Thursday, September 2, 2010

Gigi: Gagging on Pastry (and the films from the 1950's that should have won Best Picture)

Musicals. In the 1950’s and 1960’s, Hollywood was in love with them. They were the blockbusters of their day. Where today, audiences line up for special effects extravaganzas; audiences came in droves to musicals during the middle of the 20th century. Musicals were seen as a reason to come to the movies. They represented a unique form of entertainment that only Hollywood could provide to masses of Americans (aside from the lucky few able to attend a live Broadway show). Musicals were big-ticket items for film studios during the 1950’s, and no studio produced more quality musicals than MGM and no production team was more adept at staging them than the Arthur Freed unit within the studio.

As discussed earlier in my review of 1951’s Best Picture winner, An American in Paris, the Freed unit became the masters of the musical because they were allowed near-autonomy within MGM. On Gigi, Freed re-teamed with many key An American in Paris cast and crew, among them director Vincente Minnelli, star Leslie Caron, screenwriter/lyricist Alan Jay Lerner (his partner, composer Frederick Loewe, was brought with him fresh off their Tony for the stage version of My Fair Lady), and several others. Gigi even shares the Parisian setting as the 1951 Oscar winner, with the added advantage of actually being filmed on location in the City of Lights. With such proven talent, MGM was basically assured of a monster hit in Gigi, although the non-musical version of the play upon which it was based (adapted from the 1944 novella by French author Colette) was met with tepid response.

Lerner and Loewe essentially My Fair Lady-ized Gigi. The film and the play share basically identical plots, that of an independent girl being made over to find her true love. There are little differences—notably in that Gigi herself is far less uncouth than Eliza Doolittle, and that the film is far less overtly sexist—but the film is essentially a Francophile reworking of Lerner and Loewe’s Broadway success. Minnelli also learned from previous films. Gigi is far less indulgent and artsy as An American in Paris—no seventeen minute ballet sequences here (though I would have liked to see Caron’s dancing talent better utilized in the picture)—and the story, though still very simple, is far more coherent because of it. The location shooting also lends tremendous authenticity to the film. Undoubtedly, Gigi is a polished musical that showcases the talents of craftsmen (and women) at the top of their game.

Yet—like most musicals—for as good as Gigi looks, its story is silly, banal, and predictable. Gigi (Caron) is a young girl training to be a courtesan. Her grandmother, Madame Alvarez (Hermione Gingold), and great aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans), see to Gigi’s education in the ways of high society. They are most invested in finding Gigi a respectable match. Gigi though, comes most alive when she is with Gaston (Louis Jourdan), a mutual friend of hers and Madame Alvarez. The big problem? Gaston is a notorious bachelor, whose reputation has come into ill repute after a break-up with a previous mistress. Though Gigi and Gaston initially have a more care-free, fraternal friendship, it soon blossoms into love. Neither Madame Alvarez nor Aunt Alicia considers Gaston a suitable match for Gigi. For one, Gaston reminds the women of his uncle, Honoré Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier), a lifelong bachelor and notorious charmer (with whom Madame Alvarez had a previous relationship). The other problem is that Gigi doesn’t want to be seen simply as a mistress; if Gaston wishes to win her heart, he must propose marriage—a lifelong partnership—instead of treating Gigi like a girl who is “passed around among men”.

How does it end? You must have about three cents rattling around in your brain if you can’t figure it out.

Like many musicals of its time, Gigi hasn’t aged well for contemporary audiences. First, the whole premise of the film, as stated explicitly by Honoré Lachaille in the opening, is “Like everywhere else, most people in Paris get married, but not all. There are some who will not marry, and some who do not marry. But in Paris, those who will not marry are usually men, and those who do not marry are usually women." That statement does not at all apply to any woman (or man, for that matter) living in contemporary society. Hell, with programs like Sex and the City choosing to be a single woman is seen as empowering instead of cause for spinsterhood. It’s just a sexist attitude (I didn’t mean to imply Gigi wasn’t sexist earlier, it’s just not as overtly and blatantly sexist as My Fair Lady).

And really, what woman—at least one who doesn’t list “gold-digger” as her career aspiration—studies to become a courtesan? I think many female audiences view the ambitions imposed on Gigi by her grandmother and great-aunt to be strictly within the realm of fantasy. Hell, even when the film was released, Variety magazine called the film “100% escapist fare”, suggesting that even in 1958, a good chunk of the audience was hip to the B.S. images that the film concocts.

The most dated element of the film though, has to be Chevalier. His character is meant to be funny, witty and charming. Honoré Lachaille is meant to be seen as a silver fox, but he comes off totally Pepé Le Pew (and many Looney Tunes fans insist that Chevalier was the inspiration for the famously malodorous and overconfident skunk, though creator Chuck Jones insists the character is reverse-autobiographical—i.e. the skunk is brazen toward women whereas Jones was petrified around them). Lending big-time credence to the Pepé comparison is Honoré’s opening number, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls”. It’s meant to be sweet, but when I see an old wrinkle-balls such as Chevalier leering at girls decades younger (Chevalier was 70 when Gigi was released), I can’t help but get a lecherous vibe from the whole thing. And “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” opens and closes the film—what sort of message did the filmmakers think they were trying to send? TV Guide, in their review of the film, sums up Chevalier’s performance perfectly, saying the performance “makes one feel as if you’re gagging on pastry.”

