Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘My Fair Lady

Mary Poppins and the rise of the blockbuster

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Julie Andrews as Mary Poppins

Fifty years ago, Disney’s Mary Poppins had been firmly established as the highest-grossing movie of 1964, with a degree of cultural omnipresence that now seems all but unrecognizable—adjusted for inflation, its box office take works out to an astonishing $600 million. Ever since, it’s been so ubiquitous that it’s hard to regard it as an ordinary movie, much less as a work of art. Yet it’s wonderful in ways that have nothing to do with nostalgia, a witty, inventive blockbuster that feels almost like a more innocent extension of the work of Powell and Pressburger: it has the same technical ambition, depth of cast, and richness of design. For much of the last few weeks, its soundtrack has resided on my record player, and it delights me almost as much as it does our daughter. There isn’t a clunker in the entire score, and at least six of the songs by the Sherman Brothers are outright classics. (If the movie’s look and atmosphere were secretly shaped by the Archers, the music draws openly on Lerner and Lowe, and in retrospect, it feels like a natural bridge between My Fair Lady and its even more commercially spectacular successor, The Sound of Music.)

Yet its full legacy wouldn’t be felt for another four decades. In a sense, it’s the first unmistakable example of the business model that currently dominates Hollywood: the adaptation of an established children’s property, aimed squarely at all four quadrants of the public, with every resource of a major studio lavished on casting, art direction, music, and visual effects. For all its undeniable charm, it marks the beginning of a lineage that runs from Harry Potter through the Marvel Universe to The Hunger Games, with movie companies investing everything in tentpole franchises that stake much of the available money and talent on a single roll of the dice. Lionsgate is The Hunger Games, much as MGM is James Bond and the Hobbit franchise, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Disney was Mary Poppins for the years in which the movie was in production. The artistic legacy of Walt Disney, the man, is a mixed one, but there’s no question of his perfectionism or the demands he made on his creative team, and it shows. Mary Poppins cuts no corners, and it looks so good, with such attention to detail and so much money visible on the screen, that it makes most children’s movies seem cheap by comparison.

Conceptual art for Mary Poppins

In other words, Mary Poppins was the original big bet, albeit one driven less by market calculation than by the obsessiveness of Walt Disney himself. (There’s a strong case to be made that its real impact has been even greater than that of Star Wars, which was a comparatively ragged production made in the face of active corporate interference.) And it stands as the culmination of everything the studio represented, in craft if not in content. It’s a repository of nifty tricks, both old and new: the gag with Mary Poppins rescuing her carpet bag from sinking into the cloudbank is lifted almost intact from the stork in Dumbo, as if an old hand on the Burbank lot, possibly Disney himself, had simply pitched a joke that he knew had worked well in the past. Mary Poppins is made up of a thousand little touches like this, and part of its magic is how seamlessly it synthesizes the work of so many craftsmen and disparate influences into something that seems so inevitable. The director, Robert Stevenson, was a capable journeyman who had worked with Disney for years—although not, confusingly, on Treasure Island—and if the result doesn’t bear much trace of his personality, there’s no doubt that he deserves much of the credit for keeping it so superbly organized.

And audiences obviously responded to it, even if some critics were skeptical both of its departures from its source material and of the apparent reassurances it provided. Even at the time, many cultural observers felt that it offered nothing but a form of Edwardian escapism from current events, and a glance at the headlines from the year in which it was released—this was the summer of the Civil Rights Act, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, and the dawn of Beatlemania, with race riots erupting in Philadelphia the day after its premiere—creates an undeniable dissonance. Yet the same could be said of nearly every big movie in nearly every decade, and few have managed to carve out their own perfect worlds so beautifully. Mary Poppins is a little like the snow globe of St. Paul’s Cathedral that its title character holds as she sings “Feed the Birds”: closed, gorgeously rendered, and complete in itself. It’s the kind of movie that the major studios ought to be able to do best; it certainly couldn’t have been produced in any other way. And if few comparable films since have matched its grace and imagination, it still stands as an example of Hollywood’s potential, even for an industry that has always been run by the likes of Mr. Banks.

Written by nevalalee

December 29, 2014 at 9:45 am

Why can’t the musical learn to speak?

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Julie Andrews and Rex Harrison in My Fair Lady

Yesterday, I picked up an album that I’ve wanted to add to my record collection for some time: the original cast recording of My Fair Lady, featuring Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. I’ve always felt that this was the one musical I’d have killed to see on its initial run, and it’s as strong a work as ever. What strikes me about it the most now, though, is its almost startling intimacy. This has always been a “big” show in its sheer physical production—the back of the record sleeve trumpets “its sumptuous sets by Oliver Smith [that] require the use of two revolving stages”—but its most memorable songs are practically chamber pieces, and it would translate beautifully to a tiny theater. I like the movie version a lot, but it suffers, like so many musicals of that era, from its determination to fill every inch of the Panavision image with expensive color and spectacle. Musicals have never seemed entirely comfortable on widescreen: I’ve always felt that the 4:3 or Academy ratio was more properly scaled to the human form in motion and song, and a wider frame only creates a temptation to fill the edges with clutter when we should be focusing on the performers.

But in some ways, the opulent look of My Fair Lady only underlines one of its most memorable choices, which is to conclude on a man singing to himself on an empty street. It may be the greatest closing number of any musical I know, simply because of the subtle confidence it exudes in both performer and material. Rex Harrison, as I’ve noted before, wasn’t much of a singer, but he moved with unparalleled confidence within his own limitations, and it speaks to the strength of the underlying story that its climax turns, so gracefully, on a moment of quiet realization. For once, the costumes and sets are set aside, and the stage—or screen—is bare, almost colorless. And it’s a choice that perfectly suits the song and character. Henry Higgins doesn’t fall in love with Eliza, exactly; the most he can bring himself to admit is that he’s grown accustomed to her face. It’s a revelation that comes almost as an aside, and the show turns the volume down so that we can hear it. (That said, in the movie, Harrison sometimes looks a little lost as he wanders from side to side on the Panavision screen, and this is one place where I find myself wishing for a more modest production.)

