I’m continuing to focus on films that have been relevant to my life in some way.
The film I’m focusing on today is “Funny Face,” a 1957 film starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.
I first saw this film at Radio City Music Hall during a memorable trip to Washington DC and NYC, a trip made with my high school classmates, and one that represented the height of excitement in my life at that time.
It wasn’t my first visit to NYC and Radio City. It also wasn’t my first trip to DC.
My parents had taken my sister and me on a road trip to the East Coast during the summer of 1950, when I was barely conscious and didn’t get a great deal out of it. I did have a few notable experiences—staying at the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park West (how did we afford that?) and viewing some astounding sites in DC, mostly from a cab Daddy hired to show us around town. The place I remember most was an FBI museum, where I was frightened by a loud demonstration in which a gun was shot at targets to prove how the FBI dealt with crime. (Not a great choice for a young kid.)
Some other memories include our entering a DC restaurant where the tables were covered with pink “reserved” signs, and one sign was magically whisked away when we arrived. I later learned that the restaurant used this ploy to prevent people of color from eating there. The staff would refuse to seat them, telling them that all of the tables were reserved. Even at a tender age, this struck me as wrong, although I was too young to fully understand the ugliness of this blatant form of discrimination, one I’d never encountered when we ate at restaurants in Chicago.
Another vivid memory: Strolling through Central Park Zoo in NYC, I asked Daddy to buy me a balloon. Daddy refused. I didn’t view my request as unreasonable. Looking around, I saw all those other kids who were holding balloons. Why couldn’t I have one? I was too young to grasp reality: My father was in NYC to search for a new job (which never materialized), and our family budget didn’t permit buying an overpriced balloon. No doubt the balloon vendors catered to far more affluent families than mine. But I remember crying my eyes out because of the balloon-deprivation, which seemed so unfair to me.
Finally, I remember viewing a film at Radio City. It was a poor choice for a family film: “The Men,” starring Marlon Brandon as an injured war veteran. It was a somber film, and the atmosphere was not made any cheerier by the newsreel (ubiquitous in movie theaters then), featuring the brand-new war in Korea, which had just begun in June. The Rockettes probably did their thing, but I barely noticed them, too disturbed by the sad movie and the scary newsreel.
Fast forward a bunch of years, when I joined my high school classmates on a school-sponsored trip to DC and NYC, during which our group of rowdy teenagers disrupted life for countless locals. Standing out in my memory is a concert held at the Pan American Union Building, a beautiful Beaux-Arts building in DC, where my silly friends and I began to stare at a mole on the back of a young woman sitting in front of us. Our adolescent sense of humor led us to start laughing, and once we started, we of course couldn’t stop. Other concert-goers were probably horrified. But something else I can’t forget: The concert included a brilliant rendition of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” a piece I’ve loved ever since.
Moving on to NYC, where we were bused to an odd assortment of sites, we finally arrived at Radio City. The film that night was one of Hollywood’s new blockbusters, “Funny Face.” Surrounded by my friends, whispering and laughing throughout, I barely focused on the film, certainly not enough to remember it very well. But when I recently re-watched it on TCM, I found it completely delightful. (Thanks, TCM, for all of the classic films I’ve watched on your channel. Please keep showing them!)
In the film, which features a number of Gershwin tunes (including “Funny Face” and “S’wonderful”), Audrey Hepburn stands out as the radiant star she had become, while (in my view) Fred Astaire recedes into the background.
The movie’s storyline focuses on a NYC-based fashion magazine like Vogue, dominated by an aggressive editor played by Kay Thompson (much like the editor played by Meryl Streep years later in “The Devil Wears Prada”). The editor (Kay) insists on major changes at the magazine and demands that her favored photographer, played by Astaire (Fred), help her effect those changes. (His character is based on the renowned photographer Richard Avedon.)