Still, there was a significant portion of the audience that wholly bought into the fantasy created by Minnelli and the Freed unit. Chief among the dreamweavers has to be costume designer Cecil Beaton, whose fashions for the film are simply gorgeous and astonishing. The clothes are easily the best thing about Gigi. Lerner and Loewe give the film a lovely score, though nothing in Gigi is as eminently hummable and catchy as their score for My Fair Lady. Predictably, the film became a box-office smash for MGM, and Gigi quite literally swept away Oscar, going nine-for-nine with its awards won, setting the (short-lived) record for most Oscars won by any single film.

In the year that saw the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo—virtually ignored by the Academy and misunderstood by filmgoers—Gigi was the big-time winner, proving that more often than not, Oscar played it safe.

The following are some choices that, in a decade where the “safe” films were by in large rewarded, would have given the crop of 1950’s Oscar winners some lasting edge.

1950: In a year when the sublime All About Eve won Best Picture, it’s hard to argue with the Academy’s choice. Still, the film’s biggest competition came from director Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, a dark, dark criticism of the film industry. Gloria Swanson—in a truly life-imitates-art role, plays faded and vainglorious star Norma Desmond, who lives in a dilapidated Gothic mansion with her former director turned butler (Erich von Stroheim, also in a life-imitates-art role). Struggling screenwriter William Holden accidentally crashes the funeral being held for Norma Desmond’s chimpanzee, and from there, the past-her-prime actress lures the screenwriter into penning her big comeback and becoming her kept man. Norma Desmond was ready for her close-up; Hollywood, not so much. This warts-and-all look at the film industry was perhaps even more scathing than how All About Eve skewered the theater, and the film remains a classic today.

1951: Oscar loved the insipid An American in Paris at the expense of two films of much higher quality. First is A Place in the Sun, for which director George Stevens took home the 1951 Best Director trophy. Adapted from Theodore Dreiser’s novel An American Tragedy (the last word of that title should clue you into the fact that this film might be a bit of a bummer), the film stars Montgomery Clift (brooding and tragic, as always) as a factory worker who dates and impregnates plain Jane Shelley Winters. Monty falls way hard for the society girl played by Elizabeth Taylor, and when Shelley insists that Monty marry her, he is driven to murder to resolve his dilemma. But hey—Liz Taylor (when she was really hot) vs. Shelley Winters—who do you think Monty Clift is going to choose?

A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Elia Kazan, would have been an equally worthy choice. Tennessee Williams’ play was both a smash and revolutionary on Broadway. All four main characters—played by Marlon Brando, Vivien Leigh, Karl Malden, and Kim Hunter—were nominated for the top four acting Oscars, and everyone but Brando (whose sexually charged turn as Stanley Kowalski probably scared the holy fuck out of Academy voters) took home a statue.

The power of neither film has diminished; both were likely too much of a downer to conceivably capture the Best Picture Oscar.

1952: The Hollywood blacklist came into play in denying Fred Zinnemann’s real-time Western High Noon the Oscar it deserved. Gary Cooper did win an Oscar for playing Marshal Will Kane, who indelibly and courageously stands up to a gang of assassins all by himself when everyone else in Hadleyville is too chickenshit to do so. A western that not only creates a legendary character but also provides a moral backbone or a melodrama about the circus? Which film sounds better to you? It shouldn’t be surprising which film took home the gold.

1953: From Here to Eternity proved to be a good choice (although its victory was also one of the Academy’s biggest instances of giving themselves a mulligan—how much of From Here to Eternity’s victory was because Oscar failed to reward director Zinnemann’s High Noon the year before?), but 1953 also saw the release of one of the finest romantic comedies ever filmed, William Wyler’s Roman Holiday. Roman Holiday was the product of another blacklisted screenwriter—Dalton Trumbo—but the script never errs in telling the story of a princess—none other than Audrey Hepburn, in the role that was her Hollywood coming out party—who disguises herself as a regular girl when in Rome (you know, doing as the Romans do). Hepburn utterly enchants not only Gregory Peck’s reporter but every man (and woman) watching the film. In a genre notorious for shitty, stupid movies, Roman Holiday truly shines. Hepburn took home Best Actress, the film was not rewarded in kind.

1954: Again, On the Waterfront, tough to argue that film shouldn’t have won the Oscar. Alfred Hitchcock might have something to say about that though, as his masterpiece about voyeurism, Rear Window, is what I feel is a better and more entertaining film. Jimmy Stewart (confined to a wheelchair), Grace Kelly (in one gorgeous Edith Head costume after another), Thelma Ritter (salty as always), an intensely suspenseful script, endless psychological debate and insight, and profoundly influential. What doesn’t this film have? What could anyone possibly dislike about it? Nothing is the answer to both questions. Nothing is also the number of competitive Oscars Alfred Hitchcock won during his career, and Rear Window also failed to garner a Best Picture nomination.

