The Hairpin Rom Com Club: Funny Face

by Chloe Angyal

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Welcome back to The Hairpin Rom Com Club! It’s just like a regular book club, except that your encyclopedic knowledge of Drew Barrymore’s IMDb page might actually come in handy.

This week’s movie is Funny Face starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. I’ve been questioning, in the last few weeks, why so many romantic comedies have inexplicable choreographed song-and-dance numbers (ahem, My Best Friend’s Wedding, She’s All That). This week, I thought we’d take a look at a romantic comedy that has lots of explicable ones — a musical romantic comedy!

Which is not to say that there aren’t plenty of confusing things about the song-and-dance numbers in this classic rom com: for one thing, why didn’t they cast a male lead who could really sing, or a female lead who could really sing and really dance? The answer is “Because Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire were the shit, and they still are, so stop asking impertinent questions, you snarky millennial feminist blogger.”

For those of you who haven’t seen the movie, it’s about Jo (Audrey Hepburn), an idealist young philosophy student from Greenwich Village. Jo believes in a theory called “Empathicalism,” which is made to sound as ridiculous as possible, even when coming from the mouth of Audrey Hepburn.

She meets fashion photographer Dick (Fred Astaire) when he barges into the bookshop where she works to use as a location for a photo shoot. Dick works for Quality magazine, a thinly-veiled version of Harper’s Bazaar run by a thinly-veiled fictionalized version of Diana Vreeland. Indeed, Dick’s character is based on Richard Avedon, who actually designed the credits for Funny Face.

Dick realizes that Jo is far more interesting to photograph than models and decides that she should be the new face of the magazine: “The Quality Woman,” as the editors deem her. Jo agrees, but only because being The Quality Woman involves a trip to Paris, where can meet with the founder of Empathicalism.

Dick photographs Jo all over Paris in couture clothing (in the movie, they’re by a designed known as “Duval”; in reality, they’re by Givenchy), and they fall in love. They have a falling out when Jo gets to meet Flostre, who turns out to be not an old man but a young, handsome, and rather amorous one, making Dick jealous. Chaos ensues: there’s a break up, there are disguises, someone gets hit over the head with an expensive statuette, there’s a disastrous fashion show, and, of course, a race to the airport. Unsurprisingly, Dick and Jo work it out in the end.

This movie is the definition of star-studded. Audrey Hepburn dancing with Fred Astaire to music by the Gershwins, directed by Stanley Donen, on location in Paris? Yes, please. Sure, neither Hepburn nor Astaire could really sing. And sure, there are very few women who could hold their own dancing next to Astaire, and she’s not really one of them. And sure, the central message of the movie seems to be that young women with ideas about philosophy just need a makeover and one good metaphorical shag. But Paris! And Givenchy! And Fred Astaire somehow making this high-waisted-pants-and-cardy combination work…kind of!

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It’s not a perfect movie. In fact, its imperfections are very informative — representative of a few generic tropes that merit a closer look.

Let’s first talk about the notion that Jo isn’t beautiful. As played by Audrey Hepburn, Jo’s character has the titular “funny face.” A key plot point is that no one would have noticed that she’s totally gorgeous, and that Dick Avery is going out on a limb by suggesting that this woman is beautiful. This woman.

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“Though you’re no Mona Lisa…” he sings. No shit she’s no Mona Lisa, she’s Audrey fucking Hepburn. My point is that this is a classic example of Hollywood Homely, wherein we, the audience, are asked to perform the enormous suspension of disbelief required to entertain the notion that Audrey Hepburn is not incredibly beautiful.

Hollywood Homely is everywhere: every time Taylor Swift puts on a pair of mildly unflattering glasses, or Anne Hathaway frizzes out her hair and puts on Groucho Marx eyebrows, or Rachel Leigh Cook puts on a hideous wig, we’re expected not to notice that they still look like Taylor Swift, Anne Hathaway, and Rachel Leigh Cook.

To be fair, the point of The Quality Woman is that she’s not merely physically attractive, but that she’s got poise, grace, intelligence, charisma. And Hepburn’s Jo has all those things — particularly noted when she’s frequently compared to the models in the film, who are depicted as very unintelligent. But in Funny Face, and in other movies where Hollywood Homely is deployed, we are all expected to recalibrate our understanding of what is beautiful and not beautiful. If we don’t make that recalibration, there’s no magic to the moment in which Jo is revealed in a designer gown, after hours with the Quality hair and makeup team; we’re supposed to realize for the first time that Audrey Hepburn is, in fact, beautiful. Is it a contract between story and audience? Or is it merely an insult to the audience’s intelligence? I’d argue it’s both: we agree to have our intelligence insulted so that we can watch a movie starring a beautiful person. All we have to do is pretend, for the first third of the movie, that we haven’t noticed how beautiful she is.

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Oh my god, I totally did not notice before. Thank god for you, Dick Avery!

Then there’s the age difference. Audrey Hepburn was 28 when this movie was released. Fred Astaire was 58. It shows, and it’s cringe-inducing. It’s not that Astaire wasn’t still a spectacular dancer at the end of his sixth decade — he was, and he dances rings around the woman who’s young enough to be his adult daughter. It’s just that, well, she’s young enough to be his adult daughter. And for much of the movie, their relationship feels like that of a mentor and a mentee, of a seasoned photographer who has taken a professional interest in a young model. But then there are random, disjointed, really rather forced romantic moments the characters themselves don’t seem to be able to explain. The first time Dick kisses Jo, she asks him why, and he says, “Empathy. I put myself in your place and I felt that you wanted to be kissed.” It’s meant to be charming, but it just comes off thin and unconvincing.

An age difference like this isn’t uncommon in rom coms — Fred Astaire was also matched with Leslie Caron in Daddy Long Legs (1955), when he was 56 and she was 24, but in that movie, their age difference is repeatedly commented upon as something of an obstacle to their love. In Funny Face, it’s never really made clear what Dick and Jo see in each other, romantically speaking. The best explanation Jo can come up with is “You’ve made my life so glamorous. You can’t blame me for feeling amorous.” No, I can’t, but is that the best Jo can do? Glamor? Aren’t you meant to be a philosopher who spurns things like fashion magazines and designer clothes?

Which is, of course, precisely the problem with this movie. The central message of Funny Face is that even the most committed philosopher can be talked out of her firmly held beliefs if presented with haute couture threads, European travel , and handsome gentleman with photography and tap-dancing abilities. Professor Flostre is revealed to be something of a fraud, so it’s not as though this undermining of anti-capitalist, unconventional beliefs is solely reserved for Jo, or for women, but Jo bears the brunt of it.

That’s the bad news about Funny Face. The good news is there are lots of (entirely explicable!) song-and-dance numbers, including this one, which is pure Astaire gold.

Chloe Angyal has a PhD in Media Studies and wrote her doctoral thesis about romantic comedies. She is Senior Editor at Feministing and a facilitator at The OpEd Project. You can read more of her writing here and follow her on Twitter at @chloeangyal.