- Rated NR
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All photos © Paramount Pictures
Reviewed by Bob Westal
early 55 years after Audrey Hepburn’s film debut, her popularity rivals that of many actresses who are (among other advantages) still living. “Funny Face” -- a simultaneous spoof of cold war-era high fashion and beat-era high thought -- also feels a lot more contemporary than your typical 52-year-old star vehicle. And that’s really saying something, because this pairing of the gently luminous Hepburn with the greatest of screen dancers, Fred Astaire, also represents about the last gasp of the traditional studio-era screen musical comedy. It still works because director Stanley Donen (“Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Charade”), two great leads, and one almost-as-great but nearly forgotten co-star, make sure it’s a fabulous last gasp.
Featuring some classic songs from the catalogue of George and Ira Gershwin, “Funny Face” nevertheless opens with a just-okay tune (“Think Pink”) lampooning random fashion trends, co-written by Roger Edens and screenwriter Leonard Gershe. Even if the song isn’t s’wonderful, the number sets just the right tone. The sequence built around it is a sharp assault on the senses from Donen, and the lesser-known but crucial third wheel of “Funny Face:” arranger-singer-author-and-all-around-personality Kay Thompson as Maggie Prescott, your basic mercurial grande-dame fashion magazine editor.
As the plot kicks into gear, Prescott and the smugly good-natured ace photographer Dick Avery (Astaire) head off to a Greenwich Village bookshop. At the shop, the self-important pair immediately clash with Jo Stockton (Hepburn), its sole employee and a charming intellectual snob. It’s not long before the late-middle-aged Avery finds himself both professionally and personally turned on by the very youthful and sylphlike Stockton, even though her more down-to-earth appeal is an obvious break with the overtly glamorous fashion models of her day. At first, the high-minded Miss Stockton refuses – but the opportunity to go to Paris to meet super-philosopher Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair) is too much for her to resist. The result is an engaging bit of age-inappropriate romantic fluff, and another in a long line of great and near-great films celebrating the wonders of Paris and its nightlife.
“Funny Face” is somewhat thin in terms of writing -- Leonard Gershe’s dialogue does the job, but that’s about it -- but it’s still a definite high point in the career of Stanley Donen. The director’s last consistently good musical has just enough story to justify mixing all those first-rate dance numbers on ridiculously stylized sets and gauzy backgrounds. Of course, he gets help from his stars.
Although she was never primarily a musical star, the ballet-trained Audrey Hepburn turns out to be Donen’s secret weapon. The one and only solo dance sequence of her movie career is a jazzy satire of interpretative dance set in a typically smoky Paris nightclub. Other Donen films from this period – “Damn Yankees,” “Pajama Game” and, I think, even the Hitchcockian thriller, “Charade” – tend to have a musical number set in a Beatnik nightclub or coffeehouse, and they’re always highlights. In her more straightforward later duets with Astaire, Hepburn proves herself as able a partner as Ginger Rodgers (who, as the cliché goes, had to perform the same difficult steps as Astaire, but backwards and in heels). These Audrey-Fred dances aren’t exactly smoldering – a 30-year age difference can do that – but the pairing of these two uniquely graceful individuals is just naturally beautiful. In the dialogue scenes, there is a reliably humorous simpatico between these two thoughtfully restrained, distinctly classy performers. (If Hepburn’s dance skills are overlooked, Astaire’s acting and singing skills are gigantically under-recognized.)
Still, “Funny Face” is actually a three character piece and, if there’s anything sad about this movie, it’s that it is one of only three big-screen appearances by the multi-talented Kay Thompson. Best known as the creator of the “Eloise” picture books, her over-the-top acting is well magnified, if not as multidimensional as her apparent less sympathetic ancestor -- Meryl Streep’s life-sucking fashion plate in the suspiciously similar “The Devil Wears Prada.” A child piano prodigy turned pop singer and professional film studio vocal maven, Thompson shines as the film’s strongest singer. She also shows some strong dancing ability alongside Astaire in the faux-Southern comedy number “Clap Yo’ Hands” – a dancing and singing tour de force that deserves a lot more respect.
Overall, “Funny Face” is consistently enjoyable stuff, even if the film’s love story doesn’t convince us; and not entirely because of that silly age difference between its leads. (Though he didn’t quite look it, Astaire was actually Hepburn’s oldest leading man – older even than her other onscreen love interest from 1957, ultra-craggy Gary Cooper of “Love in the Afternoon.”) The story (not actually based on the old Gershwin stage musical from which the film borrows only its title and a few songs) might be as thin as the male lead’s hair, but every other aspect of Donen’s last really good musical fills in the blanks.
Though made by Paramount, “Funny Face” is an extraordinary melding of MGM style gloss with the kind of late ‘50s kitsch and cool we fans of TV’s “Mad Men” tend to go gaga over. A lot of that is borrowed from fashion photography legend Richard Avedon, the model for Astaire’s Dick Avery, and a consultant on the film who designed the credit sequence and some of the film’s famed iconography of Audrey Hepburn. “Funny Face” is also noteworthy as one of only two musicals starring Hepburn (the other was 1964’s “My Fair Lady”). “Moon River” notwithstanding, it’s also the only musical in which she sings, very sweetly, in her own voice.
Centennial Collection DVD Review:
Seeing as it’s been less than two years since the 50th anniversary edition of “Funny Face,” Paramount is probably guilty of egregious double dipping here. All I can say in the company’s defense is that, having not seen the earlier version, this one looks pretty damn awesome. Though, as far as I know, not a single true VistaVision print has been publicly screened in my lifetime, this DVD gives a wondrous indication of what those prints might have looked like. I’ve seen “Funny Face” several times, but the high resolution here brings out the richness of Donen’s slightly ridiculous boho Paris. Kay Thompson’s all-white entryway with multicolored doors has never looked more blazingly unreal. On the other hand, I gather that the 50th Anniversary edition looked pretty amazing as well.
As for DVD extras, the bonus disc has a few fairly decent brand new ones, at least. Leading the pack is “Think Pink,” a salute to the dynamic Kay Thompson. “This is VistaVision” takes a look at the lingering influence of Paramount’s now-obscure photographic process, which was overshadowed by other ‘50s innovations including Cinemascope and it close relative, 70 mm. Fashion mavens, and those intrigued by some interesting plot similarities between “Funny Face” and “The Devil Wears Prada,” may enjoy “Fashion Photographers Exposed,” in which 21st century shutterbugs honor the work of Richard Avedon, as well as “The Fashion Designer and his Muse,” a leftover from the last disc and a look at the close creative relationship between Audrey Hepburn and her good friend and lifelong personal fashion designer, Hubert de Givenchy. Another holdover, “Parisian Dreams,” takes a look at the impossible-to-ignore appeal of the City of Lights in film after film after film after film after film after film...