Monday, March 24, 2014

Funny Face


Norman was having a good day yesterday, so I decided to take a little break from preparations for my new infomercial, Virtually Vicki , and to take him on a little outing. The sun was shining, his oxygen tent was working normally and I could fit all of his pills into my new Gucci handbag so we decided to go off to the zoo and look at the animals. Usually, I see enough animals in my meetings with studio executives but Norman was in the mood for llamas so the zoo it was. Everything was fine until we got to the ratite house where, thinking that Norman was edible, a large emu stretched its neck out of the cage and nipped him on the ankle.

Norman let out a holler and I had the presence of mind to whip out my cell phone and dial 9-1-1. Soon, a handsome young paramedic, looking remarkably like Bobby Sherman, was hustling Norman away into an ambulance for a quick trip to Cedars Sinai. My second call was to Madame Rose, my publicist. I wanted to make sure that she alerted the Hollywood press corps so that Norman and I could have a nice little human-interest story in the 'People' section of the paper. Rose must have worn her dialing finger to the nub for, when we arrived at the ER, there were satellite vans and camera crews everywhere. I straightened my turban and went out to face my adoring public. Just then, to my horror, Sharon Stone arrived with her husband; he had, apparently, gotten himself bitten on the foot by a Komodo dragon and the press corps went charging after her. Honestly! Norman and I were major stars before she was even born. It’s absolutely disgraceful that she had to come up with such an obvious copycat incident.

Norman was sent home an hour later with a band-aid and instructions to keep his foot up and well away from antipodean avian life. I settled him down with a bottle of Tanqueray to keep his pain at bay and repaired to my luxurious home theater to lift my spirits. There, I tuned into Funny Face , the 1957 musical with Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn – a musical, even from Paramount, is just the sort of thing to pep you up when Sharon Stone steals your thunder.

'Funny Face' is another spin on the Pygmalion/Galatea myth, only this time set in the world of high fashion photography and magazine layouts. Fred Astaire is Richard Avery (modeled on Richard Avedon - whose fashion photography provided the look for the film), a successful photographer who works for 'Quality Magazine', churning out high concept layout after high concept layout. Kay Thompson is Maggie Prescott (modeled on Diana Vreeland who ruled Vogue with an iron fist for years), the magazine's editor who is tired of the same old faces and the same old looks. One day, while Richard is trying to get a brainless beauty (Dovima - a real 50s model in a great little comic turn) to look artistically intelligent, he and Maggie realize they need a more authentic background so the whole Quality gang piles into taxis and races off to find a suitably musty bookstore in Greenwich Village to use as a backdrop. They end up at 'Embryo Concepts', a bookstore devoted not to abortion literature, but rather to obscure philosophical texts.

The sole employee on duty is Jo Stockton, who dresses in an Edith Head shapeless bag dress, and who is supposed to be a beatnik with a thing for French philosophers. As it's Audrey Hepburn, Jo outclasses all the swells from uptown and, when Richard's camera catches her, a reluctant star is born. Maggie, who is a human force of nature rather than a woman, persuades her to come to Paris with her and Richard and be the new 'Quality Woman'. Maggie dangles the opportunity for Jo to actually meet her idol, Professor Flostre (Michel Auclaire doing Sartre cum Foucault). This is just the bait necessary to get her to agree. Off the whole gang goes for Paris where things do not go exactly as planned but, as this is a 1950s musical, everything comes to a happy romantic ending.

The musical is vaguely inspired by the Gershwin show of the same title from the 1920s, but Paramount threw out the plot, and kept only some of the songs (especially the title number) and rounded the whole thing out with a few other Gershwin hits and some Roger Edens non-entities when the plot needed something that Gershwin (who had died twenty years earlier) hadn't bothered to leave behind. Unlike My Fair Lady , they allowed Audrey to do her own singing. She doesn't have the operatic sound, so beloved in 50s singing heroines, but she hits most of the notes and makes up in emotional conviction what she lacks in technique. She also dances gracefully (her early ballet training), partnering Astaire well and cutting loose in a sort of beatnik ballet that is a lot of fun.

Astaire spends most of the movie being Fred Astaire. But there's nothing wrong with that. Matching him with Audrey Hepburn was great for the dancing, but just a little creepy on the romantic end, as he's almost old enough to be her grandfather. The practice of pairing a 25-year-old heroine with a 60-year-old hero has an ancient and venerable history in cinema tradition. And I wish it would stop. Or that the reverse would be true. I'd love to be Josh Hartnett's next leading lady.

Kay Thompson is the magic ingredient that makes the picture zing. She had a relatively limited career in the movies as her bold and brassy personality made it difficult to find roles in which to cast her. Here, she's perfect as she steamrollers over everyone to get her way. Thompson was vocal coach and arranger for MGM through much of the 40s and early 50s and was a well-known nightclub entertainer for many years, inventing a kind of rhythmic patter singing that became the rage in the late 50s and early 60s. She is, however, perhaps best known as the author of the Eloise books, which she based on her acquaintance with the young Liza Minelli. She starts the picture off with a bang with Think Pink and gives it another lift when she, Hepburn, and Astaire do a split screen tour of Paris in Bonjour, Paris .

The film cemented Hepburn's relationship with the great French designer, Givenchy and he designed her clothes for the Paris fashion shoot sequences. She looks glorious in picture postcard setting after picture postcard setting. The woman, the clothes, and the city combine for some spectacular images.

Stanley Donen, the great musical director who did most of Gene Kelly's best pictures, directed. It's not his best job and there are lame moments, especially the Flostre subplot, and he tends to spend so much time showing us the panorama of Paris that he forgets to focus in on his performers. The filming took place during one of the wettest summers Paris has ever experienced. Look closely at Hepburn's shoes in some of the outdoor dance numbers as the mud magically appears and disappears and marvel at how she and Astaire don't slide and fall on their derrieres. On the whole, this is a pleasant divertissement, worth a look to see a culture and a style of filmmaking long since vanished.

Chartreuse veil. Empathicalism references. Darkroom chemicals. Gratuitous Ruta Lee. Eiffel Tower dancing. Paris Opera House without Phantom. Beatnik arabesques. Collapsing fashion show. Grand staircase of the Louvre running. Gratuitous helium balloons.

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