When the movie version of My Fair Lady premiered – 50 years ago today – it was an adaptation of a stage show that was a musical remake of a play that was loosely based on an ancient myth. Once again: “originality” is not that big a deal and never has been. Proof has continued in the legacy of all these properties in the half century since. Even now on television there is a sitcom so admittedly based on Pygmalion that the characters are named Eliza Dooley and Henry Higgs. The fact that most people call this show, Selfie, a modern take on the musical rather than George Bernard Shaw’s earlier drama is not a surprise. Different generations have their reference point. In She’s All That, for instance, Rachel Leigh Cook’s character says, “I feel just like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. You know, except for the whole hooker thing.” She could have said Eliza Doolittle.
There are certain movies and other media that are clearly more linked to the play and musical (i.e. Pretty Woman) involving a lower class person transformed by someone of a better social level. Then there are still those that go directly to the source (i.e. Mannequin) where someone falls in love with an initially inanimate creation. The scenario has easily been the basis for many high school movies (including She’s All That) and even some porn films (notably The Opening of Misty Beethoven) and doesn’t always have to be a romantic plot, as in the case of Shaw’s play, in which Eliza and Henry don’t get together, and Weird Science, where Lisa isn’t the boys’ object of affection. There are also many near-similar movies that I wouldn’t qualify due to the objects not really originating at the hands of the protagonist, such as the case with Lars and the Real Girl and Her.
Below are five titles I consider to be the best Pygmalion movies since My Fair Lady, some of them not exactly like the 1964 musical.
Trading Places (1983)
Complete with a bet, this comedy is a take on Shaw’s idea with even less of a romantic connection between the sculptor and his molded creation. Here Higgins and Pickering are likeminded villains, wealthy commodities trader brothers Randolph and Mortimer Duke. Eddie Murphy is their Eliza, a street bum who the fraternal duo attempt to turn into a polished businessman. There’s an added figure, though, in Dan Aykroyd’s Louis Winthorpe III. The Dukes give him the reverse shift, turning him from rich to poor with greater ease.
Can’t Buy Me Love (1987)
This teen movie has never received the amount of respect it deserves – nobody even cared when they remade the thing as Love Don’t Cost a Thing. But it’s every bit as good if not better than the most of the high-school-set social-class explorations, and it’s at least more believable than The Breakfast Club. Two years before Pretty Woman made the mentorship a monetary transaction, Can’t Buy Me Love had one of its own, in opposite order. Like a gender-swapped Eliza hiring a Henry to help her (hey, that’s the twist for Selfie), Patrick Dempsey plays a nerd who pays Amanda Peterson’s cheerleader $1000 to help make him popular. The interesting thing is that it doesn’t take much more than his being seen with her to lift his social status. We had a false sense of equality in America in the 1980s compared to England in the 1910s.
The Shape of Things (2003)
Neil LaBute adapted his own play for this messed-up movie that seems at first to be an innocent rom-com but turns out to be a drama that sort of calls out the situational gimmickry of much of that genre. Rachel Weisz is the Higgins/Pygmalion here, an art student who takes on the task of sculpting a guy so that he’s more attractive and to “change his world.” While more aligned with the myth given that Paul Rudd’s character is an art project, the nature of it being also a social experiment is not unlike the bet involved in the stage play and musical.
Project Nim (2011)
Not only is this an interesting twist on Pygmalion in that it’s a true story, but it’s also an interspecies example. In the 1970s, a chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky was brought into a family home for a research project aimed at teaching the ape to communicate and thereby be molded to be closer to human than beast. In a way, the taming and educating was as much a success as Higgins is with Eliza, and there’s a weird sort of romantic element to Nim’s relationship with the woman who raises him. Then we see the terrible events of his basically being thrown out (as we do in Can’t Buy Me Love and The Shape of Things), only his fate is worse than if he’d just been sent back to where he’d been found.
Ruby Sparks (2012)
Zoe Kazan’s take on the rom-com genre does some similar things as The Shape of Things, though here we’re back to only our second gender-retaining version of Pygmalion on the list of five. Paul Dano is the artist, a novelist who creates his perfect Galatea in Kazan. Then she somehow comes to life and isn’t as flawless in real life as she was on the page. Fortunately, he can keep sculpting her into what he wants, through his rewriting of her character. Among the many things the film says about men and women in relationships, the main point could be that in more than 2000 years, the male ego and idealization of the female hasn’t changed much.