The Oscar Project — Week One

For 82 years the Academy Awards have purported to choose the year’s best film. For the next year I’ll be watching one best picture winner per week starting 52 years ago and working up to tonight’s winner. Some of the films are rightly regarded as classics. Others decidedly less so. But each of them must have had some quality that earned it the top spot and I’ll be trying to suss out what that is and why it holds up — or why it deserves to be forgotten.

1958: Gigi (Best Picture Best Director and seven others)

“It’s the same dull world wherever you go / Whatever place you’re at / The Earth is round but everything on it is flat” — Gaston in “It’s a Bore”

If I had started this project when I first thought of it a year ago the first entry would be David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai a stirring but ultimately nihilistic rumination on the ideals of valour courage and humanity in warfare. What a difference a year makes. The best picture winner in 1958 Gigi isn’t just a lighter fare in relative terms. Everything about this musical is thoroughly candy-coated from the costuming to the set design and the music by Frederick Loewe and Andre Previn.

Gigi announces its frivolity from its very first moments when Honoré Lachaille (a typically twinkle-eyed Maurice Chevalier) greets his fellow Parisians before turning to the camera to introduce himself. As he describes a Paris full of women who wish to be wed and men who steadfastly refuse elegant carriages bounce along the street in the background while Technicolor beauties lounge in the sun. Everything about the scene screams of confectionery from the bouncing score to Chevalier’s more-French-than-French line readings.

Chevalier’s Honoré is a proud lothario “a lover and collector of beautiful things. Not antiques mind you” as he says before launching into one of the film’s most memorable numbers “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” It’s an odd number in a few ways not least from the near-complete lack of choreography that comes with the tune. Chevalier mostly delivers the tune while sitting leaning his chin on his cane and grinning wholesomely to undercut the uncomfortable implications of the lyrics which praise little girls for their potential to become fuckable young women though not in so many words. Honoré’s top hat and tie excuse this bit of lecherousness but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s more than a little creepy.

The next number the exceedingly cynical “It’s a Bore” is the one that really began to win me over. Once again director Vincente Minnelli (father of Liza who already had Brigadoon An American in Paris and the all-black Cabin in the Sky under his belt) keeps the staging to a minimum to keep the emphasis on Alan Lerner’s libretto a dialogue between Honoré and his absurdly wealthy nephew Gaston (Louis Jourdan).

The number isn’t much more than Honoré describing the joys of Paris — the trees! the Eiffel Tower! the girls! — and Gaston deriding them with a shrug even going so far as to say that life itself isn’t his “cup of tea.” The song serves two main purposes introducing Gaston as a man so spoiled by wealth that the world can seemingly offer no more joy and introducing the film’s bitter undercurrent which sees fit to offer bitter little barbs directed at essentially every character at one time or another. Without this bit of tartness Gigi would be almost intolerably sweet.

That’s because at its core Gigi isn’t much more than a typical princess fantasy. The eponymous little girl on the verge of womanhood as played by the impossibly wide-eyed Leslie Caron is a precocious free-spirit being raised by her matronly grandmother and her great aunt Alicia who has made a habit of dating princes kings maharajas and other bastions of wealth. These days Alicia’d be a gold digger in constant search of a sugar daddy but in 1900’s Paris she’s simply the ideal role model for a girl who should be seeking status.

Gigi’s grandmother is an old flame of Honoré which means that Gaston is an old family friend. From the beginning he says that he enjoys the company of the young girl’s family more than any of his society friends — it’s really only a matter of time before he realizes that Gigi has become a woman and that he’s desperately in love and takes her from her comfortable upper-middle-class home into a world of unimaginable glamour.

Specifically it’ll take two hours because the film devotes its entire running time to their coming together. While some films would see fit to put obstacles between the two obvious romantic leads Gigi isn’t so mundane. The only thing keeping them apart is Gaston’s haughtiness from his unwillingness to recognize his affection to his habit of taking insult when he’s called on his casual cruelty. It’s a luxury of the rich to demand courtesy when they offer none in return but at least Gaston usually apologizes after a bit of musical stewing.

If it sounds like that’s overstating the cruelty of the upper class in Gigi that’s not the case. Take Gaston’s reaction to the infidelity of his ladyfriend early in the movie: he brings his uncle to help him catch her in the act pays her paramour to leave Paris for good and embarrasses her to the point that she attempts suicide (off camera of course). How do his friends react to such an act? They congratulate him on his “first suicide” (“What an achievement and at your age!”) mock the girl for her cry for attention (“How did she do it?” “The usual way insufficient poison”) and generally wallow in their own callousness.

But for all the awfulness of its characters and the uncomfortable implications of their fixation on age Minnelli ensures his cast is impossible to dislike. The constant bounce of the score the charm of his cast and the whirl of colours is enough to keep you perpetually won over. It’s easy to see why the Academy loved Gigi . It’s a visual feast bursting with luxury in every shot. As pure escapism it’s undeniable. The only place Minnelli falters is oddly in the musical numbers — the minimal choreography has its purpose but the occasional bits of business that he does require of his actors are uniformly stiff and awkward. Combined with the intense over-enunciation of most of the vocal performances the stiffness couldn’t contrast more with the easy charm of the non-musical scenes — for an Academy Award-winning musical some of the productions are remarkably cringe-inducing.

Just because Gigi has its appeal though doesn’t make it the best picture of the year. 1958 provides some particularly glaring sins of omission in the best picture nominations — Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil both came out that year and neither turns up in any of the major categories. The Academy’s lack of love for both those directors may be well-known but that doesn’t make it understandable.

But you can’t really compare a film like Gigi to either of those pictures nor to Richard Brooks’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Stanley Kramer’s racial allegory The Defiant Ones both of which were nominated in 1958. As an entertainment Gigi is all surface and never pretends to be more. Maybe after Kwai the Academy wanted a break from such seriousness.

There are other theories too — Hot Tin Roof star Elizabeth Taylor had drawn widespread criticism in the tabloids for stealing Eddie Fisher from his marriage to Debbie Reynolds and that ill will could’ve carried over into the voting. The Defiant Ones meanwhile might just have been too openly political for an Academy that aside from giving a Best Picture to On the Waterfront four years earlier tended to shy away from potential political controversy.

Whatever the reason the vote for Gigi is a vote for populism escapism and entertainment. It’s also for precisely those reasons that Gigi doens’t hold the same power today that Kwai Waterfront or Vertigo still do: Standards of style change far faster than appreciation for substance. Gigi will still appeal to fans of a particular school of Hollywood musical but beyond that it’s a masterwork only of production design. Outside of that it’s hard not to see it as more period piece than masterpiece.

Coming up:

1959: Ben Hur

1960: The Apartment

1961: West Side Story