By Olivia Holder
My Fair Lady is a musical based on Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw. In this film, Miss Eliza Doolittle, a commoner, is taken in by the distinguished Professor Henry Higgins who makes a bet with his friend, Colonel Pickering, that he can, by improving the way she speaks, transform Eliza. By teaching her to “learn how to speak,” he claims he can transform her from a common flower girl into a lady who can make small talk with those at Buckingham Palace. During the process of her transformation, food serves as a symbol of the power of class and station; it is akin to the mythical Tantalus in that it both tantalizes and evades Eliza.
The first time that Eliza and Higgins meet, the Professor carelessly tosses the change of his pocket at Eliza giving her what, to him, is an insignificant amount. To Eliza these coins are a fortune. The other commoners on the street wonder what the new “heiress” will do with her money. Upon reflection, Eliza declares that one of the desires of her heart and symbols of a comfortable life is “lots of chocolates for me to eat.” Her dreams of luxurious food contrast sharply with the mise en scène of Covent Garden, the square where she lives. At the end of a musical sequence expressing her dreams of chocolate and comfort, in a dramatic exit, Eliza mimics the image of the well-to-do. Rather than chocolates, however, the food that she is surrounded by is the food of the poor. The scene is filled with bales and carts of commoners’ food for sale. Instead of a carriage, she sits among rotting cabbage leaves in the back of a grocery cart holding a bunch of celery rather than a flower bouquet, while more bruised cabbage leaves rain down on her head instead of flower petals.
Once Eliza enters Higgins’s home, chocolates along with all other foods are used as bribes. When this proposal for a total transformation of persona is first introduced to Eliza, she refuses to take part. As she leaves for the door, a medium shot isolates Higgins, Eliza, and a sliver tray of chocolates as Higgins waves luxury under her nose to bribe her to take part in the bet. Chocolates are thus established as a symbol of the power of disparities and social standing. This offering of chocolate on a silver tray embodies the power that Higgins’s status and class lend him and his ability to wield this power over Eliza. As he flashed the tray in front of her, Higgins holds in his hand the society and luxury that Eliza longs for.
Once she agrees to undergo her transformation and take lessons from Higgins, food is constantly denied to her. Unless she pronounces her exercises correctly, she is, in one instance, forbidden from taking part in the next two meals of the day. In a particularly memorable scene, the camera invites the viewer into Eliza’s point of view. As she receives a lesson, Higgins and Pickering are eating tea. Each time that one of the men walk by with tea in hand, both Eliza’s eyes and the camera (and therefore the viewer’s eyes) follow the cup of tea as it is carried across the room. The tea table is filled with sweet treats, but Eliza can only watch the two men pick at it while struggling to keep up with her lesson. Higgins tries to teach famished Eliza how to say “cup of tea” by saying, “cup-cup-cup-cup-of-of-of-of” while unwittingly waving a piece of cake in front of her face. With each syllable the cake bounces encouraging her face to bob with the movement of the cake while she pronounces her words hopelessly wrong. With her head bobbing to each syllable that Higgins utters, food once again delineates the relative positions of power and status. This is reinforced when the two men at tea on the left side of the screen discuss what to do with the last strawberry tart and look to the right where Eliza is fawning over the table spread. The camera follows Higgins as he walks toward the right with the cake in hand so that his meeting with Eliza is placed in the center of the camera frame. This allows the fact that he continues to walk toward the right, past Eliza, and to the birdcage to be emphasized. The viewer feels Eliza’s pain as the last of these coveted tarts is feed to the bird. This scene once again marries food with power. Under Higgins’s tutelage, this marriage denies the camera a chance of witnessing Eliza take a bite.
Once the goal is finally achieved and Eliza passes her test at the Palace, she runs away from Higgins’s house and escapes to the his mother’s home. There, she finally is granted the power she sought throughout the film. Armed with a loaded tea table of her own, she asks Higgins, “Would you care for some tea?” When Higgins’s mother joins Eliza and demands that he use his manners, Higgins exclaims, “Do you mean that I am to put on my Sunday manners for this thing that I created out of the squashed cabbage leaves of Covent Garden?” As he utters this line our attention is called to the change of relationship between food and Eliza’s status that was established at the beginning of the film. The change, however, is mediated by the fact that Eliza, even when surrounded by a spread of her own, never actually drinks or eats any of the tea or cakes. This foreshadows the fact that she will return to Higgins and forever cater to his whims.
Although this story is based on Shaw’s adaption of Ovid’s tale of Pygmalion, the influence of Tantalus’s myth also pervades the film. Instead of pools of water, cups of tea flee from Eliza, and rather than fruit hanging on the branch, strawberry tarts evade her grasp. In this film, food successfully symbolizes Eliza’s elusive goal of social standing.
My Fair Lady. Dir. George Cukor. Perf. Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison. Warner Bros, 1964.