May 30, 2014

Leslie Howard, Pygmalion

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Won: Venice Film Festival - Volpi Cup for Best Actor

By now, there've been two types of performances I've seen from Leslie Howard. That of the thankless supporting character (re: A Free Soul, Gone with the Wind) where the focus of the film is geared toward the leads and thus doesn't have much room for Howard to shine, and that of the thankless lead part (re: Of Human Bondage, Romeo and Juliet) where Howard comes off as stiff and dull because the films themselves are stiff and dull and because his female counterparts are the scene-stealers. And then there's Berkeley Square, a film anchored by Howard which completely sinks because both actor and picture are so devoid of life...but we'll forget that one ever happened. So I hadn't any expectations going into Pygmalion, and I was pleasantly surprised watching him here because for once Howard looks as though he's actually having fun with a part.

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 photo ScreenShot2014-05-26at120633AM.jpgProfessor Henry Higgins is an interesting character. He's a brilliant intellectual and an insufferable cad, his head so far up his own ass that he doesn't believe himself to have any faults. He's your typical uber-smart individual who has come to believe his own hype so much that he's separated from reality. Normally these people are unbearable to deal with, and yet Howard brings just enough natural charm that I found myself liking the man even when he's offhandedly saying the nastiest things to poor 'ole Eliza Doolittle. What's most striking to me is Howard's comedic timing and upbeat energy--where Wendy Hiller brings a ton of dourness, Howard combats it with high energy that's both adroitly calm and youthful. Higgins is a clever man, constantly making snide remarks, and Howard complements this snooty cleverness with tons of spirit, such that when he calls his maid fat or when he patronizes Eliza as a "guttersnipe", we chuckle even though we know that he's dead serious. I've never seen Howard enjoy himself so much on screen. The man is so casual and yet so skillful here in the way he tackles the material. I couldn't help but smile watching his facial expressions when his maid tells him to fix his numerous bad habits--he can brighten up the scene with the littlest things like a frustrated pout and a facepalm. Part douchebag, part intellectual gentleman, part God-like and part child, part poet and part manipulator, part chauvinist and part clueless, Howard bundles all of this into one believable package of contradictions. Lines like "If you refuse this offer, you will be a most ungrateful and wicked girl, and the angels will weep for you" are said with such convincing resolve that it's easy to understand how a girl like Eliza would want to stick around Higgins in spite of the verbal abuse he spews. Cap that off with a tender moment in the end where Howard dips into an emotional reserve and this is an all-around entertaining portrayal of a flawed but delightful asshole.

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