On these cold winter afternoons, when searching for an uplifting film to pair with your roaring fire and hot beverage, tickling the titles for anything starring Audrey Hepburn is a safe bet. Even in the off-key casting choices made to place her in movie musicals (despite her wealth of talent, she is not a singer), Hepburn's precocious charm shines radiant in the Oscar-nominated Funny Face.
Her underappreciated dancing ability is elevated by master footsman, Fred Astaire, in a love story set to the big band score of George and Ira Gershwin. It is therefore a true pleasure that Paramount Home Entertainment has released the film again as part of its Centennial Collection DVD series.
In the fifty-two years since Funny Face premiered, Hollywood has abandoned euphoric ecstasy in favor of character acting and realism. Still, the vivid glossy hues of its anachronism endure without any hint of saccharin. Surrounded by the glamour of the 1950s image-consumed fashion industry and set in the world’s most photogenic city — Paris – it is easy to cast off all tethers to any notion that the plot must be realistically plausible.
So what if fashion photographer Dick Avery (Astaire) is three times the age of bookstore manager-turned-ingénue Jo Stockton (Hepburn)? Would these two chronologically mismatched people really fall in love if they lived in your neighborhood? Who cares? Funny Face is just too much fun to spend any time asking questions.
When boiled down to its basic ingredients, Funny Face does not stray far from the course of the typical 1950s Hollywood movie musical. Dick and Jo meet and feelings develop between them. They will, however, have to come together through some obstacle, usually in the form of another man. In Funny Face, the other man is the world-renowned philosopher Professor Flostre (Michael Auclair). Jo’s admiration for the professor blinds her to his baser motives, a blindness that abates just in time to preserve her reputation. She is sent into the arms of the man who truly loves her, Dick Avery, thus averting a tragedy of the heart.
Does it sound clichéd? That is certainly the case when you examine only the bones of the script, but that would be as useless as choosing a soul mate from a set of X-rays. What hangs on the basic skeleton is a multitude of talent both in front of and behind the camera.
Groundbreaking fashion photographer Richard Avedon was the inspiration for the character of Dick Avery, but he also contributed his unmistakable ability to capture motion and color to the creation not limited to the opening title and credits. As a result, the picture has the look of a 1950s fashion magazine set in motion.
The Gershwin brothers' music from the earlier Broadway production, as well as new songs like the opening number, “Think Pink!” (which pops with its Vistavision sparkle and clarity), will show up in your morning shower, on your commute, and even (most embarrassingly) after you have drifted into a blissful flashback and have forgotten that you are, in fact, sitting in the middle of your office singing “S’wonderful.”
Astaire’s footwork is impossible to describe. I will merely suggest that a single viewing of his mock bullfighting dance would coax a Teamster to slip on a pair of loafers; such is the combination of grace, power, and masculinity he effortlessly exhibits.
Hepburn is simply charming, but in this role sets a benchmark for charm that has not subsequently been met by any other female performer.
Perhaps the most exciting experience of watching the movie is the explosive performance from actress Kay Thompson, playing fashion magazine editor, Maggie Prescott, in addition to being a driving force behind the vocal arrangements. Although she appeared in only a handful of Hollywood films, Thompson is the lynchpin of this movie and an unbridled powerhouse on the screen.
With her rapier-sharp comic timing, steady vocals, and the skill to move through complicated choreography as though playing hopscotch, Thompson steals every scene in which she appears. This is certainly the reason the Centennial Collection DVD contains a new special feature covering Thompson’s life and work and is well worth purchasing this edition of the film, even if you already have an older copy of Funny Face on your shelf.
For those buying the new DVD release there are two other new special features: a documentary piece on Paramount’s VistaVision format and another featurette on fashion photography that takes viewers along to a real fashion shoot while discussing Richard Avedon’s contributions to the making of the feature. For those who never tire of hearing about Audrey Hepburn’s friendship and collaboration with French fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy, your needs are fulfilled with a fitting homage to the relationship between these icons of the golden age of icons.
Why is Funny Face so durable? Perhaps in the film’s naïve representation of love, it fuels a yearning for fantasy that still beats strong in our hearts despite our best attempts to rationalize it into extinction through pop psychology and other attempts to gain control over the riskier parts of our nature. For those of us who still like to live dangerously and let life’s winds muss our hair, we can be thankful that the big studios keep movies like Funny Face on the shelves.