- Film & Year: Funny Face (1957)
- Type: Romantic Comedy, Musical, Color
- Studio: Paramount Pictures
- Starring: Audrey Hepburn – Fred Astaire – Kay Thompson – Michel Auclair – Dovima
- Director: Stanley Donen
- Producer: Roger Edens
- Production Notes: Songs by Roger Edens and George & Ira Gershwin, Cinematography by Ray June, Photographs and stills by Richard Avedon, Costume design by Edith Head with Audrey’s Paris wardrobe by Givenchy.
Kay Thompson plays magazine maven Maggie Prescott who is on the hunt for the next fashion trend and decides that she needs to find a girl with a new look to inspire her readers. She and magazine photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) decide that the girl must be beautiful, but also able to convey intelligence, a trait their current models are lacking or at least are incapable of projecting. They try to visually bump up the IQ of their current It Girl (real life fashion model Dovima) by dragging her and the crew to a hole in the wall bookstore and staging an impromptu fashion shoot, much to the dismay of the mousy and intellectual shop assistant Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn), whose protests are ignored by the single minded fashionistas.
The fact that the first third of the film tries desperately to convince the audience that Audrey Hepburn’s Jo is anything but beautiful is perhaps its biggest misstep. Even with un-styled hair and wearing a dress that hangs and looks like a burlap sack, her beauty is clear. I found myself shouting at the TV as Astaire’s photographer sets up a shot of the reluctant Jo handing his vapid model some books, “He’s a photographer, can’t he recognize perfect cheekbones when he sees them?!” He eventually does once he develops the film and he and Magazine Maggie decide that Jo is the ugly duckling they can turn into a swan. Jo agrees only after being chased by a swarm of makeover hungry women armed with eyebrow tweezers and finds herself in Dick Avery’s darkroom. She already has the beginnings of a crush on him after he impulsively kisses her in the bookstore, prompting Jo to burst into one of the better musical numbers of the film How Long Has This Been Going On?, and he manages to convince her to be their model with the additional offering of a trip to Paris and the potential introduction to Jo’s idol, philosophy professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair).
As one can guess, in Paris Audrey’s Jo is impeccably dressed, exceedingly gorgeous, and understandably desired by both Dick Avery and Emile Flostre, who she does eventually meet.
Astaire is his typical charming and agile self; despite being 58 at the time of Funny Face’s release he still manages to climb a tree and dance on a balcony as well as romance a heroine 30 years his junior. Audrey Hepburn was paired with older men in many of her films, so this was not shocking and, unlike some of the pairings, it actually works in this case. Jo is romantically naïve so it seems to make sense why she would experience her first love after a first kiss from Dick Avery and because she is also not a dumbbell, it makes sense why she would appreciate someone worldly, talented, and creative like him. While Hepburn is undeniably youthful and gorgeous in Funny Face, Astaire, even in his youth, could never be considered a Tyrone Power and in this role is really all forehead. Still, it works. This is clearly a meeting of the minds and the fact that Hepburn comes across as an old soul and Astaire as a bouncy and spirited version of a 50-something helps matters. If anything, it’s the dancing more than their looks that seem to separate Hepburn and Astaire and highlight their age difference. In their solo dances, Astaire performs as he always has with hat, cane, smile, and panache, a representative of the old world of tap and toe shoes, while Audrey’s Bohemian dance in a smoky, dimly lit nightclub is a stark contrast in its costume (black shirt and pants with white socks and flats) and modern dance movements and evokes the youth culture of the time.
The songs for the film were done either by the Gershwins or Roger Edens and, unfortunately for Edens, the difference is noticeable. Edens’ songs (and the associated musical numbers) mostly seem hokey in comparison to those by the Gershwins (who did Funny Face and the aforementioned How Long Has This Been Going On?), especially the completely odd On How to Be Lovely, in which Hepburn and Thompson dance with overly affected glee in front of a Romanesque set of ancient ruins and foliage, wearing the unflattering combination of matching fringed kerchief and wrap skirt over what looks like a waiter’s outfit of wrinkly, white button up shirt and black pants.
Watching Funny Face, I was oft reminded of the musical Gigi. Despite the noticeably different time periods portrayed, the two share similarities in their principled, gamine heroines, their eye-catching colors, their ugly duckling to swan storyline, and the shared work of members of MGM’s Arthur Freed unit. Yet, shockingly, the 1958 Gigi killed at the box office and won the Academy Award the following year while this 1957 vehicle did poorly at the time of release and wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. Instead it picked up nominations for costumes, screenplay, art direction, and cinematography, which ultimately I find more appropriate than Best Picture, but it’s still surprising when compared to something like Gigi. Yet, I think Funny Face ages better (it picked up popularity in re-release and is highly rated on websites like Rotten Tomatoes) in its more modernly palatable themes (my husband spent the first 20 minutes of the film repeating “Is The Devil Wears Prada based on this? This is almost word for word The Devil Wears Prada!”) and its inclusion of still relevant (always relevant) photographer Richard Avedon.
While I would never consider this film even close to Hepburn or Astaire’s best, it’s still enjoyable and visually interesting. It’s actually a better movie than it is a musical. Aside from Audrey’s beatnik club jaunt, the highlights of the film tend to be the photography montages and Audrey’s gorgeous outfits by Givenchy instead of the songs or musical numbers.