Funny Face is a stylish, farcical, often overlooked gem in Audrey’s career. When it was made, she was still on her way to the top, and that was after winning an Oscar and Tony the same year. It also marks a personal highlight for her: she was allowed to dance, what she had always aspired to do, and with none other than Fred Astaire. Both signed on for the film when they heard the other would be involved, so the admiration wasn’t totally on Audrey’s side.
The film is actually the product of two separate Broadway shows: the plot mainly derives from an unproduced musical called Wedding Day by Leonard Gershe, and the title and a few songs came from a show in Fred Astaire’s early career, Funny Face. The two were welded together by Leonard Gershe and producer Roger Edens, who also substituted the original Wedding Day music for more popular Gershwin songs.
As the story goes, Audrey plays Jo Stockton, a homely and snobbishly intellectual clerk in a beatnik bookstore who’s high on empathicalism; it’s beyond “do unto others,” more like “feel what they feel,” and it takes Jo the whole film to explain this. Her path crosses with photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire, whose character is modeled on real-life photographer Richard Avedon) and Quality Magazine editor Maggie Prescott (marvelously played by Kay Thompson at her most abrasive) when they take it in their heads to overrun Jo’s bookstore and destroy it for a photo shoot. Jo herself is even used in a few shots, sulkily handing books to a bubbleheaded model named Marion. But when Dick goes to the darkroom to print the shots, he comes across something unexpected and exciting: Jo herself. He convinces Maggie to make Jo the new Quality Woman, and they connive to get Jo to agree to something so disagreeable. What makes her finally submit to the trip to Paris is not the free makeover or wearing glamorous clothes, but the idea of hanging around the Left Bank and meeting her idol, empathicalism inventor Professor Flostre.
The photo shoot sequences throughout Paris could stand alone, they’re so marvelous. Audrey is at her most stylish in magnificent Givenchy creations that are still idealized and copied today, and it would be hard to point out a time when she looked better. You can also tell that she is genuinely happy to be on this film, since she gets to dance and sing and really enjoy herself for once. The stills at the end of each sequence are actually photos shot by Richard Avedon, who loved working with Audrey and photographed her throughout her life. The dance sequences are also wonderful to watch, as you can see the real happiness in Audrey’s eyes at getting the chance to use her dancing skills, and with the best dance partner in the world.
But life isn’t a game of dress-up to Jo. To her it’s just a means to an end, the end being a meeting with Professor Flostre himself. Jo skips out on some meetings with the Quality staff and French designer Paul Duval, who had created an entire line of clothing just for her. Tensions rise as Maggie and Dick try to make Jo conform to their standards of life, and as Jo tries to enlighten them to her way of thinking. The climax of the film is at the runway unveiling of Jo that will make or break all of their work, and complicating the matter is the fact that she, bizarrely, has fallen in love with Dick. While the ending, to me, is a bit too 50s and stodgy, it does seem to be what all the characters want, and I can’t argue with the fact that it ends beautifully.