Gigi: Best Picture, 1958

The 31st Annual Academy Awards ceremony was hosted by, among others, Bob Hope and Jerry Lewis on the night when Gigi became the biggest winner in motion picture history. The movie was nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Music and Best Song. Other notable contenders included Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (6 nominations, 0 wins), Separate Tables (7 nominations, 2 wins), Auntie Mame (6 nominations, 0 wins), The Defiant Ones (9 nominations, 2 wins) and South Pacific (3 nominations, 1 win). Hitchcock’s masterful Vertigo received an insulting two nominations, for Art Direction and Sound, and didn’t win either. A Touch of Evil, Orson Welles’ famous south-of-the-border noir with Charlton Heston and Janet Leigh, was completely unnominated.

None of the contenders matter in the context of the outcome, though, as Gigi won all 9 awards for which it was nominated, breaking the 3-way tie for most Oscars won (eight) held jointly by Gone With the Wind (1939), From Here to Eternity (1953) and On the Waterfront (1954). Although the record would be broken again the very next year by Ben-Hur, Gigi would remain the largest winner to take home 100% of the awards it was nominated for until The Last Emperor joined it at 9 out of 9 in 1987. Both dropped to second place in 2003 when The Return of the King won all 11 of its nominations. Curiously, as with both The Last Emperor and The Return of the King, Gigi didn’t receive any acting nominations.

Gigi‘s plot, such as it is, tells the story of a young girl in 19th-century Paris (Leslie Caron) who is being groomed by her grandmother (Hermione Gingold) and great-aunt (Isabel Jeans) to one day be the elegant mistress of wealthy men, as they were. Meanwhile, Gaston (Louis Jordan), the wealthy nephew of an old flame of Gigi’s grandmother (Maurice Chevalier), is generally bored with life. The vivacious Gigi, whom he has known all her life, is the only person who can amuse him. It is only a matter of time before he notices that Gigi is not a little girl anymore, but will she be satisfied as nothing more than a mistress?

Gigi was a Lerner and Loewe musical created for the screen on the heels of their successful Broadway musical My Fair Lady (which would not be made into a movie until 1964). It is difficult not to fixate on the resemblance: Gigi plays like My Fair Lady‘s half-witted French cousin. Perhaps the best that can be said about this thoroughly tiresome affair is that it is fully an hour shorter than its infinitely superior musical relative. The production is marred throughout by an attempt to exploit shameless spectacle (outrageously lavish costumes and locations shot ultra-wide in rich, glowing technicolor) in an attempt to mask a complete bankruptcy of ideas.

The plot is obviously very similar to My Fair Lady, and the songs are as well. In fact, at least one song from Gigi was a number that was originally included in My Fair Lady, but was ultimately cut from that production. Many seem to consist of a single line repeated until the audience is thoroughly sick of hearing it. Gigi is a movie that is forced to make the best of the leftovers from superior material. Of course, one element that is sorely lacking here is the grace and charm of Audrey Hepburn in the lead. She was everyone’s ideal for the title character, but had other obligations at the time, prompting Caron to be cast instead.

Caron, of course, had her singing voice dubbed by someone else (as, indeed, Hepburn did), but songs aside, her screen presence cannot compare to that of her fellow actress. Add to that the fact that Gigi is supposed to age noticeably from young girl to beautiful young lady over the course of the movie, when in fact Caron was in her late-20s at the time, and looks it the entire time. Putting a 27-year-old woman in a schoolgirl uniform and sticking ribbons in her hair will not make her look 14, anymore than putting a 14-year-old girl in a sheer white dress and putting her hair up will make her look 27, and it shows. Of course, I am making a wild guess as to Gigi’s supposed age, as we are given no indication at all of what it might be, and she is obviously not meant to look as old at any point as the actress playing her appears to be.

Stripped of its frippery and whimsical frolicking, the core premise of Gigi is outrageous: The training of a young girl to make her living as a high-class prostitute satisfying a string of wealthy clients until they tire of her and cast her off. The abrupt reversal to denigration of the system that takes place during the final moments of the film does little to outweigh nearly two hours of glib glorification of it. And though Chevalier is a great actor and singer, whose irrepressible joie de vivre is one of the few pleasures Gigi has to offer, there is nothing that is not creepy about his rendition of the film’s opening song: “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” If any of that sounds prudish, I apologize, but Gigi simply had no deeper food for thought to offer.

It is a testament to Oscar fallibility that such thin, shallow milquetoast cinema should have broken records while a masterpiece of compelling genius such as Vertigo went virtually ignored that same year. There is no doubt that Vertigo is the film to watch from 1958.

~ by Jared on April 3, 2008.

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