Roses and Their Thorns
I've seen monsoons that weren't as powerful as a stage mother's destructive capabilities. These moms are easy to demonize as walking childhood trauma generators (which half of TLC's programming has proven) and twice as hard to sympathize with. Being based on a Broadway spectacle that revolves around the ultimate showbiz mom, I didn't expect 1962's Gypsy to deal in much emotional subtlety. But broadly as its colors are displayed, you'd think it'd have the smarts not to paint its main character as an awful human being and expect us to cheer her on. Musicals may be the pinnacle in escapist, suspend-your-disbelief cinema, but there's having a good time, and then there's Gypsy fiddling while its plot goes up in a blaze.
Our story begins during vaudeville's reign, with Rose Hovick (Rosalind Russell) as its self-appointed matriarch. There isn't a stage upon which she can't hawk her performing daughters, Louise (Natalie Wood) and June (Ann Jilliann). But after a few years as a hit, their act is withering away alongside their chosen medium. Rose's longtime beau Herbie (Karl Malden) waits in vain for the whole gang to settle down and become a real family, but Rose ain't through with footlights and crowded dressing rooms just yet. She's set on making stars out of her little ones, even though June and her back-up dancers leave one by one as the years go by. Before long, Louise is the only one left, and even she's readying to claim the spotlight herself, taking the first steps towards becoming the famed burlesque fixture known as Gypsy Rose Lee.
I knew zilch about the actual story behind Gypsy before popping it in, but I could recite the formula it uses by heart. Overbearing mama pressures kids, kids assert themselves, family splits up, heartstring-tugging reunion by the ending credits. Gypsy doesn't break from tradition, except where other films might show said mom acknowledging her terrible parenting skills and learning from her mistakes, this flick thinks she's just terrific. It's not the first time a musical glossed over the truth (just look up the events that inspired The King and I), and again, I knew Gypsy would play itself big, bold, and broad. But not only is the character of Rose a lying, blackmailing, thieving harbinger of psychological torment, the movie so easily forgives her and sort of congratulates her for it. It's a decision that nearly completely sinks a picture that, at its core, wants to put on a jaunty show inspired by a real-life turn of rough events.
I don't want to say a lot of this is due to Rosalind Russell's acting, but Gypsy required her to be as pushy as possible, and boy howdy, did she run with it. The woman who barreled through His Girl Friday's marathon dialogue has an indomitable presence here, playing to the material's theatrical roots and then some. Either the script neglected to include any traces of vulnerability and warmth, or Russell just shot for the moon and didn't look back, since when everyone's hugging in the last act, there are no indications that Rose learned anything from the previous, bloated 143 minutes. She overshadows everything, and that includes Louise's story (whose memoirs the original show was based on). Wood is a total sweetheart whose tender performance may have even saved a good chunk of the film, had it not nearly forgotten Louise was an important player until nearly an hour and a half in.
Maybe my curmudgeonly ways are flaring up again, but Gypsy just didn't cut it for me. Forgiving musical theatre buffs will get a blast out of the Warner Archive Collection's new Blu-ray release, in which colors pop, sets come alive, and the tunes come at you in full force. Gypsy may be all fluff and eye candy, but even eye candy can make your teeth hurt.
(Released by Warner Home Video; not rated by MPAA.)