Think Pink — The
Making of Funny Face
Some movies were never destined for greatness, yet remain highly enjoyable and can be watched over and over again, only getting better with age. Such is the case with Funny Face, a 1957 flick inspired by Richard Avedon’s photographic career. Although only 32 at the time, Dick was already famous as the star photographer for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. So it was only natural that Hollywood director Stanley Donen based his fashion-fantasy musical on Avedon, even though the resemblance was more in spirit than in fact.
Avedon was hired by Paramount as a consultant on the film, and also had quite a bit to say about which stars would appear in it. He once commented on Fred Astaire playing the role of fashion photographer “Dick Avery” by saying “It’s all very strange. I’d learned how to be me by pretending to be him and then I had to teach him to pretend to be me.” Astaire was Avedon’s childhood idol, so it was no surprise that the dancer was chosen for the part despite being some thirty years older than his co-star Audrey Hepburn in the romantic comedy.
Funny Face began in 1927 as a Broadway Musical starring Fred and Adele Astaire, with music by George and Ira Gershwin. Although the 1957 movie had a completely different story line, both the spirit, the title, and four of the songs are taken directly from the Broadway show.
CLICK on photos to see them supersized
In a previous entry I described our 1955 trip to San Francisco to do a cosmetic ad for Helena Rubinstein featuring supermodel Suzy Parker with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. A second, and more important, part of that trip was a meeting between Avedon and movie director Stanley Donen (born 1924) about a proposed romantic musical comedy inspired by the former’s life in fashion photography. As a result of this meeting I drove Dick and his wife Evie along with Donen and his wife, actress Marion Marshall, to the Hearst Castle at San Simeon for further discussions.
Since Dick was associated with the Hearst Corporation as a result of his work for Harper’s Bazaar, he had wangled an invitation to use the castle for the meeting. William Randolph Hearst was already dead and the family seldom used the place, which they later gave to the State of California as a tourist attraction. The photo above was taken by Stanley Donen in the castle, showing Avedon (standing), me (seated, puffing on pipe), and Mrs. Donen. During the first hours there, Dick shot some historic pictures of the estate to present to the Hearst family.
As an accomplished film director, Stanley Donen was most intrigued by this estate being the “real” home of Citizen Kane, a classic 1941 movie by Orson Welles that had been removed from circulation years earlier for legal and financial reasons, as it was thought to portray Hearst in a scandalous light. None of us had ever seen it, and Donen — especially — thought that, perversely, a print just might be hidden away in the estate’s theater. We searched the projection room, but no such luck.
After discussions had reached an agreement, I drove our whole gang south to Los Angeles, dropping them off in Bel Air. From there I drove to Beverly Hills, where I stayed for two days before flying back to New York with the precious film from the San Francisco sitting.
Despite the disparity in ages, Avedon insisted on having his idol Fred Astaire play opposite his muse, Audrey Hepburn. This actually worked out very well and he fit the part better than any other male dancer including the obvious first choice, Gene Kelly. The screenplay was written by Avedon’s friend, playwright Leonard Gershe (1922-2002).
The story, such as it is, opens with a scene in the New York offices of "Quality," a fictitious slick fashion magazine obviously based on Harper's Bazaar. The head fashion editor, "Maggie Prescott" (photo, left), played wonderfully by Kay Thompson, is a dead ringer for Bazaar's very own Diana Vreeland. After dictating that all the world's women wear pink, she confides that she herself "wouldn't be caught dead in it." Her next inspiration was to depict intellectual women wearing smart designs by leading designers.
For this the whole gang, "Maggie," her fawning assistants, photographer "Dick Avery," and the model "Marion," played by real model Dovima, race down to Greenwich Village and invade a dusty bookstore specializing in odd works by obscure philosophers. The store clerk, "Jo Stockton," played by Audrey Hepburn, appears in the corner of one of the pictures. Back at the office, "Avery" suggests that "Jo" has real charm and would make a great model, despite her "funny face." Later, "Avery" does a song-and-dance in the darkroom with her (photo, left), convincing her that she should go to Paris with them.
