Paris! Gershwin! Been there! Heard that!
Yeah, by 1957, the whole An American in Paris (1951) thing was getting a little old. Hollywood had been feeding the public big-screen, Technicolor vistas of Paris for years,1 to distract them from the tube, and it wasn't really working, but so what? Who objects to being paid to spend a month or two at the Ritz? The result is Funny Face, a musical comedy most of whose limited charm is not musical at all.
As a musical comedy, the main limitations of Funny Face, surprisingly and unfortunately, are its stars, Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.2 Audrey Hepburn was Audrey Hepburn, totally, but Audrey Hepburn was not much of a singer, and even less of a dancer.3 As for Fred, well, Fred was pushing sixty. In a pinch, his steps could be as quick as ever, but his choreography was rarely the equal of his talent. And being saddled with a limited partner, one who, it is likely, he wasn't in a position to push very hard, certainly couldn't have helped.4
Then there's the singing. Over the credits we hear a jaunty Fred singing "Funny Face," and it's the best singing we're going to hear for the entire film, because, I'm sure, it was recorded twenty or thirty years earlier. Fred really couldn't sing any more — he did that talk-sing thing that Rex Harrison perfected for My Fair Lady — but Gershwin is built for speed, not for chanting, and one misses, very much, those fascinatin' rhythms that George built into his tunes. Audrey has a bit more lung power than Fred, but no more rhythm. She had enough clout as a star to refuse to allow herself to be dubbed, but in fact that might have sounded better. For anyone who loves Gershwin, it's not a lot of fun to listen to consistently second-rate performances of consistently first-rate tunes.
As for the script, well, it's good and it's bad. Screenwriter Leonard Gershe5 began with an idea for a Broadway musical to be called "Wedding Bells," which somehow turned into a film with the title of a 1927 Broadway musical starring Fred and Adele Astaire. Even though the picture is mostly set in Paris, it has very "New York" obsessions — high fashion and Greenwich Village intellectualism. The emphasis on high fashion gave director Stanley Donen a chance to spread his wings and show that Hollywood could be just as classy as New York (with a little help from Diana Vreeland's Harper's Bazaar and fashion photographer Richard Avedon), which was all to the good — and which sold and continues to sell the picture — but the satire on Greenwich Village pretentiousness — particularly the vogue for Jean-Paul Sartre's ultra-hip existentialism (here restyled as "Empathaticalism") — comes across as Hollywood provincialism as its worst (Books! Ideas! They suck!).6
Funny Face begins, not with Fred or Audrey, but with Kay Thompson in her one big screen role, Maggie Prescott, the larger-than-life editor of Quality magazine.7 As Maggie, Kay reminds us a lot of Jack Buchanan as Jeffery Cordova in The Band Wagon. Like Buchanan, Thompson is remembered, as a performer, for this one role, though she receives rather less help from the script than Buchanan did, spending much of her time saying "Just give it the old pizzazz !"
In the grand tradition of larger-than-life editors, Maggie finds the current issue dull, dull, dull, despite assurances from a chorus of yes girls that it's fabulous. But inspiration strikes, as it always does, and she issues the command "Think Pink!" setting off a production number filled with once-famous fashion models whom I can't identify that helped shape the way Americans thought about fashion and advertising in the fifties.8
After Kay's star turn, we cut to Fred as "Dick Avery," playing rather heavily off of the film's fashion consultant (one of them, at least), closely associated with both Vreeland and Harper's Bazaar at the time. Fred's struggling to make "Marion," played by fashion model "Dovima"9 look intelligent while contemplating a Giacometti-ish sculpture.10 As is so often the case with models and showgirls in films, she's portrayed as a retarded bimbo with an outer boroughs accent, so that we can feel superior to her — a cheap and unattractive trick, to my mind. Dovima/Marion is gorgeous, though she's often posed to look ridiculous, and it's not pleasant to hear Fred and Kay talking about her to her face as though she were a piece of meat.
To get the plot rolling, Fred comes up with the idea of taking the shoot to one of those pathetically earnest Greenwich Village bookstores, filled with those dreary drudges who actually, you know, read books. So off they go, crashing into "Embryo Concepts," Jo Stockton's/Audrey Hepburn's bower of Empathaticalism. Audrey's sensible everything11 outfit clashes violently with both the appearance and the behavior of the Quality crew, who strongly resemble show folk in their narcissistic self-involvement. They rearrange everything, putting the books all out of order, of course — looks are everything, meaning nothing. Finally they depart, except for Fred, who, being a sport, sticks around to help clean up.12 As he does so, Jo tells him about her one obsession in life, to go to Paris to sit at the feet of Empathaticalist master Emile Flostre (Michel Auclair).
