Saturday, February 6, 2021

An American against Paris


Directed by Stanley Donen
Written by Leonard Gershe

Spoiler alert: high, but it'd be your fault if you were surprised

Oh, what to do with Funny Face?  The first thing not to do is impute much significance to the title it shares with the George and Ira Gershwin 1927 stage musical that helped make the career of Fred and Adele Astaire, for it shares so little else with it that I doubt you could even reconstruct how its title song ever fit into the play.  But if screenwriter Leonard Gershe discards Paul Gerard Smith and Fred Thompson's book so thoroughly that they're not even given a screen credit, and Fred Astaire plays a whole new character, then the producer of Funny Face's 1957 film "adaptation," Roger Edens, and its director, Stanley Donen, take things further still, abandoning most of the Gershwin songs that were the reason Edens bought the rights in the first place.  They use only four of themout of fourteen!plus "Clap Yo' Hands" from Oh, Kay!, and a sixth song, "How Long Has This Been Going On," that the Gershwins had written for Funny Face, but never used.  And then all of the movie's best songs (embedded into its best musical numbers) are the original ones anyway, four of them, written by Edens for his film.  (And it was "Edens's film," making it a bit of stealth MGM musical that, for various reasons involving its other star, Audrey Hepburn, happened to be made at Paramount.)

But since "not caring about fidelity to a 1927 musical stageplay" comes pretty naturally, that's not the cause of my consternation with Funny Face.  That comes down to a first hour and ten minutes that would be a masterpiece if only it had the decency to simply stop there, but, sadly, it's got 33 minutes left to go.  It's a painful example of a flaw common to romantic comedies (and more common still in Old Hollywood romantic comedies), that of haplessly solving every single established narrative problem too early, thus obliging itself to restart with a new slate of conflicts that it's got no idea what to do with, whereupon the story judders awkwardly through the new material before winding up exactly where we already were half an hour ago (in this case, literally the same physical location), with very little to show for the excursion.  That's maybe being too hard on ittechnically, it does set up its third act, foreshadowing it frequently enough that the third character who enters the fray could even be described, with charity, as a Harry Lime-ish structuring absence (Donen introduces him in a way that suggests this was the idea)but that doesn't keep it from feeling like a whole new, much worse movie has started.  Gershe got nominated for a screenplay Oscar, so I guess somebody thought it worked.  But then, it spends that first 70 minutes working just perfectly, a big sugary blast of whimsy and nonsense in the best tradition of the Golden Age film musical and the Hepburn romance alike.

The basic scenario is counterintuitive, to say the least, and things kick off as the president of Quality magazine, Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), decides to create "the Quality Woman"a face for the magazine who shall project not beauty alone, but intelligence.  The task of capturing this apparent dichotomy falls to her photographer, Dick Avery (Astaire), who finds himself unable to impose the required veneer of intellectualism upon the Patrick Nagel painting with an Outer Borough accent currently serving as his model (this is Dovima, the very first model to use a single name, born in Queens, and just terrifically generous with her self-effacing performance as a painted moron).  Maggie suggests a change of scenery, so they head down to "one of those sinister places in Greenwich Village," specifically a bookstore minded by a mousy aspiring philosopher, Jo Stockton.  Jo's having none of this, or at least she wouldn't, if she weighed more than ninety pounds and had the ability to stop it.  Instead, as the shoot proceeds, she's locked out of her own shop, and at the end only Dick remains to help her clean up.  Taking note of her offbeat looks, he decides that in this ugly duckling, he's found his Quality Woman.  This goblin, incidentally, is the Audrey Hepburn character.

Dick convinces Maggie to give Jo the job, though following a sequence of events that shades from "aggressive recruitment" to "outright kidnapping," it falls upon Dick to convince Jo to take it.  Jo likes Dick, after her fashion.  She merely finds it disappointing that he wastes his talent on fripperies like fashionand while she's plainly protesting too much (she has a whole song about it, the aforementioned "How Long Has This Been Going On"), it's the free trip to Paris that entices her to join the Quality crew without also feeling like she's become an emptyheaded bimbo.  For, in between photo shoots, she hopes to immerse herself in the intellectual ferment of the Montmartre cafés; and, if she's lucky, she'll finally meet her philosophical idol, the founder of the woo known as "Empathicalism," one Professor Flostre (when we finally see him, Michel Auclair).

So: as far as that first seventy minutes goes, I like almost everything so much I don't even know what I like best.  (I do know what I like least: "Kiss And Make Up," one of the Gershwin songs; it gives Astaire his solo dance, and though he's lost a step at 58, he's still Fred Astaire, so "losing a step" still means he's several ahead of almost anybody else.  But for some reason a routine that began as a heartfelt apology transforms into a mock bullfightnot an unheard-of conceit, but I liked it better when Eleanor Powell did it, and not just because she was wearing tiny shorts when she did.  In Ship Ahoy, anyway, it didn't raise objections like "huh?" and "you've got the wrong country.")

