Thumbs Up awards to people who have been helpful to the festival and then makes a few remarks about the movie.

Ebert says that My Fair Lady is his favorite musical, and it's no wonder because it is based on the George Bernard Shaw play, Pygmalion, the lyrics and music are by the famous team of Lerner and Lowe and it was directed by George Cukor, and, of course, stars two great actors, Rex Harrison and Audrey Hepburn.

At 7:40, the movie is ready to roll, which is about 20 minutes quicker than I had predicted. Ebert does love to talk, and although his anecdotes are interesting, there have been years when he has gone on and on instead of getting the movie started, which makes for a late night.

I am not a fan of musicals (I'm sure that will convict me of being homophobic in the eyes of p.g.) I can understand the logic of opera where everything is sung, but I don't get having a play, stopping the action, or at least the dialogue and then one or more people bursting into song and dance and then returning to the action. I know I have lived a sheltered life, but I have never encountered or heard of real people who act like that. I am a big fan of versimilitude, or at least a semblance of it.

But if one must have musicals, then My Fair Lady is the one to see. The music is gorgeous. The film is filled with so many familiar songs that have snappy tunes and intelligent lyrics. The lushness of the film, with its colors and costumes and sets is astounding. Of course seeing the movie in its 70 mmm format made it all the more amazing. People don't understand what they're missing seeing movies on small screens and in 35 mm or digital format until they go back and see a movie like this in the way it was originally intended. Ebert said at the beginning that although many people have seen My Fair Lady many times, most have never seen it in the 70 mmm format, and few of us will ever see it again in the same way, and I agree completely.

Ebert said in his comments in the program booklet that only the culturally illiterate need to be told what the movie is about, so I will refrain from spelling it out again. Shaw is known for his intelligent writing and much of his work is retained in the musical; in fact, his family had a contractual clause when they sold the rights to the play that a certain percentage of his dialogue had to be retained. I made note of a few of the memorable lines, but it was hard to do in the dark, so I ddidn't write down as many as I would have under more favorable conditions.

At one point, Professor Higgins is asked, "Are you a man of good character where women are concerned?" and he replies with a devilish grin, "Are there any men of good character where women are concerned?" At another point Eliza says, "The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not in how she behaves, but how she is treated."

This movie, made in 1964, is different from modern movies in the intelligence with which it treats its audience. It lets the audience fill in the blanks rather than assuming that the audience has to be told everything. For example, as Ebert pointed out, although this is a romantic comedy, there is not one kiss, not even a hug between the principles. The last line of the movie is "Eliza, where the devil are my slippers?" letting the audience imagine what happens next.

After the showing, Ebert interviewed Marnie Nixon, the voice behind Hepburn, and James Katz, one of the restorers of the 70 mm version, which had to be assembled from pieces of old deteroriated film stock. Hepburn actually had a voice coach and thought she was going to be doing the singing of Eliza in the movie until late in the production process when the director and producers decided to dub in Nixon's voice. This was supposed to be a secret; Nixon was given no credits in the movie, nor in the other musicals in which she was the voice behind the star, including West Side Story, The King and I and others.

Nixon was classically trained, singing with the Roger Wagner Chorale when she was 14; soloing in the Mozart Requiem when she was 17; singing the works of and working with modern composers like Stravinsky and Schoenberg. She grew up in Los Angeles and started doing commercials and dubbing work in movies as a sideline to make enough money to keep taking violin and voice lessons. She was paid very little (she got $420 for the album for The King and I, which is still a top selling musical album.)

Nixon's age isn't given but she looks to be in her 50s, although she must be in her 70s, and she is still singing, on Broadway, with orchestras and soloing. She was a delightful guest. Katz wanted to give more detail about the restoration work than anyone really cared about, and Ebert hadn't spent much time with him when we left at about the midnight bewitching hour.

Ebertfest got off to a rousing start for anyone who has even a minimal appreciation for movies, and I'm looking forward to the next several days.

No comments: