Screened last night at the Aero Theater.
Gypsy (1962) is the story of a tireless stage-mother and her vicarious search for stardom through her children. Mama Rose (Rosalind Russell), arguably the most difficult female lead in all of theater, requires force and stamina only possessed by a full-fledged powerhouse. There is nothing delicate about her, or the desperate pushing of her children: baby June (Ann Jillian) and Louise (Natalie Wood). The young girls grow up in Vaudeville, never growing roots in any place or to any person. Their ages are kept secret from them, they are overworked, underfed, and never paid. One could easily vilify Mama Rose, but all her abrasiveness is coupled with an undeniable love for her children—a love so strong, it somehow manages to redeem her.
In a rare moment of vulnerability, Rose utters “why do they always walk out”—a painful recognition that she has been abandoned by everyone she’s ever loved, including her baby June—the star of her act, and her life. Left with only the clothes on her back and the child without talent, she forces Louise into June’s act. Louise falls flat, but Rose’s determination is blinding. The act is a flop, ending up in a house of burlesque. At the burlesque house, Louise somehow finds her individuality as a person and as a woman (ironically, as a stripper). For the first time, she knows herself outside the projections of her mother.
The film is full of familiar melodies (composed by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim), the music alone is enough to carry you through til the end. Rosalind Russell bowls over everyone for the majority of the film, but (surprisingly) Natalie Wood steals the show. The subtlety in her performance is beautiful to watch (as is she, I might add). In Gypsy, we hear the real Natalie Wood—her voice was dubbed in West Side Story (1961) with Marni Nixon’s. Although her voice does not posses finesse or training, it certainly adds to her charm.
This film would never work today, it desperately needs editing and feels like a tape-recorded version of the stage play. Nothing new or innovative was added in its adaptation to film, but the story and the music hold-up.