Wednesday 16 May 2012

Movie Review: Gypsy (1962)

A musical biography, Gypsy is all about Rose Hovick, the mother of celebrated stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, rather than the story of Gypsy herself. A tad self-indulgent, the film nevertheless hits many high notes.

It's the 1920s, and Rose (Rosalind Russell) is the prototypical stage mother, desperate for her young blonde daughter June to achieve success on the vaudeville circuit. Older daughter Louise is less talented and apparently not suitable for life as a star. Rose was never herself successful, but teams up with minor show business promoter Herbie Sommers (Karl Malden) and stops at nothing to place June in the middle of a tacky show that achieves modest success, with Louise very much on the sidelines.

June grows into a teenager but Rose, terrified of ever growing old, still treats her like a child. June reacts by suddenly getting married and fleeing her domineering mother. Rose is left with no choice but to turn all her attention to Louise (Natalie Wood). An unexpected detour into a cheap burlesque theatre in Kansas exposes Louise to the art of stripping: to her mother's horror, Louise stumbles upon something she is good at. She adopts the stage name of Gypsy Rose Lee and her career as an exotic dancer takes off.

Gypsy is 143 minutes long, and it's highly questionable whether there is enough story to fill two and half hours of screen time. Director Mervyn LeRoy, adapting the book based on the stage play inspired by a book, instead packs the movie with songs, most of them sung by Russell, and too many of them the same: the theme of never giving up, battling the odds, striving for success, and wanting it all is repeated in various guises. Once Rose's resolute persona is set, her songs, although generally short in duration, become predictable and teeter on tiresome.

But Rose is a such a powerful personality that the film gets away with it. The role model for any mother wanting to trample all over her children's lives to fill the void in her own, Rose is overbearing and relentless. She dupes her own father, drags her children across the country, insists on treating the teen-aged June like a baby, reacts to losing June by setting up Louise as a straight swap regardless of the gap in talent, leaves Herbie hanging for years without committing to him, and is finally resentful rather than happy when Louise achieves success. Rose's destructive blind ambition is such that any mother watching Gypsy would instantly feel better about herself.

Natalie Wood has relatively little to do but does it well. It is only in the final quarter of the film that the persona of Gypsy Rose Lee emerges from the wreckage of Louise's psyche, and Wood as Gypsy immediately brightens the movie. Finally a star in her own right and not because of her mother's incessant pushing, Gypsy shines on stage and quickly graduates from tacky to glamorous locales. That after all the years of struggle Rose sees nothing in Gypsy's success except her own left-behind agony is confirmation of her abject self-obsession.

As Herbie, Karl Malden has the thankless role of being drawn to Rose's thorny personality and holding out for the day when she will see in him more than just another stage enabler. Herbie is patient and resilient, and Rose takes full advantage.

LeRoy manages to sufficiently break Gypsy out of its stage confines, although it remains very much an artificial set-bound production. The glossy production design overpowers the attempts at recreating the grim reality of struggle on the second rate vaudeville tour scene.

Gypsy is a grand celebration of a larger than life mother, with destiny delivering a distorted realization of a dream. Yes, one of her daughters achieves stardom, but Rose never anticipated neither the art form nor the emptiness that remains when the success of others fails to conceal the failure of her own life.

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