Thursday, October 25, 2007

Gypsy (1962)

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


Anonymous said...

Excellent! Right on the mark! The final scene of Mamma Rose standing starkly alone on the stage says it all.

elena maria vidal said...

Thanks! Yes, that final scene is something else.

Terry Nelson said...

I met Gypsy Rose Lee when I worked in windows at a department store. I was installing a bridal window and she knocked on the glass, waved me out, and told me how beautiful it was. She was a very nice lady. I had no idea who she was until a coworker told me we had just spoken to the famous woman whose life the musical was based upon.

Terry Nelson said...

I expect you know this, but Rosalind Russell was a practicing Catholic, and Natalie Wood was a Russian Orthodox Catholic.

elena maria vidal said...

That is interesting, Terry, From what I have read, Gypsy was a very sweet person, just as she was portrayed in the film.

I knew that Natalie Wood was Russian Orthodox but I did not know that Rosalind Russell was a practicing Catholic. They are both among my favorite actresses.

Brantigny said...

Yet worse, when I was a young boy Gypsy Rose Lee had a TV guest show.
I asked Mom who she was and she told me she was a stripper. Not knowing what that was at the time I thought nothing about it. That my mother who is Irishwoman and devout Catholic should have watched this knowing what she had been occured as a great supprise when I got older and realized what was going on.

Ah yes the cloak of respectability.

elena maria vidal said...

I think that the general complacency about such things has chipped away at the moral fabric of society in general and family life in particular.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Alice von Hildebrand addresses the issue of womanly purity in her book for women and states that the decency levels are set in society by women and once they cave, the culture caves into depravity.

How many mothers are not mothering and protecting their daughters because they, too, were duped by our culture which reduces women to objects?

I hope purity will blossom in our land. I saw Prof Robert George of Princeton speak on "What is an embryo" last evening at a bioethics conference at FUS. He said there is a large pro life and chastity group on the campus of Princeton. Lovely.

Our Lady of Fatima, pray for us.

elena maria vidal said...

I am so glad you mentioned Dr. Hildebrand; I was just looking for a quote of hers on this theme. Thank you!!

Anonymous said...

I remember Gypsy Rose Lee appearing on "Hollywood Squares" when I was little. All I knew about her then was that my mom couldn't stand her because she was "no good". When I was a bit older Mama had explained that she was an just "old hussy"!

Wonderful post, especially everything you said about the decline of morality.

I am also often shocked when I look at old movies from the 40s, 50s, early 60s, and notice the promiscuity and other risque themes that somehow went right over my head as a kid. I think that is where Hollywood has lost its art today. Everything is so blaringly obvious, there is no chance that even a five year old can miss the sexual content.