If “maiden aunts” are often read as lesbian in heteronormative films, then “lifelong bachelors” are equally decipherable but rarely explored as queer. Two of the most delightful examples of aging bachelor bonding are Professor Henry Higgins and Colonel Hugh Pickering as depicted in prolific Hollywood director George Cukor’s My Fair Lady (1964).
Cukor directed few musicals, although he did helm many successful Broadway plays, and this tale of acculturation with a hint of the battle of the sexes suited this gay son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants so well he a won Best Director Oscar for it. (The film also won Best Picture, among multiple other awards.) Although at the time many felt he got the award in compensation for the one he should have had for directing The Philadelphia Story (1940), I find it delightfully appropriate that he won for My Fair Lady. Cukor was often labeled a “woman’s director,” a term that praised his excellent work with strong and difficult actresses but was also a homophobic slur. By contrast, in My Fair Lady, Cukor’s best work is arguably with men (Rex Harrison won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role while Audrey Hepburn was not nominated), and there are some delightfully queer moments to cherish.
One of the most enjoyable if underappreciated facets of the film is the relationship between Higgins and fellow scholar Pickering. On the surface, they are like-minded men with greatly differing temperaments. Their homosocial bond in the musical allows for some tempering of Higgins’ coldness toward Eliza, especially early in the film. Pickering stands as the voice of social decorum opposite Higgins’ anti-social singlemindedness.
Higgins’ disposition encourages him to reject women who attempt to be anything more than servants or vehicles to prove his teacherly talents. He concludes that he is, in his preferences, “an ordinary man,” and then proceeds to clarify his feelings about women in a sung soliloquy:
Let a woman in your life
and you invite eternal strife,
Let them buy their wedding bands
for those anxious little hands;
I’d be equally as willing for a dentist to be drilling
than to ever let a woman in my life.
We have here a clear example of the lifelong bachelor. He may be asexual, he may be misogynistic, or, just perhaps, he may be gay. I find proof for a queer reading of Henry Higgins not in this song, but in another that he sings to Pickering, “A Hymn to Him,” otherwise known as “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?”
The song comes after Eliza leaves Higgins after her night at the ball, where she proved to the privileged class that anyone can learn to be a lady. Higgins and Pickering take her success as their own triumph, and Eliza flees to the home of Higgins’ mother, where she will be treated with kindness. Higgins rails against Eliza and women in general, as “exasperating, irritating, vacillating, calculating, agitating, maddening, and infuriating hags.” But he does not stop here, pausing to consider an alternative and positing his thoughts to his closest companion, Pickering:
Why can’t a woman be more like man?
Men are so honest, so thoroughly square,
Eternally noble, historically fair.
Who when you win will always give your back a pat.
Why can’t a woman be like that?
Pickering, to whom he sings, is his example of the excellence of men and male-male relationships. He inspires Higgins to ask a series of questions, to which Pickering responds in supportive fashion:
Why can’t a woman take after a man?
Men are so pleasant, so easy to please.
Whenever you’re with them you’re always at ease.
Would you be slighted if I didn’t speak for hours?
Of course not.
Would you be livid if I had a drink or two?
Would you be wounded if I never sent you flowers?
Well, why can’t a woman be like you?
As the song continues, Higgins continues to praise men (“by and large, we are a marvelous sex”) until he asks Pickering, “Would you complain if I took out another fellow?” and Pickering of course replies, “Never!” So, Higgins concludes, “Why can’t a woman be like us?”
In queer terms, we can read the song and the scene as displaying an awareness of heteronormativity. A man should desire a woman, and it’s infuriating that women are so unacceptable to Higgins and even the more agreeable Pickering.
This is, of course, as close as the two men get to a declaration of love, but it is enough to see that they are quite the same-sex-oriented pair. In another era, perhaps they’d have been able to be more honest with themselves and Eliza, too. Instead of debasing herself in order to stay in his company with no promise of romance, maybe Eliza would have been able to make a better choice. But then, perhaps she stays because she is as uninterested in consummating a heterosexual relationship as Higgins!