Directed by Vincent Minnelli
Written By Alan J. Lerner
Based on the novella by Colette
Starring Leslie Caron, Maurice Chavalier, Louis Jourdan and Hermione Gingold
In the 1950’s the Academy Awards were of two minds. On the one hand, they wanted to honor big, hit movies that took advantage of the new advances in widescreen and color photography and amounted to little more than escapist entertainment – in other words, the kind of movies they wanted people to ignore their TVs to come out and see. On the other hand, the Academy also wanted to honor serious films that were emotionally and socially challenging and meant something. Sometimes the two aims coincided, but usually not, which was why you had fluffier films like An American in Paris, The Greatest Show on Earth, Around the World in 80 Days and Gigi– all of which I’d call escapist sorts of movies – winning Oscars one year only to turn around and have All About Eve, From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront and Marty – all of which I’d call sober and a bit more challenging – winning the next. Sometimes, if you were real lucky, the film successfully straddled the two lines, such as Bridge on the River Kwai or Ben-Hur.
In some cases I suppose you could argue that the escapist fare was the best picture of the year – the most likely film to make the argument on was An American in Paris. Unfortunately that argument cannot be made with Gigi, which for me is the worst kind of escapist fare, that being the outright dreck and certainly Gigi must rank as one of the worst films to win Best Picture.
Fifty years on from it the win for Gigi, and director Minnelli, seems like it could only have been the product of trying to correct past slights. After all, Minnelli had only previously rated a nomination just once – for an American in Paris, which he lost – despite the fact that he’d directed Father of the Bride, Lust for Life, and The Bad and the Beautiful, the film that has the distinction of winning the most Oscars in a year without having been the recipient of a Best Picture nod. Because he had a history of decent films behind him that were perennially overlooked they had to give him an Oscar for something. Sadly, they chose Gigi for that distinction, which must be rated as one of the lesser films of Minnelli’s oeuvre.
The story of Gigi is fairly rote by now: man falls in love with a girl he’s only ever seen as being a child, she falls in love with him, but they each have some preconceived notions about what the other wants in them that stands in the way – for the moment – of happiness. It’s a thin story, padded out with thinner songs, all of which made a two hour movie as tedious as could be, so much so I thought it was four hours long. Unfortunately, the story failures weren’t the only place it lacked.
The acting leaves much to be desired. Maurice Chevalier, who won a Golden Globe for his performance, is supposed to be charming and amusing in his bachelorhood but instead merely comes across as a leering old lecher, especially when he signs “Thank Heaven For Little Girls” with that creepy smile plastered on his face.
Leslie Caron is equally as bad, lacking the ability to play subtlety at all, which I’m not sure if that’s a result of being a lousy actress or the fact that she can barely speak English in what would be called a fluent way – her accent is so off-putting I could hardly listen to her – not to mention her mouth and eyes are the weirdest things I’ve ever seen on a woman considered beautiful. And her dancing? It’s so herky-jerky I thought she was having a seizure. Louis Jourdan fairs best, but only in a relative way. While he seems to have a good command of the English language he only is capable of showing two emotions. Unfortunately, one of the emotions seems to be stomping around and raising his voice, if you can call that an emotion at all.
Looking at it I can see why the film didn’t rate any acting nods – it didn’t deserve them. However, that Minnelli rated a nod as Director, and ultimately a statue, is the real head-scratcher. The film is fairly static and unimaginatively directed for a musical and if maybe a little more care or craftsmanship had been poured into either of those categories the film might have risen above being bland and boring. Unfortunately, it does not.
Needless to say, two fine films were completely overlooked for Best Picture of 1958: Vertigo and Touch of Evil, both of which would have been far more deserving than the ultimate champion.
I really don’t believe in nitpicking movies because nitpicking can be tedious and never-ending. After all, even the most careful and scrupulous director makes a movie riddled with continuity problem so what’s the point. However, all of my silence on at least one issue finally came to a head with Gigi, so I feel like I have to let it out.
In Gigi I was really distracted by the accents. Specifically, the French accents. I recognize that the French speak French so whenever you have the French played by the English, speaking English in their English accents, you are going to lose some of that verisimilitude. However, in an effort to regain some of that verisimilitude it is not necessary to load the film down with actual French people. They’re not speaking French in the movie and yet, they have French accents that, in Leslie Caron’s case, was quite often impossible to understand. Perhaps I wouldn’t complain about this so much if everybody in the film was French, but some of the actors were English, some were not. Minnelli, as a director, seems to have a problem with this as Vincent Van Gogh in Lust for Life was played by an American in an American accent and his brother, Theo, was played by a brit, with a British accent.
My wish, when it comes to film accents is that, if you’re not going to shoot the film in the language of the people the film is about you can dispense with accents altogether and should strive to have every actor speak with the same accent. At least that way you can maintain the illusion that the actors are all speaking the same language.
In 1959 Gigi, of all movies, became the big daddy of all movies, winning 9 Oscars. The record would last a single year, surpassed the next year by Ben-Hur, which turned it all the way up to 11.
Gigi, as well as having been the temporary big daddy of the Oscars has the distinction of being in two other select groups. The first is that it’s one of just five films to win Best Picture that made a clean sweep of it’s awards. Those five are:
- 1 for 1: Grand Hotel (1931/32)
- 5 for 5: It Happened One Night (1934)
- 9 for 9: Gigi (1958)
- 9 for 9: The Last Emperor (1987)
- 11 for 11: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
The other distinct group it belongs in is Best Picture winners that didn’t recieve a single acting nod. The eleven in that group are:
- Wings (1927/8)
- All Quiet on the Western Front (1929/30)
- Grand Hotel (1931/2)
- An American in Paris (1951)
- The Greatest Show on Earth (1952)
- Around the World in Eighty Days (1956)
- Gigi (1958)
- The Last Emperor (1987)
- Braveheart (1995)
- The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
- Slumdog Millionaire (2008)
(Incidentally, I want to give a big shout-out to Filmsite.Org for help on those bits of trivia.
For the other winners and films left to see, click here.