In Stanley Donen’s musical comedy Funny Face, satire of the fashion world ends up being more of an homage. The story of a mousy bookstore clerk who is discovered by fashionistas and turned into a Parisian high fashion model, the film’s visual beauty nearly trumps the sentimental romance between model and photographer that assumes narrative priority.
When Funny Face opens, Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson), the fashion editor of Quality Magazine, is scolding her staff for an uninspired issue. “If I let this issue go to press,” she says grandly, “I will have failed the…great American woman who stands there naked waiting for me to tell her what to wear…”
Modeled after legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, who was known for whimsical pronouncements like “Pink is the navy blue of India,” Maggie Prescott (played with arch hauteur by Thompson) finds the solution to the issue’s banality in a bolt of pink fabric lying around her office. “To women everywhere,” she sings in the movie’s first musical number as she rolls the bolt of fabric on the floor, “Banish the black, bury the blue, and banish the beige/From now on girls/Think pink!”
Thanks to famed photographer Richard Avedon, who was both the film’s visual consultant and the model for the photographer character Dick Avery (Fred Astaire), this “think pink” fashion cry is expressed on the screen. Like an animated fashion magazine, the screen turns white while models in pink gowns parade around, freeze into still images, carry pink balloons, and even brush their teeth with pink toothpaste.
After this incredible musical number, Maggie visits photographer Dick in his studio as he takes pictures of a ditzy model named Marion, played by Dovima, the ‘50s supermodel whose thin, elegant body looked like a curved exclamation point. She finds that he, too, is looking to shake up Quality Magazine. He wants someone fresh, a new It Girl, a model who is intellectual as well as beautiful.
Having decided that smart is the new pink, Maggie and Dick both race to the West Village with assistants in tow, spot a bookstore that is suitably dreary (must be intellectuals in there!), and begin setting up their fashion shoot with Marion in spite of protests by the drab but fiery Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) who has been organizing the books inside.
It’s here that Funny Face makes a swerve to the romantic that feels like a mistake for several reasons. First of all, apparently all it takes is for a man to help clean up some of the mess he’s made to get away with kissing a perfect stranger. Also, gamine Jo and avuncular Astaire have the chemistry of, well, a young girl and her uncle. (Astaire was 30 years older than Hepburn, but apparently he was her choice as leading man.)
More importantly, the romance of Funny Face is already there in the love affair the fashionistas have with the aesthetics and novelty of fashion, as well as with the fashion capital itself, Paris, where they take Jo to debut the new Quality Girl. When Dick reveals later in the film that he and Jo are in a relationship, Maggie replies, “Impossible! You belong to the fashion world. We’re a cold lot. Artificial and totally lacking in sentiments.“ What she really means is, who needs love when you have beauty?
Although this weird split exists in the film between this homely, earnest and unlikely romance that develops between Dick and Jo and the fashion world that brought them together, the film truly comes alive in Paris when Jo makes her debut as a model. Paris brings out Jo’s inner bohemian, starting with her famous dance in the smoky beatnik bar where she goes to meet her idol, French philosopher Emil Flostre (Michel Auclair). The West Village egghead turns into a wild, interpretive modern dancer, expressing herself with her body in a way that seems liberating for the cerebral bookstore clerk.
This new bodily freedom continues as Jo learns how to model for Dick, taking his posing direction like a true pro yet finding out that there’s room for expression and interpretation as a model. In a series of posing vignettes, Dick coaxes Jo to be an actress: a woman on a boat who’s just caught a fish, a forlorn woman who stands at a train station saying farewell to her love through tears, and in one of the most spectacular scenes in the film, a beauty at the Louvre in a stunning red Givenchy gown who emerges from behind the Winged Victory of Samothrace, as if the statue incarnated into human form.
In this final shot, Jo is totally in charge. At the foot of the steps, Dick has no idea what she’s going to do, and neither does she. As she races down the marble steps, he’s desperate to capture her in motion. “Slow down,” he tells the now-confident model. “Take the picture, take the picture!” she commands.
George and Ira Gershwin’s songs in Funny Face (with the exception of numbers performed by Thompson) tend to be sung during sappy romantic scenes that establish the relationship between Jo and Dick. As lovely as they are, songs like “How Long Has This Been Going On?” and “He Loves and She Loves” slow the film down and turn it from chic and witty to corny and mawkish.
Ultimately, Funny Face, although it spotlights the romantic duo of Jo Stockton and Dick Avery, seems more about the artistic romance between Maggie Prescott and Dick Avery with fashion as their bond and Jo as their muse. Sounding off each other, each one contributes something to the relationship that bears an aesthetic idea or image that a community of fashion lovers converges to appreciate.
Heterosexual coupling wins the day in Funny Face, but the relationship that really counts in this film is between the two people who aren’t in love with each other, but rather with fashion.
The second DVD disc includes a fascinating bio of Kay Thompson, who got her start on Broadway and was also the author of the famed Eloise books; a history of VistaVision; and background on designer Hubert de Givenchy’s friendship with Hepburn.