She explains the difference between sympathy (understanding someone else's emotions) and empathy (putting yourself in someone's place and feeling their emotions). As she does so, Fred kisses her, subsequently explaining that he put herself in her place and realized that she wanted to be kissed. Naturally, it turns out he's right, though, as plot points go, it hits with a bit too much of a jolt. Is 58-year-old Fred really so stunning that he's going to knock 28-year-old Audrey head over heels in their first encounter? And is it really appropriate for a geezer like Fred to be groping a sweet young thing like Audrey?
Fred departs, but his kiss lingers. Audrey, seemingly tossing all her Greenwich Village earnestness to the winds after ten minutes with Fred, provides an OK but a long way from great rendition of the Gershwins' classic ode to late erotic awakening, "How Long Has This Been Going On?" As she sings the song, she picks up an orange, yellow, and green hat with floor-length ribbons left by the Quality crew, which she flourishes as a symbol of her new openness to the fun of life. It's a very nice number, but hampered by the fact that Audrey lacks the pipes to do the song complete justice,13 and hampered as well by the fact that Audrey's spiritual transformation seems to be happening too fast. The picture, or at least the plot, is almost over before it's begun!
Back at Quality, Fred isn't as consciously moved. Still, he has a sudden, Audrey-centered inspiration: that bookshop girl! Hey, she's the new girl! The new look, the new thing, the new everything that the fashion world has been waiting for! His enthusiasm proves infectious, and soon Kay has the same fever, whipping up her staff into a frenzy, so that when Audrey shows up to deliver the load of books Kay ordered, they descend on her like a flock of Maenads, all but stripping her naked14 in the process. Fleeing the shallow-souled horde, she escapes into Fred's darkroom, where he convinces her that this fashion thing doesn't have to be so terrible, that, in any event, she can score a trip to Paris and catch up with Emile. And, to convince her that she's got the chops for this fashion thing, he sings/chants the title tune15 and shows her the iconic Avedon shot of Audrey, an overexposed black and white with just her features showing on a flat white background.
The dance (perhaps "gambol" would be more apropos) that accompanies the song is the first of a baffling series of numbers in which directory Donen goes out of his way to prevent us from actually seeing the dance. They're in a dark room, after all, so it's, you know, dark, but even after Fred's finished making the prints he leaves the lights off. Furthermore, since both Fred and Audrey are wearing black, they blend into the background.
But that really doesn't matter, too much, because the important thing is we're off to Gay Paree! Once we get there, via one of the three-tailed Constellations operated by the no-longer-existent Trans World Airlines, we get a sight-seeing number, "Bonjour Paris," with Fred, Kay, and Audrey all striding separately through the City of Light, showing us all the sights that we've seen previously in a dozen earlier pictures,16 though the lyrics sportingly give a shout out to the real Jean-Paul Sartre.
Once we're through with this pedestrian piece, the script gets lazy on us. Audrey doesn't show for the first day of fitting, leaving everyone sitting around throwing up their hands in despair. Fred, for some reason, doesn't show up either, until around, I don't know, 8 PM (and, apparently, no one thought to call his hotel), but he gamely goes off in search of Audrey, wearing, for some reason, a white raincoat, which will haunt the picture like a bad penny, if not a bad dream.
The raincoat is a real mystery. Why would a dancer want to cover his body? Did Fred think his ass looked fat? Did Donen? It doesn't. Except for the wrinkles, he's still Fred Astaire, same as he ever was. He doesn't need to hide his ass. So why is he?
Fred tracks Audrey down in a très phony French café, so bad it makes Embryo Concepts look like Main Street. Once inside, Fred/Dick, previously an amiable man of the world, turns into a Broadway dick. It's all crap but the greenbacks, you know what I'm saying? If you can't turn a buck, you're out of luck, Chuck, so what the fuck! Fred sneeringly makes his way through a freak show/fruit show of phony broads, phony singers, and phony dancers, to find Audrey passionately holding forth on the glories of Emphaticalism of a group of Gallic leeches who can't understand a word she says but are happy to drink her wine. To prove his point to her, Fred crudely insults the dumb schmucks — "not only do you look like a mess of worms, you are a mess of worms." Funny! Funny! Funny!
Audrey, unamused, is further disgusted by Fred's refusal to dance with a woman who asks him to dance with her, because where Fred comes from, it's the guys who makes the decisions, you get me? Audrey, in reaction, decides that she will express herself, through dance, without any man to tell her what to do!
