MY FAVORITE MUSICAL (Not Quite Random Favorites….In No Particular Order)

Gigi (1958)
D. Vincente Minelli

Gigi has had a curious critical life. Upon release, it gained wide acclaim, including nine Oscars (though there were no acting nominations–Maurice Chevalier did win a special Oscar for lifetime achievement in the same year).

It’s reputation remained safe for a generation or so, then it began to slip down the charts. When the American Film Institute named its Top 100 films in 1997 and, again in 2007, Gigi was nowhere to be found. Same story when AFI named its 25 Greatest Movie Musicals in 2006.

A more typical modern take might be represented by TV Guide‘s 3.5 out of 5 stars (whilst accusing the French stars of a French writer’s story set and filmed in Paris of being….too French–I don’t make this stuff up folks).

David Thomson’s “It makes me sick,” is a little on the harsh side but, were you to accuse him of being the Donald Trump of the crit-illuminati, he and his supporters would probably just claim he’s only saying what others are thinking but afraid to say out loud.

Well, TV Guide is middle-brow mush and no one familiar with David Thomson’s writing has ever been surprised to learn there’s such a thing as a crackhead.

The earlier consensus that Gigi was Hollywood’s last great classical musical, and perhaps the peak of the form, was spot on. There was no need to revise it.

What struck me on my most recent viewing (I’ve probably seen it a dozen times, but it had been a while), was how not one of its special qualities could be replicated today–or for many years past.

I know I beat a dead horse when I write of lost culture, but to watch Gigi in 2017 is to be grateful for its power to transport. Because if one got stuck on the distance we’ve traveled from the century-gone world it depicts, or the half-century-gone world in which it was made, something–either the film or your life–would be unbearable.

Which is all the stranger for it being the story of a prostitute in training.

Okay, a courtesan in training. A classy prostitute.

But still….

It isn’t where you’d think to find echoes of a Lost Civilization.

They are there, though.

Leslie Caron–26 and a new mother when it filmed–got no love from anyone but the public for embodying the edge between sixteen and womanhood. She was famously hypercritical of herself, and there were no major awards and no Oscar nomination. But, in 1958, only Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running (Minelli’s other big picture of the year) matched her (she didn’t win anything either, though at least she scored an Oscar Nom). Even with her singing voice dubbed–the film’s one mistake–and Minelli disappointed that he couldn’t get Audrey Hepburn (who had starred in the part on Broadway years earlier), Caron brought the magic.

There are people who don’t get it. Crackheads mostly.

In the fifties, Caron lit up everything she was in and never shone brighter than here. From that, everything else flowed.

The cast–the non-Oscar cast–was perfect even in their own time and it’s unimaginable now, that anyone living and age appropriate could play a single role as well.

The sets and costumes, perhaps the most lavish and detailed in Hollywood’s glorious history of paying almost absurdist level attention to such things, fill the eye in shot after shot.

That’s shot after shot directed by Vincente Minelli, who has no near modern equivalent. (Gigi and Some Came Running in the same year? Please.)

No one living could write appropriate music for this or any story. And, if they used the old songs, there would be no one to sing them, dubbed or otherwise. In a theater perhaps….but not under the merciless eye and ear of the camera and the sound stage.

And, if, by chance, any–or even all–of that happened, there would be no audience to sell it to.

Judging by how far Gigi has fallen from favor, TV Guide and David Thomson assisting (though hardly alone), it may not be much longer that it holds it public appeal. As time passes, these things fall more and more into the hands of the few. And if they are not there to recommend quality….

Well, we know how that goes.

I’ve always been a big fan of musicals, but I hardly watch them anymore. In a world where even rock and roll is on the verge of vanishing behind a wall of indifference (or perhaps I should say a pose of indifference, since the walling off of all common culture is much desired by people who would rather die than admit that’s a trowel in their hand), they are a step too far.

Two hours of forcing my attention to remain on the moment, when all it wants to do is wonder where the world that could produce this went, is too strenuous, even painful, to sustain the kind of pure enjoyment musicals once delivered.

Everything, even Gigi, has become a bit Wiemar-ish.

Hard to laugh–or even breathe–when they’re fighting in the streets boys.

But it’s not yet impossible to smile.

And that’s not nothing.

ROMAN HOLIDAY IN THE REAR VIEW MIRROR (And Then There Was Hollywood….Fifth Rumination)

Roman Holiday (1953)
D. William Wyler

There’s a famous anecdote about the discovery of Audrey Hepburn, from the notoriously unreliable Anita Loos, which is too good not to be true.

Colette, the famous French authoress of the Gigi stories, had refused all requests for rights to the stories for decades until she saw Loos’s stage adaptation of her own Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. She agreed to sell the Broadway rights to Gigi if Loos would do the book. Loos signed on.

The rights were bought, Loos wrote her adaption, the theater was booked and the cast and crew assembled. As the date for official rehearsals drew nigh, the only thing missing was an actress right for the title role. In the midst of the New York producers developing itchy scalps and premonitions of doom, Loos received a telegram from Colette that read:

Have found Gigi. Come at once.

