1957 • 103 minutes • Paramount Pictures
Every once in a while, I have a hankering for a midcentury film in Technicolor. Despite not having grown up on it, I find something so incredibly soothing about Technicolor’s slightly oversaturated color palette. It may have something to do with being reared on nineties-era video games, which is also the reason why I use the word “palette swap” a lot more often than you think a non-artist would. Whatever the cause, however, this impulse has dovetailed nicely with my new cinephilia, letting me kill two birds with one film.
Thus, Funny Face, which boasted the chief virtues of films I watch with my mother: it was on Netflix while I was visiting her and lolling on her orange leather couch, dithering between that and The Great Muppet Caper. (Given our adoration of Diana Rigg, this would have been a fine choice.) I vaguely remembered something about Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, and age differences, but the titles were already rolling—directly into my heart.
You see, Funny Face does not open with either Astaire or Hepburn. Instead, it opens with Richard Avedon’s clean, stylized, and bright opening credits, playing with a lightbox and fashion magazine iconography. And then off we go, following Kay Thompson’s Maggie Prescott’s military march into her offices at Quality Magazine, summoning her editors to express her disappointment. When one of them lights her cigarette, she sees pink and they’re off—with a well-choreographed roll of pink fabric into the camera lens, Thompson launches into “Think Pink,” a musical editorial. She’s capable, wry, and utterly enchanting. And for her to stand out in a film whose leads are the inherently and effervescently charming Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn… well, that’s something.
If you have never seen Kay Thompson do her thing, you… well, you’ve never seen Funny Face, which was her only major film role. (She did appear in Manhattan Merry-Go-Round and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon, but in much smaller parts.) She was mainly MGM’s vocal arranger and musical director, but she was also a successful musician and, of course, the author of the Eloise books. She was the kind of woman who actually lived at the Plaza Hotel (which sounds like the height of luxury to me) and was Liza Minnelli’s godmother, having been a very close friend of Judy Garland. I am, obviously, eagerly awaiting the day I can get my hands on Sam Irvin’s biography about her.
There are, however, other people in this film. Teaming up Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn sounds like a musical enthusiast’s dream. It’s even the reason both actors took the role; they were each told that the other had been locked down, since the producers assumed they wouldn’t pass up the chance to work together. Their sheer joy and chemistry is palpable, adorable, and platonic. That’s the main problem with Funny Face—they’re playing a romantic couple with a thirty year age difference that’s never addressed. The script has all the right moves—Dick singing “Funny Face” to Jo to convince her to take the modeling job so she can meet her hero—but they lack any heat. It’s still lovely to see them collaborating, though.
That’s the atmosphere of this film—it’s just lovely to see the cast do what they do best. They dance, they sing, they look great in wonderful clothes, designed by Edith Head. (Not Hepburn, of course, since her relationship with Givenchy was already firmly in place by 1957.) Funny Face is a trifle of a film. It attempts to be hip by involving beatniks, but comes out on the side of the squares when Jo’s hero, Dr. Flostre, turns out to have only a carnal interest in her instead of an intellectual one. (Unfortunately, it’s implied that Dick’s interests are similar in a line where he angrily states that Flostre is about as interested in Jo’s brain as he is. It doesn’t land, due to Astaire’s charm, but ouch.) Maggie, of course, is slightly subversive, being a successful woman all on her own doing simply whatever she pleases, and Maggie and Dick’s friendship is lovely. I’m also saying that because it culminates in the amazing “Clap Yo Hands,” after Maggie and Dick successfully bluster their way into a beatnik happening in order to rescue Jo from Flostre. Just watch it already!
I watched this film on Netflix.