Release Date: 25 May, 1958
Oscar Ceremony: 6 April, 1959
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Starring: Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan
Nominees: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Auntie Mame, Separate Tables, The Defiant Ones
“Bad table manners, my dear Gigi, have broken up more households than infidelity.” – Aunt Alicia
Vincente Minnelli and Leslie Caron, the director and leading lady of An American in Paris, have teamed up again to make yet another Oscar-winning musical. That’s right, I’m talking about Gigi, winner of NINE Academy awards. Pretty impressive, right?
I am going to be completely honest and admit that I feel very conflicted about this one. On the one hand, it’s cute, the art design is superb, the songs flow nicely and the acting is convincing. On the other hand, there’s some really weird and problematic stuff going on. I just want to put that out there.
First off, I know I’m not supposed to attribute so much importance to women’s looks but doesn’t Leslie Caron look so much better here than she did in An American in Paris? I just can’t get over the difference. If you don’t remember, go check out my previous post, Best Picture winner #24. In Gigi, she still plays a French woman except in this case I think the term “girl” would be more appropriate. Also, the story is set at the turn of the 20th century, so the setting and social context are very different. Young Gigi lives with her mother and grandmother (although we never actually see the former) in an average home in Paris. Her grandmother often sends her to her great aunt’s place for etiquette lessons in the hopes that she’ll become a courtesan. It’s kind of like a bizarrely pretentious version of The Princess Diaries for no good reason whatsoever. The only difference is that unlike Julie Andrews, Aunt Alicia does not seem to display any empathy for Gigi, and her view of the world is all backwards. She basically tries to turn Gigi into a despicable upper-class snob by teaching her to memorize the names of different precious stones found in jewelry, showing her how to eat lobster, and essentially telling her that her biggest goal in life should be to become another man’s mistress. MISTRESS. Not even wife or true love.
Gigi’s grandma is nothing like Aunt Alicia, but she’s naive and thinks Alicia knows best. As a result, when an old family friend (and wealthy high-society bachelor) Gaston starts seeing Gigi as more than a little sister, Grandma becomes obsessed with sending Gigi back for more lessons so she can win his heart. The problem is, neither of these old ladies seem to understand that the only reason Gaston starts being attracted to Gigi is exactly BECAUSE of her casual and candid demeanour. He doesn’t want another typical ladylike mistress; he’s too bored with that kind of life. It becomes ridiculously frustrating to watch the story unfold and to see Gigi turn into something she’s not. However, at least the movie is implicitly denouncing these ridiculous practices, because we’re meant to see things through Gigi’s eyes, and Gigi clearly suffers through this. Ultimately, outdated old-fashioned bourgeois values are really not necessary to find true love. Just be who you are and people will love you for it. It’s a good message.
Okay, here’s where things start getting weird. The man pictured above is womanizer Honoré Lachaille, who also happens to be Gaston’s uncle. He serves as the movie’s “storyteller” as he is the first one we meet in the movie. He starts commenting about the members of high-society that he’s surrounded by. The costumes and setting give you a good idea of what life was like back then and they’re also exceptionally beautiful. Vincente Minnelli really has a way with colours. However, everything starts going downhill when Honoré describes himself as a “lover and collector of beautiful things.” What’s wrong with that statement? Oh, well, it turns out that those “beautiful things” are actually girls, which he specifically calls “younger things.” WHAT? And as if that wasn’t bad enough already, he proceeds to sing a song called “Thank Heaven for Little Girls” while watching a group of young girls playing in the park. What is he, like, 70? I can usually take a joke but this was just plain creepy. I almost want to teleport myself into this movie and put up signs all over that park of his picture and a message warning parents to keep their daughters away from this man. This type of thing would never slide today.
Anyways, I told myself it probably wasn’t meant to be interpreted that way, and if it was, it was probably a joke. I moved on fairly quickly. The thing is, there are a bunch of other things that happen in the movie that just kept getting more and more awkward. For example, Gaston dumps one of his mistresses after having caught her trying to run off with her skating instructor. She takes it quite badly and tries to commit suicide, which is apparently something she does on a regular basis when her suitors leave her. When the whole situation makes the newspapers and Honoré hears about it, he congratulates his nephew on his “first suicide.” And then you wonder why some men grow up to be total jerks to women. The other thing is, if you take a step back and think about the plot for a second, the whole thing is about this rich older man who falls for a teenage girl and wants her to become his mistress. Sure, she resists at first, but then it slowly starts happening (much to Honoré’s delight… she’s so YOUNG). There’s also some more questionable behaviour going on, but I can’t spoil everything for you.
Gigi gives out some serious My Fair Lady vibes and Leslie Caron gives out some serious Audrey Hepburn vibes. Although that movie did not come out until 1964, it was still a broadway musical before that. I’ll actually get the chance to re-watch it soon because it won Best Picture in 1965… only 5 more movies to go. Maybe seeing Gigi will give me a new perspective on it. I’ll let you know. Anyways, until then let’s end on a positive note since I really wanted to like Gigi, and in many ways I did. I want to bring up the costumes again. I have not been this visibly impressed since Gone With the Wind in 1939. The set decor was equally breathtaking. The whole thing was pretty much eye candy. Another thing I really appreciated was the fact that the musical numbers were seamlessly integrated into the movie and the lyrics actually advanced the story. Finally, Leslie Caron was unbelievably charming and free-spirited in the lead role. She truly stole the show. Controversial values aside, Gigi was an entertaining film that kept me attentive until the end. Say what you will about Vincente Minnelli, but one thing’s for sure: he knows how to put on a show.