Loos rounded up her pal Paulette Goddard (the actress who David Selznick had finally settled on for Scarlett O’Hara once upon a time, until the last second discovery of then virtually unknown Vivien Leigh altered the Cosmos) and they caught the overnight express to Paris.

When they arrived at their hotel, they were told that Colette had sent a package to their room.

In the room, they found a model’s portfolio lying on the bed. No message.

Loos thumbed through the portfolio without comment. Then she handed it to Goddard.

Goddard leafed through the pictures, put the portfolio back on the bed and said:

“Maybe she lisps or something.”

Within a few weeks Audrey Hepburn was cast for the lead in the Broadway version of Gigi.

A star was born.

Except not quite.

Hepburn won good reviews on Broadway, but with only bit film roles to her credit (her cameo in The Lavender Hill Mob is dazzling) might well have been destined for a career limited to stage stardom….except that, just as her touring obligations to Gigi were winding down, Elizabeth Taylor and Jean Simmons turned out to be unavailable for a script written by blacklisted screenwriting ace Dalton Trumbo, and William Wyler spotted her for his upcoming film, the first comedy he had done in nearly twenty years.

He called for a screen test. She passed. Gregory Peck got the male lead (which Cary Grant had turned down). They were off.

A few weeks into the shoot, Peck, who had a contract that stated only his name would appear above the title, called the producers and insisted Hepburn’s name be moved above the title as well.

It wasn’t altruism or self-deprecation, he later claimed.

He just didn’t want to look like an idiot.

Thus….a star was born.

I knew exactly none of that the first time I saw Roman Holiday.

TBS ran it after midnight when I was in college circa the very early eighties. I was then living in a studio apartment two blocks from FSU’s campus where I had learned to kill fleets of German cockroaches with my bare hands because I couldn’t always afford traps.

I could never reach the spray fast enough, and it was better than letting the nasty buggers get away.

The television was black and white. Nineteen inch.

Cable came with the rent and had maybe thirteen channels.

Roman Holiday had three and half stars in Leonard Maltin’s movie guide.

If  VHS existed, I didn’t know about it.

I was nineteen or twenty years old and didn’t know Audrey Hepburn from a stripper. Gregory Peck I’d heard of, which was more than I could say for William Wyler.

I’m setting the scene so you’l have a sense of the atmosphere in which I was struck by the lightning that struck Collette and Anita Loos and Paulette Goddard once upon a time.

I didn’t even have the defense mechanism available to Goddard.

Roman Holiday was a talkie and the talk was by Dalton Trumbo.

And Audrey Hepburn, she did not lisp.

*   *   *   *

For the next twenty-five years–until I grew old enough to understand John Ford–Roman Holiday was my favorite movie.

I only saw it half-a-dozen times, far less than I saw other movies that were nowhere near my favorite. Anyone who has seen it once might understand.

Yes, it is a comedy. But it is also an elegy and elegaic comedy is the hardest kind of comedy, not to mention the hardest kind of elegy. Even now, I’m not sure I want to examine its effects too closely. The degree to which Civilization has receded since 1980–let alone 1953–has made the final scene, a scene that made a friend of mine once declare “that’s the saddest movie I’ve ever seen,” punch even harder.

Was it really not so long ago that you could make a mainstream film introducing a breakout star (on her way to becoming a universally acknowledged icon and, less acknowledged, one of the best scene-for-scene actors in the history of film) with the expectation of an audience who understood that life, like glory, is fleeting?

Now there is no “mainstream,” hence, nowhere to for concepts like breaking out or iconography or history or film to go.

That’s the Lost World effect these days of a film that can, in production pitch terms, be described as a simple fairy tale: The Princess and the Peasant, though we’ve also traveled a distance that makes this variation–the Princess and the Newspaperman–even more far-fetched.

This is one of those rare movies that I revisit in hopes I’ll spot some way it might have taken a different turn, might have somehow come out different, knowing all the while such hopes are in vain.

I wonder if it would matter as much–hurt as much–if the social types who provide the narrative engine for Roman Holiday (or any romance, comedic or otherwise) were still recognizable in an Age when the human types barely are.

Whatever the consequences for Civilization, the consequences for story-telling have been devastating. Hard to expect individual stories to resonate when humanity itself has no narrative and, increasingly, no excuse for its own existence except consumption and excitement, the emptiest excuses us humans have so far been able to imagine.

More of everything please. That will sustain us!

Sure it will.

I think one reason Roman Holiday‘s absurdist tone and melancholy ending hit so hard in 1980 (harder as the years went by and I read the teeth-clenching reviews from the old codgers–Stanley Kramer, David Thomson, the usual suspects–who wondered if you had to have lived through the War to really connect with it), is that I already knew the kind of stories I wanted to write weren’t going to have any agency in the world I was going to have to live in.

Looking back, I’m not surprised I was, er, “clinically depressed” in those days and that Roman Holiday, wonderful as it was and is, only deepened that depression. It’s a bit disorienting to realize, all at once, that the world isn’t going to produce any more Audrey Hepburns, not even in the fantasy world of the movies–that we’re all doomed to live in a time and place where, one way or another, everyone lisps.