At The Movies: Funny Face (1957)

funny_face

Funny Face

★★★★☆

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.

8 thoughts on “At The Movies: Funny Face (1957)

  1. I dont think the age gap between her and Bogey is properly addressed in Sabrina either (the same for Ford and whatsherface in the remake). Though there is an implication that he is the *older* (old?) brother out of the two and part of his problem is he is a full generation older than her.

    And the Maggie Prescott scene – have you watched Devil Wears Prada? Talk about homage/rip off!

    I never really appreciated Astaire and Rogers films until I saw Shall we Dance movie, and the “let’s call the whole thing off” song and dance. Rollerskating, backwards, on an ice rink? Of course. Fab routine.

    • You know, in Sabrina, Cary Grant was offered the lead role opposite Audrey (which I think would have been interesting change of energy, although I think Bogie’s grouchiness and lack of suavity fit the role better, as his brusque style is very different from David’s charm) but he turned it down because he felt too old for Audrey. Then, they got Bogie. . .

      Funny Face is adorable but the creeptacular age gap and lack of chemistry is why it isn’t tops in my Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn lists. Now, since up until a couple of years ago, I’d only watched his Technicolor musicals when he was aging in the tooth, I was extremely surprised to discover in his Fred and Ginger musicals that he’s dare I say it, quite sexy. He’s never been “conventionally handsome,” whatever that means, but especially when he was a young thing, he was very dapper and feline in his tails, and he has a wonderful, sparkling, romantic chemistry with Ginger Rogers.

      I didn’t know that it was *that* Kay Thompson. Whoa. No wonder I adored her.

  2. I love this movie and haven’t seen it in years. You have me wanting to watch it again. I remember thinking about the strange age difference and then becoming captivated by the movie and being surprised how little it bothered me at the end. Bogart bothered me MUCH more.

  3. Kay Thompson is definitely the best thing about this film. You’re right about the platonic chemistry between Astaire and Hepburn; they act together really well. Katharine Hepburn said of the Astaire-Rogers partnership that “he gives her class and she gives him sex appeal” – whereas I don’t think that even in Breakfast at Tiffany’s did Audrey Hepburn ever convey sex appeal (considerable charm, yes).

    • Sex appeal seems an odd thing to assign to Hepburn; she seems fresh and elegant, not sly and sexy. The Breakfast at Tiffany’s example is actually kind of hilarious, as in the novel, her character is much more along the lines of Marilyn Monroe than Audrey Hepburn.

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