What follows is another dance that's hard to see, set in a dark, smoky nightclub, with red lights supplying most of the illumination, so that it looks a lot like Fred's dark room. A lot of the dance that we do see isn't that great — Audrey acting "wild" in a frequently amateurish manner. Her behavior is naturally supposed to be a satire on the affected behavior of the black leotard set, but since Audrey really isn't a dancer, her movements lack the precision, timing, and definition necessary to either perform or parody modern dance. Once she's had her say, Fred manages to usher her out, complaining of her lack of responsibility, a sort of "theme" that isn't terribly well developed, telling her that she left everyone waiting around for hours while she went pub-crawling. "But no one told me," says Audrey, a very lazy way for the script to have Audrey act irresponsibly even though it wasn't her fault.
Once Fred gets back to her place she's so upset that he can't stand being gruff with her any more, and he climbs up to her balcony to sing "Let's Kiss and Make Up," a bouncy, funny song that finds both George and Ira in good form. Unfortunately, once more, Fred just doesn't have the pipes to do them justice.
When he finishes singing, Fred has a solo, using his umbrella as a cane, recapitulating things he'd done in both "Top Hat," from Top Hat, and "Puttin' on the Ritz" from Blue Skies, as well as the "Audition Dance" he performs for Adolph Menjou in You Were Never Lovelier , except that this time he's dancing in a raincoat, which is not an improvement.
A passing truck bearing a couple of live cows sends Fred's dance in a different direction. With "bull fight" music blaring on the soundtrack, he takes off his raincoat and flourishes it like a matador's cape, turning it inside out to reveal its red lining. It's nice to actually see Fred, and, not only that, the choreography improves as well, allowing us at last to see that Fred is still Fred, that he can still dance beautifully, dancing in broad, sweeping arcs as he swirls the cape. His line is never cramped, never hurried, his marvelously quick steps perfectly timed and perfectly placed, in perfect balance and perfect rhythm. Much of the bit is overly broad, in a clownish, Gene Kellyish way,17 especially (of course) the execution of the bull, but when Fred's dancing, he's dancing.
Audrey is appropriately moved by all of this, and shows up on time the next day, to be transformed by Paul Duval (Robert Flemyng). She makes a stunning entrance, of course, in a very elaborate outfit (designed for her by Givenchy, who did all of her high-fashion outfits), to the delighted applause of the entire Quality crew, plus a group of charladies, apparently brought in for us to show that fashion is for everyone, even if you're old, ugly, and poor.18
What follows is surely the heart of the picture's appeal, a series of fashion shoots featuring a Givenchy-clad Audrey, growing in confidence and glamour in every shot. Parisian weather notoriously failed to cooperate with the shoot, so that in a couple of scenes it's really raining. By the end of the series, the shift in power is complete. Audrey's in charge. She does whatever it is she wants to do, and Fred, well, he just pushes a button from time to time.
Up until the very last shoot, that is, with Audrey in a wedding dress by a quaint little French church by a stream on a hazy, sunny day (so that, again, it's hard to see Fred and Audrey). The irony — that she's all dressed up for a wedding with the man she wants to marry, except that he doesn't know that he's supposed to be the groom — makes her weepy. Fred tries to cheer her up, and all of a sudden he gets it. He's the guy!
To celebrate, he sings "He Loves and She Loves," a very nice Gershwin tune, but not really romantic. What follows is a bafflingly bad number, Fred and Audrey dancing not only on dirt but on a river bank with a pronounced slope. Why didn't they build some sort of pavilion? Well, they didn't. One can guess that Donen was determined to have the mise en scène he had in mind — green grass, green trees, white flowers, white swans, white pigeons, and white dress — and reality be damned. Everything looks romantic, and the dancing, which should always be the point when Fred's on the screen, comes in second.
But, anyway, Fred and Audrey are in love, and Audrey's going to be a star, and everything is copacetic. Kay rehearses Audrey for the big night, when Duval will present his new collection, and Kay will present Audrey to the world. Remarkably, we get what for my money is the best number in the film, sans Fred, sans George, and sans Ira — "On How To Be Lovely" — a sort of coy soft shoe, with Kay teaching Audrey the finer points of being completely irresistible, not that she needs much instruction. With a number that doesn't demand much of her, Audrey can be the elegantly unapproachable, nuthin' but class nymph that she isn't in her other numbers.
