Stanley Donen’s 1957 musical, Funny Face, tells the story of Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn), a young, secretly beautiful bookshop employee who gets accidentally discovered for her “funny face” and then rises to stardom as a top model as she dances and sings her way through the elite society of New York and Paris. If you aren’t lucky enough to have a movie theatre near you that plays old films, this Technicolor classic is just as vibrant on its 50th anniversary DVD as it is on the big screen. The glamour and fashion of the late 50s is at its best in this film, not only as seen in the costumes of the stars and Hepburn’s couture wardrobe by French designer Hubert De Givenchy, but also through the cinematography and set design of the film itself.
Watching Funny Face is like stepping into a time machine that you’ll never want to leave, Hepburn’s classic outfits inspired a generation of fashion that still repeats itself (black pedal pushers will forever be associated with her unforgettable interpretive dance), and the film draws on topics that always seem to be current: the inside workings of the fashion world, and the exalted lives of those that grace the covers of our magazines.
Fred Astaire plays Jo’s fashion photographer / love interest Dick Avery, who is determine to find a cover girl who is just as intelligent as she is beautiful. Astaire is the force behind the movie’s success as a musical, as he brings Ira and George Gershwin’s classic songs to life in a way that Hepburn perhaps could not have done on her own. The association with Astaire as a virtuoso singer and dancer allows a modern audience to expect greatness from Funny Face, and we are not disappointed. The musical numbers themselves are choreographed in a revolutionary way, and still seem very modern to a contemporary audience, most notably the first musical number “Think Pink”.
When sitting down to watch a musical, we usually expect the lead characters to break into unexplainable song and dance routines at random moments and we resign ourselves to suspend our disbelief and watch what is perhaps an over-long and over-acted scene. “Think Pink” immediately changes our preconceived notions about musicals, as we are greeted with an almost surreal depiction of magazine layouts coming to life, and beautiful women strutting across the screen in pink outfits. In fact, this first musical number is more like a music video than anything else, which perhaps speaks to how ahead of its time Funny Face was. Not to say that the film doesn’t have its share of sentimental love songs or dance routines, but with the modern cinematography and the emphasis on style and aesthetics, Funny Face redefines the viewers’ notion of what a musical can be.
For all its stylistic achievements, Funny Face ultimately is a story about finding a balance between brains and beauty, and eventually rejects both and settles for love. The film mocks both the superficial world of fashion that Dick Avery belongs to, as well as the pompous intellectual world that Jo firmly stands by. Jo herself represents a balance between these two worlds, as she has both the beauty of a ’50s fashionista and the mind of an intellectual.
Jo is so fixated on brains over beauty that she is almost stereotypical: she works in a bookstore, she dresses badly, and she is obsessed with French intellectuals. But the movie then goes on to satirize everything that Jo represents as much or more so as it satirizes the fashion world. The French intellectuals that Jo reveres are snobby, overly emotional, do interpretive dances, cry for no reason, play the acoustic guitar, and essentially exhibit all the qualities that one might see in a movie about college students, just as the Fashion industry is just as superficial seeming as it is in the modern day equivalent to Funny Face, The Devil Wears Prada.
Though the movie is in part about the battle between beauty and brains, the ultimate message is undoubtedly the age-old mantra: love conquers all. This is evident from the beginning of the film, as after Dick kisses Jo for the first time, she compares this kiss to the discovery of America by Columbus, in other words, she is exposed to a whole new world that is beyond both intellect and beauty. The film is brilliantly constructed so that the love between Dick and Jo is in the background of the plot throughout, and only comes forward as an alternative to the shallow world of fashion and the pretentious world of intellectuals.
The DVD has a small but impressive selection of special features that are certainly worth watching, most notably a behind the scenes look into the fashion of the film and Hepburn’s relationship with designer Hubert de Givenchy. But you won’t be watching the DVD for its special features, you will be watching it because it is a film that half a century later is as fresh, captivating and relevant as anything you would see in the theatre today.
Funny Face uses the musical and romantic genres to make a statement on the over-sexualization of women in the fashion industry by showing the viewer that it is possible to be both beautiful and smart, and also appeals to both audiences then and now with its wonderful color palate, its catchy song lyrics (“You’re a cutie with more than beauty”), and its ironic take on two elite factions of society. You won’t be able to stop singing the songs, you’ll start wearing more pink, you will definitely covet a pair of black pedal pushers, and you won’t be able to resist falling in love with the perfect on screen team, as both Astaire and Hepburn are perhaps the most lovable and appealing in Funny Face as they were in any of their other films.