Stanley Donen, Funny Face, 1957, 35 mm, color, sound, 103 minutes. Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn).


AMBIVALENCE IS A HARD CONDITION to pinpoint in a film. Is a movie sending out cross-purposed signals or are you and I simply projecting our own conflicted feelings? Even encountered as a movie-mad kid, Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957) struck me as somehow off—what was supposed to be a carefree, blithe romp felt oddly ponderous and stilted, unlike the beautifully unified song-and-dance-and-comedy stylization of Donen’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Vincente Minnelli’s The Band Wagon (1953), or even Mark Sandrich’s Top Hat (1935). It presented a bright public face laden (burdened?) with gaiety and brashness—Fred Astaire glides! Audrey Hepburn glows! Paris sizzles! And then there was a private, inward-looking one that seemed apprehensive about its own insistent veneer.

Split between attempts to generate a buzz of chic sophistication and a trite provincialism meant to make all this high fashion glitz ’n’ pizazz palatable to the folks back in Oklahoma, Funny Face regularly rains on its own parade. Framing bohemianism (beatnik clichés are already present and set in cement), female consciousness, intellectuality, and Parisian worldliness with the sort of jocular American condescension that makes you want to plonk screenwriter Leonard Gershe on the head with a bust of Voltaire, the movie leaves a slight aftertaste of curdled crème brûlée. Inspired by Richard Avedon—who also designed some striking photographic sequences and effects—Funny Face has moments that could pass for proto–Pop art. Retrograde attitudes keep asserting themselves, though, until it starts to feel like an Aqua-Marine Boot Camp for Feminizing Wayward Young Women: Stand Up Straight! “Think Pink!” Apply Your Eyeliner! Hup-Two-Three-Four, Show ’Em What Those Gowns Are For!

Yet as steadily as the movie pokes fun at Audrey Hepburn’s freethinking philosophy student–bookstore clerk Jo Stockton—all the while reprogramming her as a pliable clothes rack—it’s difficult to believe the film (or at least Donen) isn’t enamored of the character’s independence and candor. Like the Vogue-ish magazine run by Kay Thompson’s imperious editor (as if there were any other kind in movies), the film hungers for a new look, a new kind of representative woman. (“One cannot deny that she is…unusual.”) Introduce this year’s model, but first process all the freshness out of her and replace it with a socially approved, streamlined facsimile.

That’s the formula, but as determined as the film can be to play enforcer of some catatonic ideal (see the Hepburn-Thompson duet “On How to Be Lovely”), its musical numbers keep slipping the bonds of their own intentions (see the way Hepburn and Thompson inject a tart angularity that undermines the sap-happiness of “Lovely”). Hepburn’s human corkscrew-scissor-bottle-opener dance solo is presented as a satire of boho-yoyo affectations, but her folding Swiss Army knife in a black turtleneck and skinny jeans is so captivating that the joke backfires: This scene makes egghead nonsense look bloody marvelous and super fun! I can picture a young Twyla Tharp seeing this routine at her parents’ drive-in alongside Route 66 and having her whole future pass before her.

With Funny Face, there’s no escaping the sense that the ancien régime of the movie musical is crumbling: Astaire was fifty-eight, almost old enough to be Hepburn’s grandfather. He had become a dapper dinosaur, albeit the most graceful and sly Jurassic Hoofer you could ask for. (And Hepburn did: Having him costar was her condition for doing the picture.) Donen brought a good portion of the MGM production team over to Paramount to make it, but the magic started slipping away. His previous film, codirected (and starring) Gene Kelly, was It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), which gets my vote for the most underrated of the era’s musicals. It’s also the most ironic, melancholic, and modern—a prospective New Wave in search of a beachhead it never reached. (Entangled in personal and professional differences, it ended Donen’s association with both Kelly and MGM.)

Flashes of that moody prescience enlarge the milieu of Funny Face: Hepburn’s luminosity poised against a saturnine, untidy bookshop interior for “How Long Has This Been Going On?”; the startlingly claustrophobic and supple Astaire-Hepburn darkroom dance to “Funny Face,” where the negative image of her features hangs on the wall like an African mask; the freeze-framed all-over-town photo shoot (“That’s a killer!”). If Hepburn plays the game of conventionality here and lends herself to the prevailing “chi-chi” fantasy, it feels like she maintains a dry, amused detachment through every predictable beat and permutation.

Perhaps her background had something to do with the backbone she displays in spite of all those glamour trappings. She had grown up under the Nazi Occupation of the Netherlands, clandestinely dancing to raise money for the resistance and even occasionally serving as a courier; during the Dutch famine after D-Day, she nearly starved to death. After that, Funny Face must have been a total piece of cake. Hepburn had no aspirations to be Hollywood’s new Marie Antoinette, but in a few years she would cultivate just the right balance of mischief and sadness to make a really seamless Holly Golightly: an escort who leaves a trail of men to take care of themselves.

Howard Hampton

Funny Face is available on Blu-ray on Tuesday, April 8th.