movie film review | chris tookey


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  Gypsy Review
Tookey's Rating
7 /10
Average Rating
7.00 /10
Bette Midler , Cynthia Gibb, Peter Riegert
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Directed by: Emile Ardolino
Written by: Arthur Laurents. Songs by Jule Styne (music) and Stephen Sondheim (lyrics)

Released: 1993
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Length: 142

Early life of Gypsy Rose Lee (Cynthia Gibb) and her troubled relationship with her mother (Bette Midler, pictured).
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

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Gypsy is a defiantly old-fashioned musical. It's set in the declining days of vaudeville, and looks as if it was made in the 1950s heyday of the Hollywood Musical; there are the same phoney sets, garish colours, blaring Broadway orchestrations. It's that old stand-by, a tale of showbiz guts and determination, a rise from rags to riches: the early life history of strip-teaser Gypsy Rose Lee and her tyrannical mother. And it's an old-fashioned star vehicle, originally built around the brash persona of Ethel Merman.

It shouldn't work as a film for the 90s - and yet it does. The reason is Bette Midler, who does the seemingly impossible and makes the maternal role her own. There are echoes of Merman in her interpretation, but she throws in Mae West and W.C. Fields for good measure. And she does things which Merman never could. She's just as tough, coarse and dynamic; but she's also sexy, funny and even alluring.

Gypsy has, of course, been filmed before; but in the previous, 1962 version Rosalind Russell misguidedly tried to soften and broaden the anti-heroine. Rose is one character who has to be a monstrous egomaniac; if she isn't, there's no reason for anyone to be bludgeoned into submission by her.

Fortunately, there's nothing middling about Midler. At first, she comes on so strong that she's hard to take; we're unaccustomed to performances of this scale in the cinema. But underneath the theatricality, she's real. Midler peels away the musical comedy wrappings to reveal that Gypsy is fundamentally high drama - about a woman who emasculates every man she meets, a mother who so destroys her daughter's self-esteem that the girl ends up stripping for a livelihood.

It's no wonder that the show appeals to homosexuals - it's enough to make anyone keep women at an emotional distance. But from the moment Midler sings Everything's Coming Up Roses (in the theatre, it was the first act closer) you can't help yourself warming to her. You have to admire Rose's resilience, determination, survivalism. Midler has always had star quality, and her performance here is simply brilliant; the finale, an outcry of rage, resentment and Broadway bravado - is a tour de force, one of the greatest musical sequences ever filmed.

There will be some who would have liked to see the show made more modern, cinematic, "opened out"; but director Emile Ardolino (who died of Aids during production) made the right decision to keep it theatrical. He probably didn't have much choice, since this film was made for a limited budget with an eye to American TV - where it was a huge ratings success; but any more realistic approach would only have emphasised the stylised nature of the material. In this version, the form admirably suits the content.

The supporting cast might have been stronger. As Rose's longsuffering paramour, Herb, Peter Riegert is no better than adequate; he's okay reprising his charming pickle-salesman from Crossing Delancey , but he doesn't have much of a singing voice. Cynthia Gibb is sweet and appealing as Rose's downtrodden daughter Louise; but, like everyone else I've seen play the role, she struggles when called upon to transform herself into Gypsy Rose Lee. She just isn't sexy enough to convince you that men would pay to see her strip.

It is a pity that composer Jule Styne and lyricist Stephen Sondheim didn't take the opportunity to replace the weakest song in the show, Little Lamb ; but the show is, for the most part, a parade of outstanding numbers like You've Gotta Have A Gimmick , If Momma Were Married and Together , with witty Sondheim lyrics married - for once - to great tunes by Jule Styne. Accomplished composer though Sondheim is, Gypsy and West Side Story (for both of which he wrote only the lyrics) remain his two best shows.

American TV executives are planning to follow up this success with other great musicals, such as Guys and Dolls, to which justice wasn't done the first time round on celluloid. Musicals are long overdue for a comeback; and on this evidence, writers should be pitching them in the direction of Miss Midler. Gypsy may not be for every taste, but I loved it.

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