William Klein is possibly the weirdest dude to ever work for Vogue. A military man turned Sorbonne painting and sculpture student turned photographer, he produced the kind of groundbreaking work that freaked people out when he released his first book, Life is Good & Good For You, in 1956. Somehow, his blurry, high contrast photos of New York’s realities were appealing to the bigwigs at the top fashion magazine in the world.
The decade or so that Klein eventually spent as a photographer for Vogue inspired his first film, Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? This is the kind of movie Woody Allen would have made if he was French, a New Wave satire that’s as ridiculous as it is on point with its criticisms of the fashion industry.
Star Dorothy McGowan, a freckled, Brooklyn-born waif, was one of Kleins favorite models, and he picked her to star in his first film over big-time actress like Catherine Deneuve and Bridget Bardot. And that’s despite her not knowing a word of French. She stars as Polly Maggoo, an American model living and working in Paris who has taken the world by storm, the envy of aspiring models working on their walks in school, fetishized by both men and women. A television network wants to do a big news piece on her. A prince is in love with her. Men cut off bits of her hair in the streets.
Polly is pretty blasé about all the attention, immediately ready to perform for the news crew that has set up, unannounced, in her apartment. But she’s also sensitive, prone to preening in bed and afraid of inevitably aging. As reporter Jean-Jacques Georges (Philippe Noiret) pumps her with nonsensical questions, she plays along, but starts to crack. Of course, he’s in love with Polly too.
While living in Paris, Klein worked for the television show Cinq colonnes à la une, who had him make a piece on fashion collections in the city. Parts of that experience inspired Polly Maggoo, but since this is a New Wave film, obviously lots of liberties are taken. Klein mixes up verite, behind-the-scenes moments with absurd, fantastical scenes.
As a piece of cultural criticism, it’s amazing how little society has progressed when it comes to the fashion industry since the days of Polly Maggoo. Characters complain about how models are women without any of the attributes that make women women. The film opens at an absurd fashion show, where the designers care more about their clothing — in this case, sheets of metal molded to fit a woman’s body in a mostly impractical way — than the welfare of their bleeding models.
Not surprisingly, Klein says the film damaged his relationship with Vogue. Not like he really cared, though, and it did nothing to damage his career. His turn as a filmmaker continued through 1999, with a couple of features (including the highly regarded Mr. Freedom) and a lot of documentaries. The American expatriate is absolutely beloved in Europe — Maggoo was shown at the Tate Modern as part of a Klein retrospective. But he didn’t stay in touch with McGowan. A 2012 Guardian article epilogues the Maggoo experience quite nicely:
“"She was a tough little Irish girl from Brooklyn. Learned French and then learned her lines. She was like Alice in Wonderland in Paris, they loved her, but she wanted Hollywood." What happened to her, I ask. "She got married to a prick," he says, grimacing.”
The same probably would have happened to Polly Maggoo.
Susan Cohen decided to leave her career in journalism to go back to school — for journalism. She's still not sure if she made a mistake. Visit susanjcohen.com to learn more about her.