Funny Face works best if you don’t think about the nearly 30-year age gap between the romantic leads—Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn—and instead, “Think Pink!”
That’s the title of one of the early—and best—production numbers in this 1957 musical, in which a fashion magazine editor (Kay Thompson) declares pink to be the new black by throwing a roll of fabric at the camera and leading a chorus of assistants and painters through a rollicking redecoration of the corporate offices. Interspersed with the singing and dancing are staged tableaus and freeze-frame camera tricks that make magazine advertising art come to life (the music is by Roger Edens, with lyrics by Leonard Gershe).
It’s ecstatic, and had me on board well before Astaire shows up as fashion photographer Dick Avery. On a photo shoot in a “sinister” bookstore, Avery makes a deal with philosophizing sales clerk Jo Stockton (Hepburn): if she accompanies the troupe to Paris as a model, she’ll get a chance to track down a professor she greatly admires in between photo sessions.
One way to read the ensuing romance is as a push and pull between the populist entertainment of the 1930s and ’40s (of which Astaire was a preeminent purveyor) and the more esoteric, serious-minded youth culture of the 1950s (of which Hepburn wasn’t really a part, but still represents here by way of her age and black turtleneck). It’s not who they are in the movie, then, as much as what they represent.
Of course this isn’t entirely satisfactory, considering that the prof in question (Michel Auclair) turns out to be a sleazebag. Unlike in real life—where the ’60s would eventually arrive—here the old guard wins the day, as Dick blithely whisks Jo away by film’s end.
So let’s focus, instead, on those surface pleasures that make Funny Face so happily distracting. Pink is only one of the many colors to burst across the wide VistaVision screen, which Donen (On the Town, Singin’ in the Rain) navigates with discretion and the occasional punctuation of a camera crane. The costumes, by Edith Head, are cleanly elegant in a way that always works in concert with Hepburn’s lithe frame. And the music only gets better after “Think Pink!” Edens has another clever number—“On How to Be Lovely”—that Hepburn and Thompson turn into a snarky little duet, while George (music) and Ira (lyrics) Gershwin have a handful of tunes on display, including the title song.
Pink is only one of the many colors to burst across the wide VistaVision screen.
“Funny Face” is also where Dick woos Jo, and darn it if the moment—set in the deep reds of a photography darkroom—doesn’t work, despite many things (including that color scheme) that should set off alarm bells. Flinching at the close-ups of herself that Dick is developing, Jo delivers a quaint, convincing modesty (one of Hepburn’s great gifts was the ability to loosely wear her air of refinement). And Astaire spins around the room with the same gentle ease he had in his black-and-white heyday. By the time Hepburn joins in—she was a ballet dancer in her youth—and they make a third dance partner out of a spinning stool, you might think they’re a perfect match.
Other numbers aren’t quite as effortless. You can see Astaire’s age in the extended solo dance section of “Let’s Kiss and Make Up” (more Gershwin), where he mimes the moves of a matador using his coat and umbrella. He hits every mark, but there’s toil involved. As for Hepburn’s big solo routine—an experimental, interpretive number at an underground Parisian club—you at once admire the athleticism but also sense that the movie is, on some level, making fun of it.
Indeed, Funny Face sends up “serious” art throughout, always arguing in favor of the carefree gaiety of the past. You can argue with the movie in your head, even while you admit—say, when Dick and Jo dance their way across a stream by lightly stepping onto a floating raft—that your heart is having all sorts of fun.