Beginning in 2019, I will embark on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.
- Film & Year: Gigi (1958)
- Standing: Winner of Best Picture
- Type: Musical
- Other AA Wins: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Set Direction, Best Cinematography (color), Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Musical Score, Best Original Song (“Gigi”)
- Director: Vincente Minnelli
- Studio/Producer: MGM / Arthur Freed
- Cast: Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan, Eva Gabor, Hermione Gingold, Isabel Jeans.
- Production Notes: Adapted for the screen by Arthur Jay Lerner from the novel by Colette, Cinematography by Joseph Ruttenburg, music by Frederick Loewe and Andre Previn (lyrics by Lerner), Film Editing by Adrienne Fazan, Costumes by Cecil Beaton.
- Viewing Order: 1/270
Summary & Viewing Experience:
The film opens on the streets of Paris at the turn of the century 1900s. The elderly Honoré Lachaille (played by Maurice Chevalier) is our guide and narrator, a self-described “collector of beautiful things. Not antiques, mind you, younger things.” He pauses to check out an elderly lady passing by, shoots the audience a “Yikes!” look and asserts, “Yes, definitely younger.”
A quick scene between a man, his wife, and his mistress is followed by Honore’s explanation that every girl either grows up to be married (a wife) or unmarried (a mistress), while gesturing to a 6 or 7 year old girl walking in front of him implying that her chances of being one or the other are 50/50. (Gross). He then launches into the first song of the musical, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls,” which echoes this sentiment with the lines “thank Heaven for little girls, for little girls get bigger every day,” cementing the idea that the only value he sees in the female sex is to age into young ladies who he may leer at. This feels a lot like those cringe worthy “countdown until she’s legal” clocks and websites that female celebrity teens like Emma Watson and the Olsen twins were the subject of. I found this particular song and subject in uncomfortable when watching Gigi for the first time as a teenager, 20 years or so before the Me Too Movement. Unfortunately, age has not made it any less icky.
So here we are, only 5 minutes in and we have already been assigned a guide who thinks women are objects and only even worth pursuing if they are young. Not a great start.
Enter Gigi (Leslie Caron), one of those “little girls” Honore was singing about, only a bit older and in her teens. Gigi is being groomed to be a courtesan like the rest of the women in her family by her Grandmamma (or “Mamita” as she’s known- played by Hermione Gingold) and aunt Alicia (Isabel Jeans), who find her odd because she does not share their interest in material things or the art of entrancing men. Instead, she is more interested in playing cards and hanging around with Gaston Lachaille (Louis Jourdan), nephew of Honore, a womanizer like his uncle who is suddenly bored with his life of halfheartedly romancing women and driving around in expensive cars. He enjoys Gigi’s company, too, and looks at her as something of a kid sister.
Honore encourages Gaston to publicly dump and humiliate his mistress Liane (Eva Gabor), who they found out is also seeing her skating instructor. A little comeuppance wouldn’t be so uncalled for if it hadn’t already been established that Honore is in the habit of keeping multiple mistresses at the same time (including a pair of sisters), making his suggestion more than a little hypocritical. Also adding to the ickiness is Honore’s glee at the prospect of humiliating Liane as he sings, “But think of the bliss, of the pleasure you would miss, when she topples in a heap and you leave her there to weep on the floor.” So while the men of Paris can have as many mistresses as they please, if the women attempt the same they are at the mercy of men who see them as objects and care so little for them that bringing them to tears is a delightful prospect. Gaston is a bit better, but not much. He is against humiliating Liane at first, but only because he finds the idea boring, not because he actually views her as a human being with feelings. Did I forget to mention that following this scene, the men toast themselves with champagne at a job well done after hearing of Liane’s attempted suicide?
