Characters don't have to be likeable. We don't have to want them for our roommates to enjoy the stories they populate. Most of us acknowledge that. Most of us also know that such unlovable characters inhabit genre's darker corners, namely horror and hardboiled and their ilk. But what happens when they turn up in the sort of story that typically features pleasant protagonists, say a romantic comedy? What happens when it isn't any old romantic comedy, but one for the ages, namely My Fair Lady?
Okay, while you can't absorb American culture for thirty-odd years and not ingest a little of the iconic film, I admit that I hadn't actually watched Lady in its entirety until this past weekend. My wife and I added it to our Netflix queue as part of a project to cull viewing material from The American Film Institute's 100 best American films of all time. I knew the gist of the plot: Linguistics professor Henry Higgins bets that he can pass off guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle as a lady at a royal ball after only six months' education. What I didn't know was how incredibly nasty both characters are. Besides having manners and language rougher than a ride down a gravel road in a Model T, Eliza likes to fantasize about seeing the self-obsessed Higgins die from disease, drowning, firing squad and beheading. For his part, the professor treats Eliza as an interesting experiment, his personal doll -- but never remotely human. "She belongs to me! I paid five pounds for her!" he explodes when Eliza unexpectedly skips out, a reference to the sum demanded by her extortionist father.
So what does the presence of this not-exactly-archetypal pair do to Lady's narrative arc? Well, the story still clings to the contours of romance: Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy wins girl back. But the duo's nastiness forces it to zig where it would otherwise zag, to go right where others turn left. There are no dewey-eyed interludes, just ferocious spats with retorts so sharp your ears almost bleed. Yet far from crippling the narrative, their cantankerousness enlivens it, gives it texture, makes it move in unexpected (but still convincing) ways. Flawed characters have become de rigueur in so much contemporary fiction, a mark of an author's artistic sophistication. Why, then, do they often feel stale and samey? Perhaps because they've forgotten what Lady remembers, namely that we enliven a genre not by simply slapping on a boorish hero or heroine but by intentionally cutting across convention's grain.
(Picture: CC 2008 by CaseyJ*)