If Funny Face ended with this number, well, it would be a better picture, but in fact the entire plot of the film — the encounter with the surely monstrous (that is to say, French) Emile Flostre19 — has yet to be set in motion. On the big night, Audrey finally connects with Emile and finds him enchanting. Fred's ham-handed, philistine rescue only infuriates her, leading to a massive on-stage opening-night meltdown. In the midst of it all, Fred unleashes a line so achingly bad — "He's no more interested in your intellect than I am" — that the picture never entirely recovers.
The day after the disaster, Audrey self-righteously flees the Quality coop of bourgeois iniquity to commune with Emile full time, joining him at his townhouse, where he holds court over a sort of permanent rive gauche soiree. Ultimately, Fred and Kay decide that they'll have to crash Emile's party, disguising themselves as beatniks — Fred in jeans and an ill-fitting jacket, sporting both a guitar and a phony beard. Once inside, they regale the crowd, sort of, with an overwrought and overextended performance of "Clap Your Hands" (or "Clappa Yo' Hands," as Kay sings it), a not very good pseudo-gospel number that George and Ira wrote back in the Twenties.20
They finally locate and confront Audrey and Emile in an upstairs room. Fred knocks Emile on his ass, more or less, by tossing him his guitar, but despite this typical display of Gallic non-manliness, Audrey refuses to budge, and Fred and Kay have to beat an ignominious retreat, Fred so sour that he decides to take the 10:30 flight back to the States, while Kay will have to try to figure out how to salvage something from the wreckage with Duval.
With Fred and Kay and their prying Yankee eyes out of the way, Emile is finally free to reveal his inner leche, to Audrey's infinite disgust. She brains him with a handy fertility symbol — very funny back in the Fifties21 — and Emile, clearly not much good for anything, is out for the count, while Audrey is in full flight back to Fred and responsibility.
When she catches up with Kay and Duval, Fred is gone, but, now being a team player, she agrees to put on the fashion show while Kay tracks Fred down. "You poor kid," says Kay, "I know exactly what you're feeling." "That's Emphaticalism!" Audrey exclaims — not a bad twist, really, but it should be Fred, not Kay, who has the breakthrough, and the (nonexistent) scene should be more developed.
Meanwhile, Fred, at the airport, is heading for his flight when he runs into Emile, in the company of some Arabs, for some reason.22 Fred runs to apologize, but his grounds for doing so — "she's not worth it" — is a serious downer. But when he learns how Audrey mauled poor Emile, he experiences a serious change of heart. Maybe she loves me after all!
He races back to Kay, but finds that now it's Audrey who's AWOL. Channeling the power of Emphaticalism at last, he puts himself in her place, realizing that she must be at the little church by the stream. He finds her, of course, wearing the white wedding dress that finished the fashion show, while he, unfortunately, is wearing that damned white raincoat. They sing " 'Swonderful," perhaps the ultimate Gershwin song, and dance out onto a raft and float down the river, accompanied by flights of swans and pigeons.
Funny Face is far from my favorite Astaire, but by a curious coincidence it gave me my first real inkling of the power of Hollywood fantasy. I first saw the film my freshman year at Oberlin, in 1963. As I exited the theater, not at all charmed, I overheard two young black women, talking and laughing. "It's not as good as I remembered it," said one of them. "No," the other said, "I guess it was just the idea of dancing down a river in a white dress with Fred Astaire."
Yeah, Fred, when you were 58, teenage black girls dreamed of dancing down a river with you. They don't call it the Dream Factory for nothing.
I've never been that much of an Audrey guy — her first big film, Roman Holiday, is her best, in my opinion — but her star definitely shines as brightly now as it ever did.
With her singing and dancing skills, plus a powerhouse personality, Kay Thompson seems like a natural for Broadway, but in fact she was never in a Broadway show. As a pianist, singer, songwriter, and producer, she had a very successful career in radio during the thirties and forties, and worked very closely with Judy Garland in the forties. Although not yet fifty when she made Funny Face, she appears to have a bit of a widow's hump, which is not something you want to have on stage. She made her greatest impact on the American aesthetico-spiritual landscape a year earlier, with the first of the famous Eloise books, illustrated by Hilary Knight.
Thompson seems to have had a Maggie Prescott-like temperament. After publishing three Eloise books with Knight, they seem to have had a dispute over the fourth, to be titled Eloise Takes a Bawth. Thompson canceled plans for the book and withdrew all but the first from publication, apparently as a way of reducing Knight's income.