Poor little rich boy Gaston is only happy when around the carefree and fun-loving Gigi. Seeing them together causes Mamita and Aunt Alicia to ramp up their efforts in training her, hoping to eventually set Gigi up as Gaston’s mistress. Seeing Gigi in an adult dress with her hair up speeds up the deal as Gaston is shocked to realize that Gigi’s suddenly grown up and he’s in love with her. However, his offer to make her his mistress goes sour. Courtesans are acknowledged by the characters in this film as people to be passed along to the second man once they have become boring to the first, whose future is uncertain, and who are subject to a level of degradation not given to a wife. This is not the life Gigi wants. When she pours her heart out and tells Gaston that being his mistress won’t work for her because eventually he’ll leave her and she’ll be passed on to the next man, his response is to wonder if everything she just said was a nice way of telling him she doesn’t like him, somehow managing to turn it around to himself instead of taking her honest concerns for her future at face value. He lets his love for her slip, but instead of being happy, Gigi can’t imagine how someone who professes to love her could subject her to a life of ridicule and suffering and tells him so. His response is to deflect all blame on to the confused Mamita, accusing her of giving Gigi the wrong idea of what a mistress truly is, that the arrangement is not characterized by vulgarity, but by sweetness and “a tender heart bulging with generosity.” (Nice try, Gaston. Tell that to Liane).
While I realize by the end of the film I’m supposed to be rooting for Gaston and Gigi’s happiness together, that I should want nothing more than to watch them stroll happily together as man and wife while one last (ominous?) chorus of “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” accompanies the fadeout, all I feel is depressed for Gigi. After all, I can’t un-see 2 hours of Gaston being an inconsiderate, womanizing, narcissist. Good try, though. As much as I’d like a happy ending, one can’t help but wonder what will happen when he gets bored again and some other exciting “little girl” comes along…
Would this be my pick for 1958’s Best Picture?
Absolutely not. Though it was visually stunning, the plot was steeped in chauvinism to the point where instead of wanting the girl to get her guy at the end, you wanted the girl to pick up and run.
With the exception of the melodic title song “Gigi” and “The Night They Invented Champagne” (which was more enjoyable for Caron’s onscreen antics throughout, than for the actual music), the songs either came off as uninspired (most of them shared the same structure and gimmicks), unfinished, or obnoxious (see “Thank Heaven For Little Girls”).
The majority of the acting was well and good, but nothing to get excited about. Caron as Gigi and Gingold as Mamita were the standouts; the former because her character was the only one who I didn’t want to hurl expletives at at some point in the film and played both a naïve teen and an almost worldly woman convincingly; the latter because of a mix of flippancy and depth that she carried off well. It’s usually hard to resist Chevalier’s characteristic beaming smile and charm, but in this context it’s more creepy than delightful and is used to make light of some of the film’s more serious subject matter like Liane’s suicide attempt, which was treated as a joke, the implication being she’s done this before for attention and shouldn’t be taken seriously.
The set design and decorations were extraordinary in their rich colors, sumptuous fabrics, and staging. The costumes of the women, in particular, by Cecil Beaton were magnificent and enviable. No one could look bad in those clothes. I do agree that it deserved its wins for Best Art Direction-Set Direction and Best Costume Design.
A quick glance at the other nominees that year offer little explanation to me for why it won, as I would put at least 3 of the 4 ahead of Gigi, without question.
How does it hold up today?
There’s a lot in the film that I can’t see going over as well with modern audiences as it did with 1958’s (the treatment of Liane’s suicide attempt, for instance, and the sexualization of young girls). It certainly didn’t with me. While reviewers generally agree that the film doesn’t age well, many can get past that due to the impressive visuals, story, and etc. I tend to be in the minority.
- IMDb rating = 6.7 out of 10
- Rotten Tomatoes rating = 79% out of 100% fresh by critics (26 fresh vs 7 rotten) and 74% by viewers
Why did it win?
It was certainly a lavish production, colorful and extravagant, that reeked of the classic MGM Midas touch. 1958’s audiences and critics were also apparently not as loathe to the underlying subject matter as I can’t help but be. The film did very well at both the box office and in reviews. The recycled, but effective, plot line of ugly duckling to swan proved irresistible, as it did and would with other films of the type like Sabrina before (1954) and My Fair Lady after (1964). It would pick up 9 Academy Awards at the 1959 ceremony and would hold the record for the most won so far, until the 1960 ceremony when Ben-Hur broke that record with 11 wins.
It supports the age old saying: To each, his own.
My 1958 ranking:
*Will be updated after all films from the year are watched*