Of the two musicals Audrey Hepburn made, it seems that My Fair Lady gets the most attention, but I personally prefer the far more carefree Funny Face to that stodgy old ball of corn. Though both are ostensibly the same kind of Cinderella story that Ms. Hepburn's fame and reputation are built on, she was better suited to the light-hearted nature of this 1957 vehicle. Her character is more quirky than pitiable, and Paris fits her better than London. She was, after all, the ultimate Givenchy girl, and the fabulous designer dresses the actress here, teaming with Edith Head to give Funny Face one of cinema's most delectable wardrobes.
Funny Face has been available on DVD since 1999, but to celebrate the film's birthday, Paramount is now releasing a 50th Anniversary Edition in the style of their Breakfast at Tiffany's reissue from a couple of years ago. This means a pinker package, and a couple of added bonuses, though sadly Jo Stockton doesn't quite get the red carpet treatment Holly Golightly did.
Directed by the always impressive Stanley Donen, featuring songs by the Gershwins, and borrowing from the life story of Richard Avedon (who also did the photo manipulations in the movie), Funny Face has all the right ingredients as a musical vehicle for its two stars. Fred Astaire plays the Avedon stand-in, Dick Avery. Working alongside his hard-charging editor, the wonderful Kay Thompson, Avery hatches a plan to create a new campaign for Quality Magazine, one that takes an average, bookish girl and makes her a fashion plate. They find Jo Stockton (Hepburn) in a musty bookshop in Greenwich Village, and despite her strict philosophical principles, she takes their gig as a means to an end. The photo shoot is going to take place in Paris, and once she is in Paris, she can meet her personal guru, Professor Emile Flostre (Michel Auclaire), the father of "Emphaticalism," a philosophy that essentially boils down to "put yourself in my place."
Once in Paris, the supposed ugly duckling turns into a gorgeous swan (or, as it's described in the film, the caterpillar's cocoon did not birth a butterfly, but a bird of paradise), and the black-clad philosopher becomes a stunning model. She is charmed by the romance of the city and by Avery. Crossed wires, though, lead to the usual romantic comedy complications, and a mad dash must be made to put them back together once they are torn apart.
Sure, Funny Face possesses a bizarre anti-intellectualism in the way beauty is given greater value than brains, but that's part of the silly fantasy. There's a reason Kierkegaard has never been the subject of a musical, these things are supposed to be light and airy. Besides, it's pretty easy to see Funny Face for what it is when Astaire is such an old fuddy duddy. The portrayal of the bohemian café where dark personages gather to cry over tragic songs and question the meaning of existence is a little like how your grandfather probably talks about rap music. If you can't laugh at Fred Astaire impersonating a beatnik, then maybe you're as comically dour as the movie would have us believe beatnik's of your kind are. Plus, the same setting provides us with the iconic Audrey dance sequence, parodying Martha Graham, that the Gap so shamelessly appropriated for their vile ad campaign last year.
And those are only a sampling of the pleasures you'll find in Funny Face. There is the great music, the gorgeous clothes, and the truly inventive visual sequences Donen concocts for the magazine layouts at the beginning of the movie. In fact, for as much fun as Paris is, from a filmmaking standpoint, Funny Face is at its best in New York. The "Think Pink" number is a marvel of editing and design, and the outer office of Kay Thompson's executive suite is a beautiful concoction of minimalism and color.
And that wedding dress! I hate weddings, but even I love that dress.
So, yeah, the appeal of Funny Face is that it's a bit hokey, but fifty years is a long time, and it obviously is the good kind of hokey if we're still interested in the movie enough for there to be a 50th Anniversary Edition DVD. With the list of talent involved--Astaire, Hepburn, Donen, Givenchy, Gershwin & Gershwin, etc.--could we expect any less? The joy of the movie, and its fundamental message to Jo, is that sometimes simplicity is okay. Sometimes we want to partake of something just because it looks nice or it makes us feel good. The fun and the predictability of a Cinderella story, which Funny Face very much is, is that it's fun and predictable. What good would it be if it weren't?
Note: Since this DVD was reviewed, another edition has also been released. Read about the 2009 Funny Face - The Centennial Collection here.
A sample of a couple of scenes, however, quickly showed some subtle changes.
For the record, all of these shots come from chapter 11 of the movie. Just waiting to reach the same moment in time as that first group shot, I saw a few pops in the picture in the 1999 version that didn't show up in the 2007 edition. More importantly, though, I saw an upgrade in the color values and in the clarity of overall detail. Look past Audrey in the close-up, and note how many more folds in the curtain you can see. Also compare the staircase in the red-dress shot, the more natural colors in the stone. The same in the group picture: better skin tones, a smoother look to the objects in the set.
Unless my eyes (or my monitor) are playing tricks on me, I see a better picture here.
The two new featurettes are more in keeping with the theme of the movie, but aren't very substantial. Together, they barely crest fifteen minutes. "The Fashion Designer and His Muse" looks at the relationship between Audrey and Givenchy, while "Parisian Dreams" talks about the locations used in Funny Face and explains more about what Richard Avedon contributed to the production.