100 Movie Musicals #28: Funny Face (1957)

Surprisingly downbeat and grounded musical about a romance between a reluctant bohemian turned fashion model and her photographer. A real sense of visual style, if you can get past the ridiculous idea that AUDREY HEPBURN is goofy lookin’.

i mean we have eyes

I don’t know that I have a ton more to say about Funny Face, honestly. Stanley Donen musicals are always solid, with a persistent melancholy to them that gives them a little more heft than the fizziness of the plot would necessarily indicate. The fashion industry setting is unusual, and leads to several gorgeously surreal sections, but the casting is just bizarre. Hepburn is of course one of the most (widely-acknowledged-as) gorgeous people of the 20th century, and the movie barely bothers to frump her up; the idea that Kay Thompson’s hardboiled magazine editor Maggie Thompson would think she lacks “grace, elegance, and pizzaz” is laughable.

how can i possibly be a model, she says

Fred Astaire is also a weird choice, though apparently someone that Hepburn specifically requested as her co-star. He’s 30 years older than Hepburn, and even in his heyday was always something of a twerp, so he comes off as more of a patronizing sex pest than anything — it’s hard to not pine for frequently Donen collaborator Gene Kelly, who oozes charm and could have sold things better, though even he would have been 17 years too old. There’s a palpable generation gap, reinforced by the easy working relationship Astaire and Thompson’s characters have.

joie de vivre, as they say

But if you get past all of that, there are some real shining moments. Kay Thompson is fantastic as the movie’s underbilled third lead, Astaire gets a showpiece dance with his own coat, and Hepburn absolutely crushes it in a centerpiece dance at the beatnik bar. Never have black pants and a smoke-filled basement looked so cool. The cinematography is particularly good, with a number of visually striking shots that have been rare in musicals but that happened all the time in horror movies from the same period — and, probably more intentionally, in fashion shoots. They brought in an actual fashion photographer to do the fashion shoots, and you can tell — all of the stills they take are great, interesting, playful, and slightly sad.

There’s a whole beatnik plot, too, which gets as cringey as you’d expect — big budget movies struggle to capture any kind of a counterculture without seeming square as hell — which has a double whammy of a climax where Astaire and Thompson perform a number in dialect (which would 100% have been in blackface even a decade earlier), followed up by an attempted sexual assault from the chief beatnik. It mostly exists to shame Hepburn’s character for her intellectualism, and to underscore that she really can’t do any better than Astaire. “He’s not any more interested in your intellect than I am,” Astaire yells at Hepburn during a fight, which is (a) a hell of a thing to say to someone you’re supposedly in love with and (b) absolutely the empirical truth as far as the movie is concerned. It’s a backlash moral for a backlash decade, but what a lousy thing way to wrap things up.

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