But one middling scene aside, that first hour and change is jam-packed with some of the best musical romantic comedy of its era, beginning in earnest with "Think Pink," which introduces us to Maggie's world of grace, elegance, and (according to the subtitler) "bozazz."  It's one of Edens's numbers, so it feels more of a piece with musical theater than the Gershwins' jazz.  (Though I contend that they do a surprisingly good job retrofitting the Gershwin songs they deign to use.)  Anyway, it's fantastic, and it gives Funny Face, a film that is so easily problematized, the potentially-unique distinction of starting things off with a dance number led by a 48 year old woman; and while Thompson was vital to the development of the MGM style during the 1940s as a musical director, one rarely actually saw her.  You wouldn't guess that from her charismatic performance here: it feels like a veteran character actor laying down one more great comic turn, when in truth it's the highlight of the acting career she never got to have.  Though a woman of many talents, Thompson's "unusual" looksI'm quoting herehad relegated her to mostly offscreen roles.  They are, either way, the precise right looks for this character, imperious but flexible enough to play very broad comedy.  Based (loosely) on Harper's Bazaar's Diana Vreeland, Maggie is as sharply-etched a character as 50s musicals offered, the kind of businesswoman, ironically, for whom feminism, or most any other -ism besides capitalism, wouldn't have much meaning, because she's been so successful at setting herself apart (and above) every woman she's ever met.  Thus, as an introduction to a personality, "Think Pink" does positively sterling work, mostly fluff but studded with sharp lyrics like "I wouldn't presume to tell a woman what a woman ought to think/but tell her if she's gotta think, think pink!"

The impetus for the song is Maggie's search for the ever-elusive new look; the song itself renders a dreamlike fugue out of the process of a media mogul imposing an arbitrary fashion to perpetuate her magazine empireand not even because she likes it.  (When Maggie's asked where her pink suit is, she remarks, "I wouldn't be caught dead.")  A lot of Funny Face, and certainly the most impressive part of Funny Face, is bound up in its satire of the fashion industry, though it comes from a gentle, even ambivalent place.  It's at least as intoxicated by the aesthetic possibilities of it as Jo, and far less apt to loudly deny its appeal.  That's why this number's so useful: a melange of ideas from Donen, Thompson, and the film's special visual consultant, photographer Richard Avedon, it becomes an abstract collage on the theme of hot Technicolor pink, ranging from the stark and cartoonish sets, repainted to accord with Maggie's diktat, to the participation of a number of contemporary fashion models in a visually lavish collection of pink-and-white pocket universes that Donen mixes and matches with splitscreen, slo-mo, and even animation.  Making fun of advertising and fashion photography while celebrating it, it's definitely the film's wildest moment, and, it's true, promises more than the movie is quite ready to deliver; but as a scene-setter, and a way for Donen to tell you what his movie will be about, it's ideal.

There are other great ideas still to come, including "Funny Face" itself, a scene between Astaire and Hepburn that again fixates upon a single color, in this case redthough for more grounded reasons, inasmuch as Maggie and her secretaries have presently chased Jo into Dick's darkroom with a pair of scissors after violently attempting to disrobe her, determined to make her their Quality woman and return Hepburn's initially-long hair to its natural state.  And, yes, calling this "grounded" suggests how remarkably unserious Funny Face must be.  I like this little dance in a red room, yet because it affixes itself firmly to its diegetic rationale, it doesn't elaborate as much as it could.  It's still a sweet scene, as Dick explains that, whatever she thinks of herself (for we are often too hard on ourselves), Jo is not merely pretty, but interesting, and Hepburn plays it sensitively and with heartbreaking openness, as she entertains, apparently for the very first time, the thought of being beautiful.

And we might as well deal with that, since I think it's what allows much of the comedy in this phase of Funny Face to come off, and also grant it a genuinely lovely wish-fulfillment quality.  So, firstly, there is such a tremendous disconnect between the objective reality of Audrey Hepburn's attractiveness and Maggie's cruel assessments of Jo's looks ("that thing from the bookstore?") that I feel like the only appropriate (and definitely the intended) response is to laugh out loud at how preposterous the whole concept of "ugly Audrey" is.  Meanwhile, there's something adorable about the fantasy of itthe unlikely but tantalizing idea that maybe you too could've spent your whole life failing to realize that you're as hot as Audrey Hepburn, just nobody's noticed yet.  (For a third thing, it pays to remember that Hepburn actually was once considered odd-looking.  Though, of course, Hepburn's personal brand of "odd-looking" hadn't been the slightest impediment to her career.)

This overlaps with the thing everyone frets over about Funny Face, which is the monumental age gap between Hepburn and Astaire; maybe the only age gap in Hepburn's filmography more visually-blatant is the one between her and Gary Cooper, yet, evidently, Astaire's presence was the result of Hepburn's own insistence.  (In what I guess you might call fitting irony, "odd-looking discovery" applies to Astaire's rise to screen fame far moreso than Hepburn's: the 58 year old's Hollywood career began rather inauspiciously, with a screen test report which, according to him, read "Can't act. Slightly bald. Also dances.")   Well, the age thing structures their performances: Hepburn, as usual, is playing 19 rather than the full-grown woman she was; Astaire is customarily charming and cute, but he's also crotchety, and quite possibly letting an irritation with looking faintly ridiculous bleed out in some of his reads*; this makes him funnier, so the only real error that the first stretch of Funny Face makes is the unrequested kiss Dick plants on Jo's face, when a slower-burn romance would've been close enough to believable to count, particularly since Astaire was still a vigorous athlete (as opposed to, say, Cooper or Grant), plus he'd always looked middle-aged, so we're used to it.  Hepburn, anyway, is game, and essays credible affection and even attraction; Hepburn being a significantly better actor than Astaire, it maybe isn't the biggest surprise that she's doing exactly what the film requires, but she's good enough to get you to root harder than usual for this particular instance of the gerontophilia that followed her throughout much of her career.

