Friday, May 15, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Gigi" (1958)

Leslie Caron
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: May 15, 1958
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Written By: Alan Jay Lerner (screenplay), Colette (novel), Niven Busch (uncredited)
Starring: Leslie Caron, Maurice Chevalier, Louis Jourdan
Genre: Comedy, Musical, Romance
Running Time: 115 minutes

Oscar Wins: 9
-Best Picture
-Best Director (Vincent Minnelli)
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Cinematography (Color)
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction
-Best Costume Design
-Best Film Editing
-Best Original Song ("Gigi")
-Best Original Score

Other Best Picture Nominees

-Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
-Auntie Mamie
-Separate Tables
-The Defiant Ones

And the winner is...

In the legacy of Oscar-winning musicals, Gigi has a very odd reputation. While it has an impressive track record with winning all nine of its nominations, it has since become sort of a reviled film. This is partially because of its subject matter, which to an extent glorifies romanticizing young girls and being very similar material to another production by Alan Jay Lerner that already existed called My Fair Lady. Despite all of this, it is a film full of youthful charisma and plenty of catchy musical numbers. While it doesn't rank high on the best musicals to win, it does hold a special place with its beautiful Technicolor and story that continues to resonate with some, especially since it recently has returned back to the stage after a few failed attempts.

As stated, it is hard to disassociate Gigi from My Fair Lady for several glaring reasons. On a narrative level, both involve women being transformed by men into socially acceptable figures. In the case of Gigi, she is a courtesan-in training in Paris. Both were penned by Lerner and in the case of "Say a Prayer for Me Tonight," the song, which was full of Waterloo imagery, was meant for My Fair Lady. Lerner hired the costume designer for Gigi based on Cecil Beaton's work on the stage version of My Fair Lady. Even the casting had a little interference, as Audrey Hepburn (who would star in the 1964 film My Fair Lady) was considered for Gigi based on her work in the stage version of Gigi. They eventually went with Leslie Caron based on the fact that producer Arthur Freed had worked with her previously on Best Picture winner An American in Paris. While more coincidental, both Hepburn and Caron would have their singing voices dubbed in the final production of their films. There are still existing versions of Caron's singing voice available in some formats.

Beyond the confusing similarities, the origination of Gigi came during the tryouts for My Fair Lady in 1954. During this time, Freed had become interested in adapting the novel written by Colette. The issue is that Gilbert Miller owned the rights and was planning to make the film based on Anita Loos' stage version. It took Freed $87,000 to buy the rights and an additional $125,000 to buy it from Colette's widower. From there, the film was ready to shoot in four and a half months. Along with Hepburn, another potential casting choice was Irene Dunne. She refused to be in it as she didn't want to come out of retirement. The film fought hard with the Hays Code and could only be made when Freed told them that it condemned the actions of its characters. 

The final selection, including Caron, were predominantly French. However, because Caron was so involved with English culture, she had lost her accent. The film also used photography known as "creative geography" to make two noticeably far away places seem nearby - most notably in the "Gigi" musical number. There was also a cat whom Caron was scared of despite director Vincente Minnelli insisting that it was the right one for the job. As a result, the cat was heavily drugged for most of the film. Most of the film was lip-synched due to the compositions not being done at the time of their filming. The film was shot predominantly in Paris, which became the inspiration for several songs in the final film. This was also different from the other Minnelli-Caron collaboration An American in Paris, which was shot on noticeable sound stages.

The film had a sneak peek in January of 1958 in Santa Barbara, CA. Audiences gave it favorable reviews. However Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe felt that the action was too slow and that it was 20 minutes too long. The alterations would take an additional $300,000. When MGM bought it, they allowed for massive reshooting which put the film $400,000 over budget. Some would argue that it was for the best because in a screening in Encino, CA, the reaction when from "appreciation to affection." This was what Loewe felt was needed in order to release the film. It was met with positive reviews and was considered a moderate box office success. The film would become Minnelli's highest grossing film from his work at MGM.

The film cleaned up on Oscar night. It won all nine of its nominations and became the biggest winning Best Picture winner in history up to that point (it beat Gone with the Wind by one). The record wouldn't hold, as next year's Ben-Hur would win 11 awards. However, it was quite the achievement despite not holding any acting nominations, a title shared with The Last Emperor. The film's Best Art Direction-Set Direction winner William A. Horning won posthumously and would be nominated for his work on North By Northwest and Ben-Hur the following year (the latter for which he won). Gigi, along with Argo, is the shortest title for a Best Picture winner. Despite a musical winning, the show's producer Jerry Ward cut the music segments to help the show run on time. As a result, the show ran 20 minutes under and had to have Jerry Lewis perform stand-up until it was eventually cut to a sports game rerun. Because of this victory, switchboard employees were told to answer phones by calling the MGM studio "M-Gigi-M."

While the film has faded slightly into obscurity and is often considered My Fair Lady Jr. for noticeable reasons, the legacy has lived on. Despite a failed Broadway production in 1973, the musical returned in 2015. The film soundtrack appeared on the cover Pink Floyd's album "Ummagumma." Various characters in Best Picture nominee Beauty and the Beast were also based on Gigi characters including Lumiere (Maurice Cheavlier) and Gaston (Gaston).  The film itself pays tributes to several different French performers. Reporter Barbara Walters has called it her favorite movie and it was heavily referenced in the documentary Grey Gardens

So while the film, as based on its bookending song "Thank Heaven for Little Girls," may be a little creepy in some respects, the film itself has an impressive reputation that may be hard to understand nowadays. It could be that the innocence in audiences has disappeared or that we have come to expect different levels of quality in narrative since. Nevertheless, Gigi remains a musical that enjoys the Parisian culture through song and dance in ways that continue to resonate. It may not be the greatest musical to win Best Picture, nor is it the most original, but it does manage to pop when it wants to. 

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