Okay, so it’s been almost two weeks since I watched these. Life got a bit complicated, what with heading back to school and all – I haven’t given up on the project; it’ll just go a bit slower while I’m in classes.
Gigi (Best Picture, 1958)
A lot of people I know find this musical a bit dated and even distasteful, thanks to its most famous song, “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” What a sad state our society has come to, that we have to read pedophilia into what is meant to be a simple, charming song about the endless game of romance at any age. There is no indication at all that the singer, an older gentleman (the incomparable and endlessly entertaining Maurice Chevalier) has any kind of inappropriate interest. Indeed, the song thanks heaven for little girls for without them “what would little boys do?” It’s FUNNY and CHARMING, people. Get your minds out of the gutter.
GIGI is based on a short story by french author Colette, and what is less clear from the movie than the story is that Gigi is being trained by her female relatives to be a high-class courtesan. Her great-aunt teaches her to move gracefully, dress elegantly, serve coffee and dine on expensive and exotic dishes correctly, and do all the little things that make a woman a charming companion. So yes, it may seem a little sexist on the surface. And no, I’m not going to try and get modern feminism out of it, but I think dismissing it as merely sexist and demeaning to women is oversimplifying the story.
A few years back, I read a monograph (Courtesans, by Katie Hickman) on a few of the most famous European courtesans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. What becomes evident from a closer examination of the role of the courtesan is that these women were not puppets, and they can hardly be called exploited. They were highly educated, highly trained professionals, and men fell all over themselves to gain their favor. In the relationship, the woman had the lion’s share of the power. Granted, her status relied on walking a delicate high wire, balancing political power, societal views, finances, and of course her own personal appearance. The fall into prostitution was far too easy. The successful courtesans set fashions, hosted salons and patronized the arts and letters. Some even played a role in determining who rose to political power. Some of the most famous courtesans have names still recognized today – Nell Gwynn, Veronica Franco, Madame du Barry, and Theodora, who ended up as Empress of Byzantium. And then of course there are the fictional ones, like Inara Serra (FIREFLY), Satine (MOULIN ROUGE), and Chiyo Sakamoto (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA).
But I digress. I happen to love GIGI – when I was little, it was one of the few movies we actually owned, so whenever I was sick enough to miss school it was one of the films I watched. Leslie Caron is adorable and elegant by turns, Hermione Gingold and Maurice Chevalier have one of the funniest scenes in musical history (“I Remember It Well”), and Louis Jourdan vacillates between wilting ennui and amused energy as Gigi’s friend and later suitor, Gaston. Put aside your modern ideas and suspicions and just enjoy it.
Ben-Hur (Best Picture, 1959)
I can’t describe myself as a big fan of Charleton Heston, but I acknowledge that his fame for certain roles is completely fair. His turn as Judah Ben-Hur is brilliant and carries what might otherwise have been a relentlessly saccharine film – or an unwieldy snoozefest. I’d also like to say that BEN-HUR has been remastered for Blu-Ray, and maaaaaan does it look fantastic. The rich color and picture clarity only go to assist the extraordinary sets and costumes, full of brilliant colors and subtle details.
I am not a Christian and I normally feel a little uncomfortable watching films with this kind of story, since the religious aspect of the story distracts me from becoming truly engrossed in the story as a whole. BEN-HUR balances the parts of its story well. It is easy to get lost in the film – it is an adventure film, it is a religious film, and it is a grand Hollywood epic, all at once. The editors did a remarkable job. For a four-hour film, it’s impressive how well it keeps moving, rarely slowing down enough to let the audience wonder how much longer there is to go.
To be perfectly honest, I was less invested in the aspect of the story involving Judah’s mother, sister, friend-turned-nemesis, etc. I was interested in Judah himself – his struggles with the physical hardships and multiple relocations of both geography and social status, but also his emotional journey, from calm contentment to rage and righteous vindictiveness, to faith, to sorrow at the death of Jesus. Heston is one of those actors of great physical intensity. His mere presence onscreen is mesmerizing, and he can communicate more with a glance or a single word than many can do with a speech. Blu-Ray clarity combines with 1950s color film to make his blue eyes practically glow.
It’s a film worth watching, whether or not you adhere to the faith it lauds. And I would encourage viewing it in its Blu-Ray format, on as big a screen as possible – like GONE WITH THE WIND, BEN-HUR is really meant for a theater screen.
Up Next: some thoughts on the 1950s, then The Apartment (Best Picture, 1960) and The West Side Story (Best Picture, 1961)