1955: Marty is a great film and an unassailable choice for Best Picture. Even the French loved it. Still, it is a relatively unknown film. More famous—and equally as good—is Nicholas Ray’s definitive portrait of teenage angst, Rebel Without a Cause, which only made an immortal out of James Dean (though dying young and tragic in your Porsche certainly helps that cause). Ray’s film is also one of the most gorgeous widescreen films ever shot. The film 55 years old and still arguably the greatest and most insightful film about teenagers and their relationships ever made.

1956: Anything would have been a better choice than Around the World in 80 Days. Anything. The film that should have won the Oscar—and wasn’t even nominated—is John Ford’s The Searchers. The film is only considered to be not only one of the greatest Westerns (if not the greatest) ever made, but simply one of the greatest American films ever made. John Ford won Best Director four times—clearly an Academy darling—and John Wayne was one of (and frankly, still is) Hollywood’s biggest stars—and Ethan Edwards is his greatest role—their combined power should have made The Searchers a shoo-in for Oscar gold. I have a hunch though, that Academy voters didn’t really like seeing Wayne play a racist, ornery, and ultimately unforgivable cuss. Considering the quality—or more accurately, the lack thereof—of the film which won Best Picture, Oscar’s neglect of The Searchers may just be the biggest oversight in Academy history.

1957: The Bridge on the River Kwai: great film, worthy Oscar winner. Still, perfectly good alternatives were released that year. Best Picture nominee 12 Angry Men has probably been seen (or read) by every kid in high school in America, and Sidney Lumet’s film is considered to be one of the greatest courtroom dramas of all time (#2 on AFI’s list of Top 10 Courtroom Dramas).

There is also Stanley Kubrick’s WWI film Paths of Glory, with Kirk Douglas (who is also an Oscar bridesmaid) in the lead role. Kubrick’s film is even more incisive than The Bridge on the River Kwai with its anti-war message, and it displays the mastery of technical craftsmanship evident in all of his work.

Neither Lumet nor Kubrick ever won Best Director nor any of their great films ever won Best Picture. Lean was even more successful in 1962 with the victory of Lawrence of Arabia. In hindsight, 1957 was a golden opportunity to honor either of these men and their work.

1958: Should have been the un-nominated Vertigo. I am of the opinion that Vertigo is Hitchcock’s finest film, and oddly, with its memorable makeover scene and lead actor Jimmy Stewart’s (who was never better) attitude and obsession toward Kim Novak, it is an evil-twin version of themes in Gigi. Lush, deep, and utterly brilliant in every sense of the word, Vertigo should have been the film to finally bring Hitchcock an Oscar. Hell, you can turn off the picture and simply listen to the intoxicating Bernard Hermann score and the film is light years better than Gigi.

1959: Ben-Hur wins eleven Oscars (sorry to spoil it here). Cleans house. Yet two films released in 1959 are far, far better than the sword-and-sandals epic. First—Billy Wilder’s comedy Some Like It Hot (only considered to be the finest comedy ever made—#1 on AFI’s list of 100 Greatest Comedies). Its final line: “Nobody’s perfect.” The cliché is that the film is (and the cliché is right). Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis witness a gangland shooting and go on the lam, cross-dressing as women in an all-girl band. Curtis falls head-over heels in love with Marilyn Monroe (wouldn’t you?), and dons a second disguise—as a millionaire—to woo her. Lemmon—in drag—is aggressively pursued by an actual millionaire, who refuses to let a little thing like gender get in the way of true love. You’re laughing your ass off just reading this (and Monroe was never better). Total Oscars—one for Costume Design (though Wilder and screenwriter I.A.L. Diamond were given the kiss-and-makeup treatment in 1960, when The Apartment won Best Picture).

Finally, third time proved definitely not to be the charm for Hitchcock, as his classic thriller North by Northwest is denied a Best Picture nomination. Leading man Cary Grant (like his director, inconceivably an Oscar bridesmaid) woos Eva Marie Saint, fights James Mason, is chased by a cropduster in a corn field, dangles from Mt. Rushmore, and has everyone mistake his identity and for all his trouble also comes up a zero.

Sometimes—although they do get it right from time to time—I wonder if the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences even knows what a great film is.


Gigi (1958)

Director: Vincente Minnelli

Starring: Leslie Caron, Louis Jourdan, Maurice Chevalier*, Hermione Gingold, Isabel Jeans

Studio: MGM

Total Oscars: 9 (Best Picture—Arthur Freed, Best Director—Vincente Minnelli, Best Adapted Screenplay—Alan Jay Lerner, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (color), Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Score (musical), Best Original Song—“Gigi” by Lerner and Frederick Loewe) out of 9 total nominations**
*Chevalier was also awarded the Academy’s Honorary Oscar for “his contributions to entertainment for over half a century”
**Gigi, with its Oscar sweep, set the record for most Oscars won by a single film


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