I remember watching Gypsy on television as a child, when it would come on some Saturday afternoon in the days before cable. Much of the wider implications were lost on me at the time but I remember thinking even then that, in spite of the upbeat and carefree score, Gypsy is essentially a tragic story. Loosely based upon the life of burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee, the heroine does not die in the end; she becomes rich and famous, but she spends her life taking off her clothes for crowds of leering men.
Yes, Gypsy Rose Lee tried to be a lady and perform with artistry and taste. However, by making the striptease “lady-like” perhaps she helped bring into the mainstream what was once only found in seedy theaters and cabarets. The message was that a woman can destroy the mystery and sacredness of her femininity, lavishing herself upon a multitude of men, and still be considered “respectable.”
It was all part of the tidal wave which started in the twenties and by the mid-seventies had inundated almost every American home. The whores were no longer confined to the red light district; because of contraception, any woman could be one, using her sexuality solely for recreation. The conversation of a men’s locker room eventually became common to any adult gathering, until there was no longer any such thing as a topic not being suitable for “mixed company.” Victorian prudery was destroyed, but so was the modesty, prudence and restraint necessary for living a life of virtue and dignity. No, it was not all the fault of Gypsy Rose Lee, but she was certainly part of the scenario.
The 1962 film, as I said, always struck me as tragic for it does not so much glamorize the occupation that Gypsy embraced as it does show why she embraced it. For Gypsy, or “Louise Hovic” as she was initially called, was driven by a mother who wanted to live out her thwarted desires for fame on the stage through her children. A mother who, while always insisting that her two daughters came first, fled from the domestic life that would have given her girls the stability that they needed. Traveling throughout the countryside, living in hotels, performing in vaudeville shows, seemed a romantic way to live when I was a young girl, first watching the film. But now I see that Mama Rose put ambition and the desire for fame before what was best for Louise and June, all the while saying that she was doing it for them.
After June, the talented younger sister, runs away, Rose pushes Louise into an unwanted life as a burlesque entertainer, insisting that she be in the theater, no matter what, even if it means being a stripper. Louise, who had spent most of her life as the plain Jane, dressing like a boy, suddenly realizes that to take off her clothes on stage (or at least, pretending to take them off) makes her feel pretty and feminine. And so she takes it up as a career; her mother becomes disgusted. But she had deprived Louise of the tools needed to make a decision to become anything else.
Natalie Wood is perfect as Gypsy/Louise, since Natalie, in spite of her striking beauty, always had the vulnerable aura of an exploited child about her, in my opinion anyway. Rosalind Russell dominates the screen as the obsessed Mama Rose, whose charm, vivacity and stubbornness are as mesmerizing as they are frightening. Frightening in that anyone can see that she is going to make her children famous even if she destroys them and herself in the process. For an ambitious parent can push their child, not out of love for the child and desire for the child’s greater good, but out of pride. It is such truths which truly make Gypsy a powerful “musical fable” on so many levels, as well as a glimpse into the life of the American theater in the days of vaudeville. Tragedy, comedy and farce rolled into one, it has one singing “everything’s coming up roses” even as Gypsy (and American society) prance into a future of glamorous (and not so glamorous) degradation. Share