Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5. USA, 1962. Mervyn LeRoy Productions Inc.. Screenplay by Leonard Spigelglass, based on the musical book by Arthur Laurents, adapted from the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee. Cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr.. Produced by Mervyn LeRoy. Music by Jule Styne. Production Design by John Beckman. Costume Design by Orry-Kelly. Film Editing by Philip W. Anderson. Academy Awards 1962. Golden Globe Awards 1962.
The production of this grand musical was mainly to accomplish more than one guaranteed moneymaking scheme: firstly, the year before had seen another Jerome Robbins play, West Side Story become a huge hit and Academy Award winner; secondly, its star Natalie Wood had become a huge box-office draw as a leading lady; and since Auntie Mame, Rosalind Russell’s career had reached another peak as well, making this project seem like the perfect idea. Sadly, it didn’t come off as well as planned, and the results are dissatisfying. Based on the fantastic memoirs of burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee (one of the most entertaining non-fiction books ever written), it focuses on Lee’s relationship with her relentless stage mother (Russell), a woman who saw her daughters as an opportunity to make up for what she lost out on in life. Lee, originally Louise, was a shy and awkward little girl with very little self-confidence thanks to living under her mother’s thumb. Her transformation from ugly duckling to swan, however, is one of the most amazing makeovers in film history. Wood is so beautiful in this film it hardly seems possible to describe it, so I won’t, except to say that Cynthia Gibb’s transformation in the Bette Midler version is nothing by comparison. Russell, unfortunately, is painfully miscast, featuring very little of the energy she brought to Mame and sounding just awful in her performances of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill’s marvelous songs (which, considering she was dubbed for most them, makes it even more inexcusable). The musical numbers are brought to life with vigour, but the pace overall is sluggish.