Funny Face (1957) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Funny Face (1957)

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Danny DISLIKEHoo boy.

Funny Face is a revered musical. Just a few years back, Audrey Hepburn starred in a number of car commercials via a remix of her beatnik dance scenes in this film, and finding any picture of her on the internet is almost certainly linked to a photographic montage emanating from this film. The swish of the royal green dress, the stolid woman standing in the steam by the train looking at her lover one last time, the endless red scarf she holds above her head while descending a royal staircase, all iconic images of the insatiable cosmic energy that was Audrey Hepburn.

How is that Hepburn continues to inspire? There has been no end to the gaggle of sweet young things parading through Hollywood, but none of captured the charisma that Hepburn seems to effortlessly exude.

She didn't have it at first. Watch The Secret People or Young Wives Tale and you'll find an actress who was still struggling to find her rhythm, who seemed as deep as the walk-on cigarette girl or a one-note, one-line mistress. Roman Holiday is such an amazing revelation because of not only it's own many unfettered charms but because of how director William Wyler seemed to have picked Hepburn up and wiped all the dirt off of her persona. She didn't become the vestigial Hollywood purity queen, but she didn't become Marilyn Monroe either. She was a different breed than Bette Davis or Joan Crawford, Hepburn was one to whom depth wasn't worn on the sleeve but tucked away beneath a spry grin.

Hepburn's mystique in visuals is both summed up and exemplified through Funny Face.

Funny Face is all of those charms coming to fruition. After the bravado of Roman Holiday, the sweet treachery of Sabrina, and the dreary drama that was War and Peace, Funny Face really feels like director Stanley Donen decided to map out who Hepburn is as an actress. She's a child: joyous and exuberant, angry at the drop of a hat, instantly forgiving, and even endlessly graceful when necessary. We see all of this through the aforementioned photography setups, through quiet smiles and dashes of her telling eyes.

Hepburn would try to grow up out of this childlike image, but for now it's her raison d'etre, and Donen is all too happy to take this persona to all of its logical conclusions.

But talking about the Hepburn persona for Funny Face isn't quite enough: this film finds her matched against Fred Astaire, who at this point in his career had already achieved legendary status. His ten films with Ginger Rogers (which would be another fun series to revisit for a series of columns) offered a breadth of romantic entanglements ranging from the silly to the sincere. Before this film, his career had been revived by The Band Wagon, a charming and beautiful Vincente Minnelli musical of the highest caliber. Though his age was certainly showing by the time this movie arrived (58 when it was filmed), he could still belt out a lively tune and do a soft shoe worth watching.

But, as much charm as both stars have, both fall flat when it comes to Funny Face.

The story is as simple as it can be without being completely insulting, which isn't saying much. Astaire is a fashion photographer and Hepburn a nebbish clerk in a Greenwich Village bookshop. They meet one day as he needs a new background for a vapid model, and soon they're kissing. Actually, sooner than you would believe it to be, they're kissing.

Old Hollywood liked to jump to the kiss. In a romantic film, it's not only the end of the first act but also the pay-off for the audience that came to see two stars briefly enter each other's orbits. It's what's (almost) on all the posters, what the glances and gazes of the fawning lovers will finally signify. It's also going to happen whether or not it makes a goddamn lick of narrative sense, so shut up and keep going.

The romance in the movie isn't so much lacking as it is a viable non-entity.

The two soon find themselves in Paris, as Astaire makes Hepburn the new face of the magazine he works for. They spend days frolicking, though Hepburn's character's sensibilities turn to the Beatnik crowd. She has had an interest in one dime store philosopher and, when she meets him, Astaire goes mad with jealousy. Since the story needs a third act, they momentarily start staying away from each other until Hepburn learns the sad fact that apparently French guys like to fuck.

There's a lot more (a lot, lot more) but none of it really worth mentioning. The side characters are dullards, and the Parisian views, while lovely, are mixed with a blase soundtrack to give the suggestion of more a promotional travel film that a musical extravaganza.

On one hand, though, it's worth nothing that director Stanley Donen (who would later also direct Hepburn in the infinitely more interesting films Charade and Two for the Road) brings his usual brand of visual dynamism to the fold. Every color of the rainbow gets its chance to shine, and while most of the musical numbers are lacking energy or verve, Donen completely knocks it out of the ballpark with Hepburn's dance in a nightclub.

But as lovely as the movie can look, it's dull water the rest of the time. The wit falls flat and, as an important aspect for a musical it's worth noting, the songs all suck. None are catchy and most last longer than you could imagine. The revered "S'Wonderful" song from this film is an abomination of dumb platitudes dressed up with an unremittingly bland melody.

I wish I could like this movie, I really do, but it's the most harrowing example yet of no matter how much talent you can assemble, you still can't save crappy material.

Audrey Hepburn Sundays

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Posted by Danny

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