Their search for a new look for the magazine improbably leads them to a bookstore in Greenwich Village, where Hepburn (Audrey) is the sole salesperson, the owner being off somewhere doing his own thing. When Kay proposes that Audrey be the new face of her fashion magazine, Audrey—garbed in neutral black and gray– ridicules the whole concept of such a publication (it features, in her words, “silly women in silly dresses”). But when Kay’s offer includes a trip for her to Paris, Audrey decides to go along with the idea. She’s always wanted to see Paris!
Kay, Fred, and Audrey arrive in Paris about 15 years before my own first trip there. But when the film begins to roam through the highlights of the city, I easily recognize the many breathtaking scenes I saw for the first time in 1972, including the view from the top of the Eiffel Tower. (I’ve luckily returned to Paris many times, and the city and all that it offers still thrill me.)
As a teenager, I had a high regard for “fashion.” My family’s business–women’s fashion-retailing–probably had something to do with it. Peer pressure also played a role. Some of my classmates were obsessed with pricey clothes, like cashmere sweaters with matching skirts, and even though I wasn’t in the same income bracket, their obsession couldn’t help rubbing off on me. At least a little. My place in the world just then probably accounts for my somewhat detached view of Audrey as someone who spoofs the fashion industry, at least at first.
Once the story gets underway, “Funny Face” offers a wealth of imaginative episodes. The writer, Leonard Gershe, whose writing is clever and surprisingly not extremely dated, was Oscar-nominated for best writing, story, and screenplay. Gershe came up with a whole lot of scenes that highlighted Paris. A special scene takes place after Audrey goes off on her own, and Fred is sent out to track her down. He finally finds her in a small café on the Left Bank, where she launches into a stunning dance set to jazz music. (You may already know that Audrey had a background in dance. She studied ballet as a teenager in Amsterdam and later studied it in London. She then began performing in West End musical theater productions and went on to star on Broadway in a non-musical performance of Gigi in 1951. She reportedly turned down the same role in the 1958 film.)
The jazz dance scene in “Funny Face” became famous a few years ago, when Gap used a portion of it in one of its TV commercials. (As I recall, Gap was promoting the sort of black pants Audrey danced in.) A controversy arose during the filming of this scene in “Funny Face.” Audrey wanted to wear black socks while director Stanley Donen insisted that she wear white ones. In an interview Donen gave shortly before his death, he explained why. The white socks would highlight her dancing feet while black ones would fade into the background. Donen succeeded in persuading Audrey to see things his way, and the dance scene is now film history.
Without elaborating on the plot, I’ll point out that Audrey’s storyline has an interesting focus on “empathy,” a concept that has gained a foothold in popular culture in recent years. (I attribute some of that to Barack Obama’s focus on it, something I picked up on when I first heard him speak to a group of lawyers in Chicago in 2002, when he was still an Illinois state senator.)
Dance highlights in the film include not only Audrey’s jazz dance scene in the Left Bank café but also Fred’s dance scene with an umbrella and a coat lining that transforms into a cape. The two leads share at least two memorable dance scenes, including the closing scene set in a charming landscape outside a Paris church.
Notably, after Audrey leaves NYC for Paris, she poses all over the City of Light in clothes designed by Givenchy, who became her favorite designer, and whose designs for this film seem timeless. Also notably, she wears shoes with heels, but they’re invariably very low heels. These became her favorite style of footwear. (For some of the “inside Audrey” comments made here, please see my earlier blog post, “Audrey Hepburn and Me,” published on August 14. 2013.)
Finally, the age difference between Audrey and Fred is stark. She was 28 while he was 58—and looked it. Despite his agile dancing, he was an unlikely man for her to fall in love with. But then Hollywood often paired her with much older men. The all-time creepiest example was Gary Cooper in Love in the Afternoon. (You can find my earlier comment on this topic in my 2013 blog post.)
In sum, “Funny Face” is a glorious film, featuring a radiant Audrey Hepburn, a clever storyline, and countless scenes of Paris. The Gershwin songs and the wonderful dancing, which blend almost seamlessly into the story, lead to a stunning result. Even though I didn’t fully appreciate it in 1957, the memory of seeing it back then has stayed with me for the past six decades. Seeing it again made me realize just how “’s’wonderful” it really is.