Funny Face is a Technicolor dream, a sprightly, pop art explosion of a musical that practically redefines its genre. As entertainment it’s fantastically romantic, delivers swoonsome Gershwin tunes, Edith Head’s ravishing costumes, Fred Astaire’s toe-tapping choreography and Stanley Donen’s eye-popping visuals captured in glorious Vista-Vision. As art it achieves a remarkable fusion between subtext and presentation that is pure movie magic. All that and it’s a cinematic sonnet to the knock-out, drop-dead gorgeousness of Audrey Hepburn.
“Think Pink!” the opening musical number, bursts off the screen, choreographed in a way that still seems modern to a contemporary audience. While Fashion magazine editor Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) sings in praises of this season’s colour de jour, pink clad lovelies parade in surreal flashes that resemble magazine covers come to life. It’s close in style to the modern music video. Some see this as camp, but the conclusion punctures our preconceptions. By the number’s end everyone and everything is pink. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in it”, snaps Maggie. Fashion is fleeting - but real beauty lasts. So what is real beauty? That’s the first element of theme, encapsulated in an exciting song and dance number. Funny Face is too witty, stylish and packed full of heart to be labelled anything so trite as camp.
Ace photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) is determined to find a new cover girl with “character, spirit and intelligence” (“That would certainly be novel in a fashion magazine”, quips his publisher). He finds that girl in Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn), a young, bookstore employee, whose face everyone else thinks looks “funny”. Refreshingly, Jo isn’t an entirely timid Cinderella. She’s a plucky, whip-smart philosopher who loathes the superficial fashion world and devotes herself to “empathicalism”. Say what? In a nutshell: empathising with other people, putting yourself in their place. Dick Avery puts himself in Jo’s place and gives her a kiss. “Everybody wants to be kissed, even philosophers.”
Movies revolve around need and desire. Characters desire one thing, but actually need something else entirely. Musicals express this with a solo number. Left alone, Jo sings Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On” (No Marni Nixon overdubs here, folks. Hepburn sings sublimely), with that killer line: “Where have I been all these years?” Stuck in a bookstore all day, poor Jo never really has a chance to empathise with anybody. Who she is remains a mystery. This becomes the second element of theme: how best to discover ourselves - in pursuit of truth or beauty? Are these things mutually exclusive?
Jo is fixated on brains over beauty. She agrees to become the new cover girl only because it means a trip to Paris and a chance to meet Professor Emil Flostre (Michel Auclair), founder of empathicalism. Thereafter the story follows her rise to stardom as a top model as she sings and dances her way through high society in New York and Paris. The film satirizes the superficiality of both the fashion and intellectual worlds. The mock-intellectuals are snobby, self-obsessed and frequently childish (i.e. lounging in smoky cafes spouting bad poetry) Professor Flostre turns out to be as much a poseur as those fashionistas, more interested in ravishing Jo’s body than valuing her brains. However, the movie isn’t an example of ’50s conservatism or anti-intellectual. It’s about discovering what beauty and intelligence really mean beneath magazine and textbook definitions. Jo is the real deal. Funny Face shows you can meld both qualities and blossom into a wholly enticing, even inspirational personality. There is a great scene where she miraculously appears before Dick’s camera, swirling her red sash down a flight of stairs. She is clever enough to create her own image of beauty. Jo even gets Maggie to finally understand empathicalism (“Is that what you’ve been talking about all this time? Why didn’t you just say so?”).
In the battle between brains and beauty, love proves the ultimate answer. Jo compares Dick’s kiss to Columbus’ discovery of America - it exposes her to a whole new world beyond both beauty and intellect. Their love becomes an alternative to the shallowness of the fashion world and the pretentiousness of mock-intellectuals, and they struggle to hold onto it amidst colourful calamities, dynamic dance numbers and gorgeous Gershwin tunes like “S’Wonderful”, “On How to Be Lovely” and “Bonjour Paris”. The latter remains an especially stealthy way of expressing theme musically, as Dick, Jo and Maggie spout superficial/intellectual reasons for wandering Paris. When the characters bump into each other atop the Eiffel Tower their pretensions are stripped away and they stand revealed - as hopeless romantics. Watching Fred, Kay and Audrey strut through Paris in split-screen is wholly delightful.
Fred Astaire was 58 and approaching the end of his musical career. Yet the guy exhibits more panache in his song and dance serenade - “Let’s Kiss and Make Up” - than many a dancer in their prime. Hepburn actually insisted on Astaire as her leading man as a precondition before she signed on. Kay Thompson usually worked behind the scenes as a musical director, teaching film stars how to sing and dance. She is consistently brilliant in what appears to be her only acting role. Watch out for a hilarious vaudeville/beatnik routine she performs with Astaire. Multitalented, Kay Thompson is today best known as author of the much loved series of children’s books about “Eloise”, the spoiled, little rich girl.
The plot for the film version of Funny Face differs drastically from the Broadway show, and actually comes from another musical - “Wedding Bells”, by Leonard Gershe. The film’s original title was Wedding Day. For Hepburn devotees this movie is like a tour of a sweet shop. Audrey’s bohemian-style, free-expression dance (a rare chance for her to show-off her dance background), dressed in black slacks and a tight sweater, fuelled a few adolescent fantasies. Dick Avery was loosely based on photographer Richard Avedon, for whom Hepburn was a muse throughout the ’50s and ’60s. “I am and, forever will be, devastated by the gift of Audrey Hepburn before my camera”, he once said. “I cannot lift her to greater heights. She is already there. I can only record… She has achieved in herself her ultimate portrait.” Sounds an awful lot like Jo Stockton. Nonetheless, Avedon’s famous image used in the movie, a deliberately over-exposed close up of Audrey Hepburn’s face in which only her famous features - her eyes, her eyebrows and her mouth - are visible, ought to hang in the Louvre.