So it's off to Paris with "Jo," whose real motivation in going is to meet with her idol, "Professor Emile Flostre" and discuss his theories of "Empathicalism." Arriving at Orly Airport (photo, right), they each take off on their own to see the town before settling down to modeling and photography. This results in wonderful scenes, great music, and some stunning split-screen cinematography.
Then it's down to work photographing the creations of couturier "Paul Duval," a character based on real-life Hubert de Givency — who actually designed all of Audrey Hepburn's Paris costumes (photo, left). But "Jo" was more interested in meeting "Professor Flostre," leading her to overlook some of her responsibilities, such as being there when needed. This leads "Dick" and "Maggie" to pose as beatniks and tear around the Latin Quarter in a strange little car (photo, right) in search of "Flostre" and "Jo." Turns out that "Flostre" is interested in more than philosophy, and "Jo" realizes what a mess she's gotten herself into. After a song-and-dance routine (photo, below), "Maggie" and "Dick" rescue her, "Dick" and "Jo" fall in love, and everything heads to a romantic, happy ending.
Of course, all of this is silly fluff — but that's exactly what makes it so much fun!
Being a major production from Paramount, Funny Face was shot entirely in their proprietary VistaVision process. This high-resolution widescreen system used conventional 35mm motion picture film stock, running horizontally rather than vertically, with an 8-sprocket image measuring a wide 18.3mm x 36mm. It was developed by Paramount in 1954 to compete with CinemaScope, which used an anamorphic lens to compress widescreen images onto a conventional 4-sprocket 35mm frame running vertically, with an image size of 18.6mm x 21.95mm. VistaVision was quite superior in picture quality but expensive to produce as it used twice as much film stock. It also required a lot of light to maintain depth-of-field, as the larger image size needed longer focal-length lenses and consequently smaller f/stops to keep both foreground and background in common focus. Another drawback was the reluctance on the part of theater owners to purchase the special projectors needed. Paramount overcame this by making compressed release prints that ran on conventional projectors equipped with anamorphic lenses.
Doing this resulted in loss of image quality, but it was still a bit better than rival systems. The last motion picture shot entirely in VistaVision was in 1961, after which Paramount switched to the anamorphic Panavision. VistaVision was still used for some special effects scenes until being replaced by digital imagery in the early 21st century.
Strangely, Funny Face was really an MGM movie produced and distributed by rival Paramount. MGM owned the rights to the story, and nearly all of the major creative staff including director Stanley Donen were under contract to them. Fred Astaire was freelancing at the time and owed Paramount a film. Hepburn was Paramount's most valuable star, so in no way would they release her to MGM. Consequently the whole project had to move over to Paramount, as Avedon was insistent on having both Astaire and Hepburn in "his" film.
Filming began in April 1956 and concluded that July. Prior to that time Dick made a trip to Hollywood in his role as consultant, and again when filming began. He also traveled to Paris in late April to oversee the location shooting there. The photo on the right shows him with Fred Astaire in the Tuileries with a strange French view camera, not the Deardorff he always used at the time. The TLR camera dangling from Astaire's neck isn't a Rolleiflex, either. Sadly, I was not present on any of these shooting days or on the later ones during June and July in Hollywood. The editing was done that Fall, with Avedon present in Los Angeles on October 19-20, November 10-11, and November 14-17; but by that time I had already been drafted into the U.S. Army. Dick wrote to me during basic training offering to arrange a private showing in New York before the premiere if I could get off, although I had to decline rather than go AWOL.
Funny Face was released on VHS Video tape in 1995, and again in 2001. That same year it was also released on DVD, and an improved 50th Anniversary DVD in 2007. In 2009 a 2-disc DVD set including many extras was released as part of the Paramount Centennial Collection.
Photography's Golden Age ended long ago but remains very much in my memory. From 1952 through 1965 I was assistant to Richard Avedon during his most creative period, and do I have the stories to tell! Now, at the end of 2015, is the time to reveal all while I'm still alive and kicking. Tales of personalities, motivations, intrigues, and even the fine details of how it was all done.
What I need to make this project a reality is a co-conspirator to aid in getting the whole, true, uncensored story published -- either as a book, an e-book, or even a documentary. I am not interested in self-publishing.
Anyone interested? Leave a comment and I'll get back to you.