Funny Face
, of course, is also about Franceshamelessly so.  Another original number, "Bonjour, Paris!", satirizes the whole idea of Paris as a setting, representing an admission that its genre's love for Paris is almost always shallow (even trivializing!), so when the central trio reunite at the Eiffel Tower and announce they're "strictly tourist," this is something Donen's already conceded by giving over the number to a montage of the stars dancing across the most astoundingly glossy travelogue footage.  The deliberately-facile treatment of the city continuesand is even kicked up a notchwhen Jo parades the collection she'll be wearing for Quality across a rotating backdrop of Parisian landmarks reduced to abstractions.  Again advised by Avedon, Donen has a blast with all sorts of freeze-frames and color manipulations, and of course the clothes themselves are immaculate; Edith Head designed the costumes and is likewise named on the Oscar nomination they received, but Hubert de Givenchy designed almost everything here that's extraordinary, which is to say the gown after gown that Jo is so delighted to wear.

It is very shallow, then, but then, Funny Face's argument is that if you dug any deeper you'd only wind up with hypocrisy, and the thread of the pleasant fashion industry satire gets slightly lost around this point, replaced by a satirereally, just outright mockeryof its insane caricature of the very notion of intellectualism.  Alternatively, this is the musical about Paris that hates the shit out of French people, or at least finds late-night bull sessions in a Paris café tiresome, contending that Jo's naïve to think they could possibly amount to anything.  Its mockery isn't devoid of affection at first, and the other really great number (and, yep, Edens did the music), "Basal Metabolism," represents the rare treat of Funny Face actually taking Jo's side of this argumentit is, I'd daresay, just about the only scene that takes her as she is and treats her philosophical striving with the slightest respect, because even if Dick's on hand to humorously deride it, she's the one who gets the dance sequence, and therefore, by the rules of the musical, she wins the debate.  The choreography, I understand, is Astaire's, though it's nothing like his, using the angularity of Hepburn's body to excellent effect and ribbing the pretension of modern dance without completely despising it; Donen ladles out nicely humorous grace notes and some severely garish lighting and set design that captures an idea of a smoky Parisian bar more than anything that ever actually existed.  And, as a woman who'd once wanted to be dancer, the joy Hepburn puts into the number clearly isn't Jo's alone.

She also gets a pretty pas de duex with Astaire, when they confirm their love, and this is pure candied romance, the photography diffused almost to the point you wonder if there was something wrong with the print for the film's restoration, with Astaire and Hepburn dancing with doves amidst a sun-dappled glade behind a church.

There is no reason the film couldn't just stop here, except A-pictures usually weren't 70 minutes long in 1957, and this is where Funny Face somewhat goes off a cliff, ginning up jealousy and mean-spirited arguments and a new potential suitor for Jo in the form of her professor.  Pretty much nothing about it works, possibly because its curdled with contempt: Flostre, believe it or not (Jo won't), is a creepy, handsy horndog, though if the film thinks it's made a distinction between Dick and Flostre's respective approaches, it's not much of one.  It's a pity, really: there's no reason why a late-coming love triangle dialectic ought not work, other than Gershe and Donen's active hostility to doing anything with it besides rape farce.  It's the difference between a Funny Face that's infinitely fulfilling and the Funny Face whose last full musical number is the crappy "Clap Yo' Hands."  (Energetically-performed by Astaire and Thompson, pretending to be beatniks in order to infiltrate Flostre's lair, it's not valueless, but the song's inapposite and Donen does virtually nothing with its form.)  The problem, really, is that it demands so much compromise out of Jo as to erase her: there's some lip service that I think tries to say that Jo's new friends are willing to meet Jo partway; it comes off as devoid of substance as everything else in the movie, but not enchantingly so.

Which brings us back to our quandary: how to judge a movie with a third act this destitute?  (The denouement, another gladed dance, I will admit to liking, despite it all.)  It's a movie that effectively destroys its female lead in order to rebuild her, and even beyond the gender politics of that, it's a cheata refusal to grapple with Jo's character and the synthesis she's tried to make out of her deeply-held beliefs and a new lifestyle that isn't easily compatible with them, but has brought her greater happiness than they ever did.  Yet... I've watched it twice in three days.  Those first 70 minutes must be doing something so tremendously right that I simply can't find it in my heart not to love the whole thing.

Score: 8/10

*Or not.  His second wife, whom he married in 1980, was presently twelve years old.

No comments:

Post a Comment