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Several years ago, I read one of those movie lists which erupt every now and then. This one was a list of Four Star Movies. That’s always a judgement call, of course, but most of them I could agree with, or at least understand why they were there.

One of them was Funny Face, a 1957 musical with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire.

My eyebrows went up. “Really?”

I’d seen the movie (I’d bought it on VHS once) and liked it; but I really didn’t think the fluffy, wispy storyline elevated the movie to that status (although the story line is better than American in Paris, IMHO.)

Last week, prowling through the aisles of the local supermarket, I came across a CD of the film. It was a 2011 version, part of an “Audrey” series released by her two sons, Sean Ferrer and Luca Dotti. At $5.00, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. This would be my chance to see it again and re-evaluate. A friend had seen the VHS version with me once and fell in love with/had the hots for Michel Auclair, who plays Prof. Emile Flostre. He wanted to borrow the tape and see it a few more times, so I let him.

Alas, sooner than either of us realized, Patrick sickened and eventually died as AIDS claimed him. I did get back to his place and was graciously allowed to take some mementos. The “Funny Face” video was not to be found.

Now, I had it again, and watched it as soon as I could.

The overall experience was much better. Of course, now, I saw it on a 40″ digital flat screen TV with surround sound, which certainly didn’t hurt the experience at all. I enjoyed the movie thoroughly and understood it better.

The movie is about a fashion photographer (Fred Astaire) named Dick Avery, based upon Richard Avedon. In fact, Avedon’s photos appear throughout the film, including the stunning opening credits, and features a classic, iconic portrait of Hepburn. Avery is hired by Quality fashion magazine editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) to find a model who can be both intelligent and well-dressed, as the magazine’s new female paradigm. The model they find (Dovima) still proves to have no intellect, above her bustline, but Avery does find just such a woman working in the bookstore they use as a set for a fashion shoot.

The young woman is Jo Stockton, played by Audrey Hepburn. Of course, he talks her into going to Paris to introduce a new line of clothes, and they fall into, out of and back into love. Very formulaic, story-wise.

But director Stanley Donen is working, after all, with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. He also has Paris as his backdrop, Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy for costumes. And great music by George and Ira Gershwin. So, of course, the film has much more going for it than a stereotyped screenplay.

But Leonard Gershe’s screenplay does not fall back on stereotypes; that point came through very clearly. In fact, in some places the Oscar-nominated story stands out as quite innovative. Jo Stockton is  an intelligent young woman. She’s also supposed to not be as beautiful as the professional models (hence the funny face)–considering the casting, that idea nudges the film towards fantasy/science fiction–but that makes her attractive enough to be wooed–and won–by the leading man.

Of course, complications ensure when Jo finds herself infatuated by a French intellectual (the handsome, bearded Michel Auclair), but she realizes the error of her ways,  withstands his advances and then, following her heart, seeks the photographer instead. She’s actually a stronger character than Charade’s Reggie Lampert, half a decade later.

This really is Audrey Hepburn’s movie, and I think it’s one of her best roles. It’s the only film where she both sings (in her own voice) and really, really dances. Audrey began as a child dancer, and Donen lets her loose here. She moves easily with Astaire, and lets loose in a free-form jazz number at a Montmartre bar. She’s smooth, she’s fluid, and she holds her own with Astaire, Thompson, and studio dancers. Yes, she was in My Fair Lady, but her voice was dubbed, and she never ever danced the way she does here. At 28, she did it all effortlessly. She even wore her clothes well (well, duh! you say).

This is what I mean: In the first part of the movie, she wore black tights, a brown jumper and a simple page boy hairdo. Then she made her first appearance as a model, in a jaw-dropping Givenchy evening gown. The transformation was astonishing; even her carriage, her posture, was different. She not only wore the clothes she OWNED them. Perhaps that’s one reason she got the part of Eliza Doolittle; the stories aren’t that different, and her ability to inhabit the costumes is amazing. (All the gowns were by Givenchy; Hepburn’s ‘Jo’ wardrobe was designed by Edith Head, no slouch in the costume department either.)

Fred Astaire, of course, does no wrong either, whether he’s dancing with Audrey, Thompson, or an umbrella. It’s 1957, he’s 58, but still holds his place as one of Hollywood’s greatest dancers; he has a gift for making everything he dances with seem like an equal partner. The chemistry between Astaire and Audrey sizzles, and he delivers lines as breezily and easily as his dance steps (“That’s allright,” he says at one point. “I’ll throw myself out.”).

RENT THIS MOVIE!! See it with friends. Watch it in your tux and evening gown. The film really is a beautifully shot  sophisticated (for its time) story and a loving spoof of culture and cultural identity. But overall, it is an elegant, slyly crafted love story set in Paris. It’s great fun, exquisite to look at, and stars two legends very much in command of their art. It’s a Dom Perignon of a movie.

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