Illustration by Al Hirschfeld for My Fair Lady

It’s hard to imagine a blockbuster musical ending the same way these days. Broadway has been inflating its shows for years, presumably to justify its correspondingly inflated prices, and with so much on the line—nearly every musical ends up losing its investment in the end—it’s desperate to give audiences the impression that they’ve gotten their money’s worth. More intimate shows may do well at awards season, but spectacle is what draws in the tourists, at least in theory, which leads to jukebox tunes, bigger numbers, grander sets, and stunts straight out of Cirque du Soleil. If My Fair Lady were mounted for the first time today, I’m not sure it would end the way it does: I have the uncomfortable feeling that we’d see a big reprise at the following year’s Ascot Races, with the ensemble spilling over the sides of the stage. The confidence that inspired “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” has been replaced by a kind of dread of boring the audience. But when every other song aims to be an eleven o’clock number, the effect can be deadening, and it leads to a sort of storytelling that only trades in the bluntest, most obvious emotions.

As a result, it’s grown harder for a musical to build itself around the patter songs of Henry Higgins, much less the conversational talk-singing that Harrison used to fill the stage with nothing but his own personality. (Interestingly, I learn from Roger Ebert that while the rest of the movie cast sang to a prerecorded soundtrack, Harrison refused, and he performed with a wireless microphone hiding in his tie.) Higgins isn’t there to please the audience, but himself, which is what makes him such an engaging character. Given the manner in which he talks to us, we have no choice but to meet him halfway. It’s a refreshing contrast to many of the musical protagonists we see now, with their “I Want” numbers and so great a need to be liked that they practically climb over the seats to ingratiate themselves. One of the curious things about art is that the most successful works of an earlier era can start to seem radical in comparison to their followers, which follow and simplify the outlines of the formula without really understanding it, and that’s manifestly true of My Fair Lady. It’s unclear if we’ll ever see its like again, but I hope we will—although not without a little bit of luck.

Written by nevalalee

September 8, 2014 at 9:06 am

What would Rex Harrison do?

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Earlier this month, in his rather unenthusiastic review of the new musical Nice Work if You Can Get It, Hilton Als wrote of star Matthew Broderick, who, for all his other talents, is manifestly not a dancer: “His dancing should be a physical equivalent of Rex Harrison’s speaking his songs in [My Fair Lady]: self-assured and brilliant in its use of the performer’s limitations.” It’s a nice comparison, and indeed, Rex Harrison is one of the most triumphant examples in the history of entertainment of a performer turning his limitations into something uniquely his own. (If I could go back in time to see only one musical, it would be the original Broadway production of My Fair Lady, starring Harrison and the young Julie Andrews.) And while most of us rightly strive to overcome our limitations, it can also be useful to find ways of turning them into advantages, or at least to find roles for which we’re naturally suited, shortcomings and all.

Years of writing have taught me that I have at least two major limitations as a novelist (although my readers can probably think of more). The first is that my style of writing is essentially serious. I don’t think it’s solemn, necessarily, and I’d like to think that my fiction shows some wit in its construction and execution. But I’m not a naturally funny writer, and I’m in awe of authors like P.G. Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, or even Joss Whedon, whose sense of humor is inseparable from their way of regarding the world. The Icon Thief contains maybe three jokes, and I’m inordinately proud of all of them, just because they don’t come naturally. This isn’t to say that I’m a humorless or dour person, but that being funny in print is really hard, and it’s a skill set that I don’t seem to have, at least not in fiction. And while I’d like to develop this quality, if only to increase my range of available subjects and moods, I expect that it’s always going to be pretty limited.

My other big limitation is that I only seem capable of writing stories in which something is always happening. The Icon Thief and its sequels are stuffed with plot and incident, largely because I’m not sure what I’d do if the action slowed down. In this, I’m probably influenced by the movies I love. In his essay on Yasujiro Ozu, David Thomson writes:

[S]o many American films are pledged to the energy that “breaks out.” Our stories promote the hope of escape, of beginning again, of beneficial disruptions. One can see that energy—hopeful, and often damaging, but always romantic—in films as diverse as The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Run of the Arrow, Rebel Without a Cause, Vertigo, Bonnie and Clyde, Greed, and The Fountainhead. No matter how such stories end, explosive energy is endorsed…Our films are spirals of wish fulfillment, pleas for envy, the hustle to get on with the pursuit of happiness.

As a result, whenever I write a page in which nothing happens, I get nervous. This isn’t the worst problem for a mainstream novelist to have, but like my essential seriousness, it limits my ability to tell certain kinds of stories. (This may be why I’m so impressed by the work of, say, Nicholson Baker, who writes brilliantly funny novels in which almost nothing takes place.)

So what do I do? I do what Rex Harrison did: I look for material where my limitations can be mistaken for strengths. In short, I write suspense fiction, which tends to be forgiving of essential seriousness—it’s hard to find a funny line in any of Thomas Harris or Frederick Forsyth, for example—and for restless, compulsive action, all executed within a fairly narrow range of tone. When I write in other genres, like science fiction, I basically approach the story if I were still writing suspense, which, luckily, happens to be a fairly adaptable mode. And while I’ll always continue to push myself as a writer, and hope to eventually expand my tonal and emotional range, I’m glad that I’ve found at least one place where my limitations feel at home, and where they can occasionally flower forth into full song. For everything else, I’m content just to speak to the music.

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