Last night while making dinner I watched the musical “Funny Face” (1957), starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. Not being a fan of Astaire – which amounts to heresy in some quarters – I had always avoided it. Being a fan of Hepburn’s however, I decided to at least give it a chance.
I was struck from the first by how much the recent film “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006) took many of its cues from this earlier film. In a way it’s not surprising, since Hollywood has been pushing Anne Hathaway as the new Audrey Hepburn for some time now. Admittedly, this is a comparison somewhat unfair to both actresses.
Yet notice how Maggie Prescott (Kay Thompson) in “Funny Face” comes charging into her domain as editor of a prestigious fashion magazine, past a pair of secretaries, to the terror of all around her. Her sanctum sanctorum looks almost exactly like that of another “M.P”,” Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) in “Prada”, complete with almost the same view of Midtown Manhattan. There’s a discussion in both films about how important the choice of a particular color can be for world commerce. There’s even a scene where Jo Stockton (Hepburn) runs away to hide in the darkroom of Dick Avery (Astaire), not unlike a similar scene in “Prada” between Andy Sachs (Hathaway) and Nigel (Stanley Tucci).
Does this mean that “The Devil Wears Prada” is merely a rip-off? Well, no: and actually, I found “Funny Face” to be a pretty boring film. “Prada” on the whole is a better-acted movie, and has a more compelling storyline. There again however, the comparison is somewhat unfair, because there’s a big difference between a fluffy old Hollywood musical, and a contemporary dramedy. Yet the fact that one can even make such a comparison, between the classic and the contemporary in cinema, is important.
If we are to understand where our culture comes from, we need to continually be educating ourselves on how to perceive the roots of the past in the fruits of the present. Contemporary musicians like Chris Thile and Alison Krauss for example, look back to Bach or the Civil War era, even as they work with modern artists from different genres like Justin Timberlake or Robert Plant. The modern-day city of Washington, D.C. features monumental buildings and urban planning elements that reference England, France, Ancient Greece, and Rome, four cultures which had a significant philosophical impact on the Founders. Even the “Star Wars” saga would not have been possible without George Lucas being very much aware of the medieval legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
Thus, even if “Funny Face” in the end isn’t a particularly good movie, the lesson here is a good one. When we can perceive how one film references another, then we can begin to understand how not just movies, but all of Western culture – from art to music, literature to architecture – is often doing the same thing. A vibrant culture is an inventive one, that doesn’t slavishly copy the past. At the same time, it should also acknowledge the contributions of the past, to maintain that sense of where we come from. Training our eyes to look for these types of connections then, will make us better-appreciate the richness of the world around us.