My Fair Ladies
A CultureMap®
by Stephen Brewer
Published on 4/11/14

Whether the raw material is a statue, a flower girl or a high school geek, or if the story is told in the poetry of Ovid or the songs of Lerner and Loewe, we love to witness a transformation. And the result is all the more satisfying when the changeling emerges as a fair lady.

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De Cypro  (Philostephanus | history | third century B.C.)
to  Metamorphoses  (Ovid | narrative poem | first century A.D.)

Apparently in the ancient world, statues could drive men wild. In De Cypro, a third-century B.C. history of Cyprus, Philostephanus tells the story of King Pygmalion, who falls in love with a venerated statue of Aphrodite. Overcome by infatuation, Pygmalion lays the marble on a couch, embraces it and engages in intercourse. In the second-century A.D. Greek dialogue Amores, one of many classical retellings of the story, a young man becomes smitten with a statue of Aphrodite and steals into a temple at night to have sex with it.

The Roman poet Ovid (43 B.C.–A.D. 17/18) embellished the narrative in Metamorphoses, his 250 stories linked by the theme of transformation. In his telling, Pygmalion is an artist from Cyprus who, after witnessing the licentious behavior of prostitutes, forsakes women and creates a statue with which he falls in love. He asks Venus to give him a wife as beautiful as the statue and soon discovers to his delight that the sculpture’s lips are warm and her skin is soft to his touch. Ovid’s tale of a creation brought to life, figuratively or literally, has fired the imagination ever since.

De Cypro  (Philostephanus | history | third century B.C.)
to  Pygmalion  (George Bernard Shaw | play | 1912)

When the Pygmalion legend recounted in the Hellenistic history De Cypro showed up in George Bernard Shaw’s comedy of manners, the female subject of the story was not an ivory statue but flesh and blood, the cockney flower girl Eliza Doolittle. But as far as Professor Henry Higgins is concerned, Eliza may as well be a statue. “You see this creature with her kerbstone English…that will keep her in the gutter to the end of her days,” he begins, proposing a wager to his acquaintance Colonel Pickering. “Well, sir, in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.”

The play harks back to King Pygmalion’s dalliance with a statue when Higgins’s mother points out to her son and Pickering, “You certainly are a pretty pair of babies, playing with your live doll.” But her protests fall on deaf ears. “What does it matter what becomes of you?” Higgins asks Eliza, who rejoins, “I’m nothing to you—not so much as them slippers.” Shaw summed up their relationship in an afterword to the play: “Galatea [the statue] never does quite like Pygmalion: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.”

Metamorphoses  (Ovid | narrative poem | first century A.D.)
to  Pygmalion  (George Bernard Shaw | play | 1912)

If everyone loves a happy ending, an agalmatophiliac, someone sexually attracted to statues, might find Ovid’s tale of Pygmalion in Metamorphoses particularly cheering. Any reader’s pulse might quicken along with Pygmalion’s when he discovers that his statue’s “breast beneath his fingers bent” and her lips “redden at the kiss.” Ovid’s ending is happy indeed: “To crown their bliss, a lovely boy was born.”

George Bernard Shaw’s spin on the myth, the play Pygmalion, was a hit on the London stage. “There must be something radically wrong about the play if it pleases everybody, but at the moment I cannot find what it is,” Shaw commented. That something turned out to be a twist in the ending. In the final scene Shaw wrote, Eliza sweeps out of the study of Professor Higgins, who has transformed her “out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden,” never to see him again. In the London production, Higgins tossed a bouquet from the window to the departing Eliza, a gesture suggesting the pair’s relationship might end happily. “Your ending is damnable; you ought to be shot,” Shaw told the producer. “My ending makes money; you ought to be grateful,” the latter insisted.

Metamorphoses  (Ovid | narrative poem | first century A.D.)
to  Pretty Woman  (Garry Marshall (dir.) | film | 1990)

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Pygmalion extends an abhorrence for prostitutes to all women and decides to build his own female companion, an ivory statue. In Pretty Woman, corporate raider Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) has some issues with women, too, so he recruits a gorgeous hooker, Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts), for a week’s worth of no-strings-attached companionship in Beverly Hills.

To Pygmalion’s delight, one day his statue became “soft, and more soft at ev’ry touch,” then “op’d her eyes, and view’d at once the light, and lover with surprise.” Eye-opening change also takes place in Pretty Woman. In remarkably short order, the cold-hearted Edward gets in touch with his feelings and the street-walking Vivian morphs into a bejeweled lady who enjoys opera and champagne.

Both stories, acknowledging the eternal pairing of sex and money, add scintillating conspicuous consumption to the mix. Pygmalion adorns his statue in robes and jewels, fills her shelves with rare seashells and hangs songbirds in silver cages around her bed—though earlier he had condemned women selling themselves for gold. Edward escorts Vivian on a Rodeo Drive shopping spree, announcing to one lucky shopkeeper, “We’re going to be spending an obscene amount of money in here.”

Metamorphoses  (Ovid | narrative poem | first century A.D.)
to  Weird Science  (John Hughes (dir.) | film | 1985)

John Hughes’s Weird Science is the story of two dorky teenagers, Wyatt (Ilan Mitchell-Smith) and Gary (Anthony Michael Hall), who create a beautiful woman, Lisa (Kelly LeBrock). The film echoes themes of Ovid’s Metamorphoses while plumbing the depths of lowbrow adolescent humor. The boys conjure up their ideal woman by feeding porn-magazine pinups into a computer to which a doll is wired. Their craft is several generations removed from that of Pygmalion, who “in sculpture exercis’d his happy skill; and carv’d in iv’ry such a maid, so fair.”