- Fred's previous picture, Daddy Long-Legs , featured a trip to France, and his next and last real Fred film, Silk Stockings, would be set there. Hepburn passed up the lead in Gigi to appear with Fred and followed Funny Face with Love in the Afternoon, also set in Paris. [↩]
- Yes, old man Fred had to settle for second billing, as he had with Judy Garland (Easter Parade, 1948) and Betty Hutton (Let's Dance, 1950). An original poster for Funny Face features four shots of Audrey, including the only close up, versus one for Astaire. The current DVD features only Audrey's picture on the cover. [↩]
- Hepburn certainly looked like a ballerina, and she'd studied ballet as a girl, but she definitely hadn't kept up. [↩]
- Audrey was surely very happy to be in a picture with the great Fred Astaire, but, thirty years younger than Fred and a bigger star, she surely didn't need him. It's easy to believe that, consciously or unconsciously, Fred was a little intimidated by her. [↩]
- Gershe had a curious career, from the limited record available on the Internet. His first serious writing credits were for early fifties TV. In 1957 he wrote the script for first Funny Face and then Silk Stockings. After that, he disappeared from Hollywood. [↩]
- Hollywood provincialism or Broadway cynicism? Gershe wrote the original script hoping to see in produced on Broadway, and Broadway could be as impatient with "ideas" as Tinsel Town. [↩]
- Maggie P is universally regarded as an affectionate parody of legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, now mostly associated with Vogue, though she was at Harper's Bazaar from 1937 through 1962, and it is Haper's Bazaar that gets screen credit as assisting with the film. Vreeland was famous then as Anna Wintour is now, and Diana didn't have to worry about bitchy assistants writing bitchy books that would be turned into bitchy movies, a la . The Devil Wears Prada Of course, Anna was played by Meryl Streep, so it might have been almost worth it. Maybe. [↩]
- Two years later, in North by Northwest, Cary Grant would tell his secretary to give him a memo saying "Think Thin." [↩]
- Born Dorothy Virginia Margaret. [↩]
- This is a fairly clever conceit by director Stanley Donen (or someone), because Dovima, with her long neck and angular features, looks rather Giacometti-ish. [↩]
- Lesley Chow discusses the long-term impact of Audrey's wardrobe on the career and fortunes of Miuccia Prada here. [↩]
- The show folk rearrange the books according to size and color, instead of author and subject. But when Audrey supposedly repairs the damage, she simply moves a pile of books from one table to another, without sorting them. When she moves the books, some of them fall on the floor. This doesn't seem to bother her, suggesting that neither she nor anyone else important on the set really cared about books. I would never let books fall on the floor. [↩]
- The song has a rather pensive close, and it's hard for any singer to bring off a finish that's pensive and satisfying at the same time. Audrey also omits my favorite set of lyrics: "Kiss me once, then once more,/ What a dunce I was before,/ What a break, for heaven's sake,/ How long has this been going on?" Or, as a woman once said to me, "This is like having all the chocolate you want." [↩]
- Okay, that doesn't happen. [↩]
- "Funny Face" has a very nice melody, but Ira Gershwin's lyrics are well below his best, with lots of herky-jerky rhymes, statements of dubious logical coherence ("Though you're a cutie with more than beauty/ You've got a lot of personality for me" — how is that supposed to parse?), and no real progression — pretty much the opposite of "How Long Has This Been Going On?" [↩]
- Because how else would we know we were in Paris? [↩]
- As I've often said before, when Gene was being funny, he wanted to make sure you knew he was being funny. [↩]
- The applause of charladies is an unattractive cliché, trying to convince us that the unprivileged somehow benefit from the privileged, which I don't believe is true. Charladies applaud Fred and Ginger at the end of their "I'll Be Hard To Handle" number in Roberta , but at least they're applauding their performance, not just the fact that F&G are young, rich, and beautiful. [↩]
- Flostre naturally proves to be a soulless lecher, but compared to the real Jean-Paul Sartre, Stalinist stooge, intellectual fraud, and serial oppressor of confused young women, Emile is a seriously small-time shit. [↩]
- Before Kay sings "Clap Your Hands," both she and Fred more or less chant "Ring Dem Bells," referring, I guess, to the Duke Ellington number, although they don't use the melody, and, as far as I know, Ellington's performances of "Ring Dem Bells" only included scat lyrics. [↩]
- Primitive sculptures from Africa and the Pacific struck most — or at least many — Americans as both lewd and ludicrous. In the 1958 film Bell, Book, and Candle, Greenwich Village witch Kim Novak has a shopful of primitive art, which she gets rid of once she loses her witchy powers (as a result of her love for, yes, Jimmy Stewart). [↩]
- Emile's head is bandaged, as a result of the impact of the fertility symbol, so that it looks like he's wearing a turban, but where the other guys came from, and why they're at the airport, was apparently left on the cutting room floor. [↩]