Monday, November 8, 2010

Funny Face, Revisited

Growing up, we were transfixed by the flickering, glamorous images presented on the late, late show; we would set our alarm clock for 2:00 am, to catch even a heavily-edited presentation of anything from Marie Antoinette (1938) to Queen of Outer Space (1958). As technology slowly grew, we would program the VCR to tape practically every pre-1970 film that showed up on television. And then, in turn, we began collecting DVDs, downloading movies on the Internet (legally!), or even finding rarities on YouTube. But we only knew most of these vintage films, classic or obscure, as relatively small images on a TV screen, a computer monitor, or now, an iPod or iPhone. One of the reasons we love being in Manhattan, is the opportunity we get to see quite a few classic films on the big screen, often in lovingly-restored prints at Lincoln Center, MoMA, or Film Forum. And until you've seen these films as they were originally intended to be seen, you're really only getting a fraction of the enjoyment.

On November 3, the Film Society of Lincoln Center kicked off a week-long Stanley Donen festival with his classic 1957 musical, Funny Face, starring Audrey Hepburn, Fred Astaire, and Kay Thompson. The pleasures of this screening were many: for starters, the print was an eye-popping, digitally restored archival print direct from Paramount. Thompson's legendary "Think Pink!" production number has never looked better, or pinker. Second, Mr. Donen was in the audience -- we sat right behind him, Mike Nichols, and Elaine May. Third, viewing this movie, so beloved from our childhood, on the literally big, wide screen was eye-opening and thought-provoking in unexpected ways.

Our most striking observation was that the story is practically nonexistent, even for a frothy musical; the writing just isn't particularly good or compelling. Audrey Hepburn's Jo Stockton character is so sketchily drawn, it's a testament to Hepburn's personal magnetism and sheer loveliness that she somehow maintains the audience's affection: as the dowdy bookstore clerk, Jo is borderline irritating, rattling on about the Jean Paul Sartre-esque philosophy she follows, denouncing the fashion world as shallow and without meaning. Then, Jo slips into her first Givenchy gown, and is immediately converted to commercialism. Then she denounces it again, only to finally dance off into the sunset with Astaire -- and a Givenchy gown. Say wha -- ? Mr. Donen, when interviewed by Mike Nichols after the screening, commented himself that he felt "uncomfortable" with any scene not involving a musical number, as he didn't feel they were written well, either. Our personal fond memories of the film were basically bullet points: "Think Pink"! The Richard Avedon-inspired montages! The Givenchy fashions! The Gershwin songs! Dovima! We'd forgotten the flaws -- or maybe just never noticed them as much when watching it on television.

On a more positive note, the film was a wonderful showcase for Kay Thompson, and we left wondering why the hell she didn't become the biggest star in the universe after Funny Face. Of course, we always adored her "Think Pink!" number; but beyond that, our memories of her, and the film as a whole, were blurred. Thompson really is a major part of the film, and whenever she's on screen, she blows everyone, Astaire and Hepburn included, completely away. She's the best thing about the group number, "Bonjour, Paris!"; completely overshadows Audrey on "How to Be Lovely"; and is positively incendiary with Astaire on "Clap Yo' Hands" -- which is really more of a showcase for her, and Astaire wisely and gentlemanly lets her steal the stage.

Any disappointments we had in revisiting Funny Face on the big screen were outweighed, though, by the sheer delight in seeing it so gorgeously presented; by the excitement of almost "discovering" Kay Thompson for the first time; by those gorgeous Givenchy gowns; and by the final, still-heartrending scene of Fred and Audrey being reunited at the world's loveliest church to the strains of "S'wonderful." And, of course, being able to sit behind Stanley Donen. It really doesn't get any better than that.


  1. Awesome write-up! How neat that you were right in the swim of things near the director!! I recently viewed this film on DVD on my new 55" TV, so I got a mini-version of what you're talking about and found much the same of what you'r talking about to be true. But, yes, in the right aspect ratio and in a bigger size, this and so many other films take on a whole new (old?) dimension! How can anyone go around watching bigscreen movies on a telephone?!?! The sound alone is hideous because I've overheard it. Thanks, as always, for an enlightening and colorful recap.

  2. Quite right to say that Kaye Thompson nearly steals
    the film. It's petty larceny; but still, an impressive feat .Her big dance routine with Fred Astaire marked one ofthe rare moments when Fred's partner eclipsed him entirely. For better or worse, you can't take your eyes off Kaye Thompson. She's riveting.
    It's been said that Funny Face is more than the sum
    of its parts. Or rather that one never really accepts the age difference between Fred and Audrey.
    Nonetheless the picture seems to me the quintessence of the 'Fifites' which is to say, 1957.

  3. Kaye Thompson was HUGE and used to perform with the Williams Brothers, who begat Andy Williams.

  4. One of my favorite lines, EVER, "I wouldn't be caught dead in pink."

    The age difference between them? Sort of bordering on creepy.

  5. "Clap Yo' Hands" is one of my favorite musical numbers ever.

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