Giving his statue “a burning kiss,” Pygmalion at first sadly discovers that “the cold lips return a kiss unripe.” Weird Science reverses the myth, having Lisa comment, while teaching Wyatt how to kiss, that his lips “feel as if rigor mortis has set in.” Hughes pays tribute to a 20th-century actor in the Pygmalion mold when Wyatt’s grandfather, Henry, tries to break up a party, and Lisa scolds him, “You ought to know better than to walk into somebody’s house and start hitting people with your Rex Harrison hat”—a reference to the woolen trilby Harrison wore as Henry Higgins in the 1964 musical My Fair Lady.

Pygmalion  (George Bernard Shaw | play | 1912)
to  My Fair Lady  (George Cukor (dir.) | film | 1964)

Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s musical My Fair Lady, which premiered on Broadway in 1956 and in George Cukor’s film version in 1964, was based on the 1938 film of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, for which the playwright wrote the script. (Upon winning an Oscar for the adaptation, Shaw remarked, “It’s an insult for them to offer me any honor.”) Aside from its happy ending—which Shaw would have detested—the musical version stays remarkably true to Shaw’s 1912 original, putting into song with wit and sophistication the playwright’s concern with social issues that remained relevant in the intervening years, especially class-consciousness and feminism. “Without You” is Shaw’s comment on the English class system: Eliza assures the socially superior Henry Higgins, “England still will be here without you…They can still rule the land without you, Windsor Castle will stand without you.” Higgins touches on the sexual politics that bubble through Shaw’s work when he sings “A Hymn to Him (Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man).” In the end even the old misogynist acknowledges Eliza’s accomplishments. “Now you’re a tower of strength, a consort battleship,” he tells her in the final scenes. “I like you this way.”

My Fair Lady  (George Cukor (dir.) | film | 1964)
to  Pretty Woman  (Garry Marshall (dir.) | film | 1990)

After months of tutelage by Henry Higgins (Rex Harrison), Eliza Doolittle (Audrey Hepburn) charms London society with her beauty and grace in My Fair Lady. Higgins contends that accent rather than money determines one’s place in the world. While he’s ignorant about what scraping up a living has been like for Eliza, who sings about such simple desires as “a room somewhere / far away from the cold night air,” he’s right: once well-spoken, Eliza passes as a lady.

Prostitution, of course, is a lot more lucrative than selling flowers, and Vivian, the streetwalker heroine of Pretty Woman, thinks she’s struck it rich when she makes a $3,000-a-week deal. But she soon sees that a better long-term investment would be actually landing the rich guy. Though the film purports to promote love over money, in its most satisfying scene Vivian returns to a boutique to deliver a comeuppance to a salesperson who booted her out earlier because of her attire. Now impeccably dressed, she holds up her shopping bags and lets the snooty clerk know she’s lost out on a really big commission. That’s pretty damning in a film in which everything, even the heroine, has a price tag.

She’s All That  (Robert Iscove (dir.) | film | 1999)
to  My Fair Lady  (George Cukor (dir.) | film | 1964)

Moving up in the high school pecking order is as challenging as changing social classes—or so it seems in She’s All That, in which Laney Boggs (Rachel Leigh Cook) makes the transition from geek to popular girl. Laney’s conversion is put into motion by a bet between friends, as is Eliza Doolittle’s escape from the lower classes in My Fair Lady. Pre-transformation Laney, wearing a ridiculous hat at her restaurant job, even resembles Eliza in her flower-selling days. She shines once she shucks her glasses and overalls, just as Eliza does when she trades her soot-stained coat for a ball gown.

Both movies acknowledge that change doesn’t come easily. Eliza shames herself at Ascot when she slips from perfect elocution as she urges a horse across the finish line, shouting “Move your bloomin’ arse!” For Laney, being in the in-crowd triggers a humiliating encounter with a queen bee and an attempted date rape. And in the end, while enjoying a romantic dance with the handsome jock Zack (Freddie Prinze Jr.), she remains clueless about which film character blazed the path for her: “I feel just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman,” she breathes. “Except for the whole hooker thing.”

She’s All That  (Robert Iscove (dir.) | film | 1999)
to  Pygmalion  (George Bernard Shaw | play | 1912)

Traces of Shaw’s Pygmalion trickle through She’s All That. Laney Boggs, a geeky teenager who’s more interested in art and political injustice than being popular, is motherless, as is Eliza Doolittle, who explains, “ain’t got no mother. Her that turned me out was my sixth stepmother.” Laney has been raised by her father, a pool man, his profession the 20th-century Southern California equivalent of Mr. Doolittle’s lowly work as a dustman (trash collector). More social polemics surface when Laney confronts a nasty popular girl, saying, “For a minute there, I forgot why I avoided places like this and people like you.” Her nemesis reminds her that those outside the inner circle barely merit the notice of those within: “Avoided us? Honey, look around you. To everyone here who matters, you’re vapor, you’re spam, a waste of perfectly good yearbook space.”

But this isn’t Shaw, it’s an American high school comedy that includes a gross-out scene in which two teenage bullies sprinkle a pizza with pubic hair. Just think: A century ago the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell put her career at risk when she said, “Not bloody likely” as the first Eliza in the original London staging of Pygmalion.