Over the course of The Oscar Project I have watched films dating all the way back to the 1920s. The world has changed a lot since then. Some of these films have provided striking moments of racial insensitivity and misogyny.
Sometimes it’s obvious like a guy singing and dancing in blackface (The Great Ziegfeld, 1936). Sometimes it’s just a line here or there that peels back the corner to reveal a different mindset from a different era (Cimarron, 1931). But there has not been a best picture winner so completely over-the-top outdated in its way of thinking that I’d say it couldn’t possibly be made today without throngs of protestors screaming for the heads of the filmmakers. Until now.
Set in 1900 Paris, Gigi opens with Honoré Lachaille (Maurice Chevalier) as the narrator who speaks directly to the camera about his life as a reprobate womanizer…um… excuse me…I mean, his life as a charming 70-year old confirmed bachelor who watches schoolgirls play in the park as he sings “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” Yep… it’s as uncomfortable as it sounds. And we’re just getting started!
Leslie Caron reunites with director Vincente Minelli 7 years after An American in Paris. This was in the middle of Caron’s stretch of 8 years appearing as the titular star of Lili, Gaby, Gigi and Fanny. Surprisingly she did NOT appear as Annie, Carrie, Jackie, Lucy or Rocky.
The film makes a point of explaining that Gigi can’t dance but she wants to take lessons. It felt like a setup having already seen Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly trip the light fantastic in An American in Paris. It would be like having Adele show up in a film as a woman who wished she could sing. You just know that at some point she’s gonna belt one out. But in the end there’s no payoff. One of many disappointments.
Gigi is a young girl (15 according to the novel but never specified in the film) raised by two veteran Parisian courtesans (Hermione Gingold and Isabel Jeans). Now, a courtesan is…well…more or less a prostitute. But this is high society so they focus mostly on companionship and less on “going into a gentleman’s bed.”
But make no mistake. Gigi is being groomed to be the mistress of wealthy young Gaston (Louis Jourdan).
Gaston is a family friend and the relationship between he and Gigi begins plutonic but it’s still a little uncomfortable.
“Come along before l spank you.” – Gaston to Gigi
This line is spoken before he actually does take her playfully across his lap and gives her a spank.
This is the theme of the story: The superficial relationship between men and women in 1900 Paris.
Men don’t get married they simply go from woman to woman night after night. Women train to attend to the needs of wealthy men who can care for (but not marry) them.
On top of that I was shocked how this film took a very cavalier attitude toward suicide. Yes, suicide.
When Gaston is slighted by his current companion (Eva Gabor) he jettisons her. The next day word spreads that she attempted suicide. Women casually talk about how she’s done this before and roll their eyes that, like always, it was with “insufficient poison.”
But what’s even more unsettling is how this is celebrated as a notch in Gaston’s belt.
“Your first suicide. What an achievement! And at your age. To you, Gaston. May this be the first of many!” – Honoré
This film is full of horrible people.
Besides “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” there are several nice musical numbers like “The Night They Invented Champagne” and “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore.” The Lerner and Loewe music is the real (and only) strength of this film. The titular track won the Oscar for best song but “I Remember it Well” is the highlight, providing the only genuinely charming moment of the film.
With a little over 30 minutes left the film decided to have a plot and give a couple of characters an arc. Probably too little too late. Gaston’s revelation about Gigi and his coming to grips with it is all crammed into one 5-minute musical sequence.
But falling in love doesn’t change anything. The plan is still for Gigi to become Gaston’s courtesan and Gigi’s grandmother and aunt negotiate the contract on Gigi’s behalf.
But Gigi knows that life won’t end well for her and at first refuses before finally giving in to become Gaston’s courtesan.
“Gaston, l have been thinking. I’d rather be miserable with you than without you.” – Gigi
How touching. I can’t believe that isn’t in more people’s wedding vows.
How am I supposed to feel about this? A 15-year old gets pushed into becoming a prostitute?
Gigi: What’s that in your pocket?
Gaston: l’m sorry.
Gigi: What is it?
Gaston: lt’s a present for you. Wouldn’t you like to see it?
Gigi: Oh, no. Not now. Later.
SPOILER: It’s a jewelry box with a necklace.
But besides the subject matter the movie seems to meander from song to song without anything really compelling happening. A lot of scenes are devoted to Gaston first having an explosive reaction, then walking around Paris, then having a change of heart and then returning to Gigi and her grandmother’s apartment. I think it happens 4 times.
In his final change of heart he decides he wants to marry Gigi instead of keeping her as his courtesan. The End.
This film was rated G. I find that surprising.
What’s even more surprising are the films Gigi beat out for best picture, namely Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Defiant Ones not to mention Vertigo which wasn’t even nominated for best picture that year.
In fact, the Hitchcock classic got very little Oscar love at all garnering only 2 nominations for sound recording and set decoration.
Gigi became the first real Oscars buzzsaw. Wings had gone 2 for 2 in the first Oscars and in 1934 It Happened One Night went an impressive 5 for 5 considering those 5 were the BIG five (picture, director, actor, actress and screenplay). But Gigi’s 9 for 9 set a record that would stand for almost 30 years.
If you went up against Gigi that night you went home disappointed. And there were some excellent films that found themselves on the business end of Buzzsaw Gigi.
The Academy Awards of the 1950s have really distressed me. I knew that Hollywood was different back then but I had no idea how deep this obsession with spectacle went. To think that films like A Streetcar Named Desire, A Place in the Sun, High Noon, The Quiet Man, Giant, 12 Angry Men, Witness for the Prosecution, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Defiant Ones all lost to stinkburgers like Gigi, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days and An American in Paris it feels like a tragedy. Not a real life tragedy, mind you, but an artistic tragedy which of course isn’t that important in the grand scheme of things.
Nonetheless I’ve found myself repeatedly wondering how the heck these movies won best picture. My hope is that there’s a light at the tunnel. My fear is that it’s a train headed straight for me.