Compare and Contrast: Gypsy (1962) vs Gypsy (1993)

Compare and Contrast: Gypsy (1962) vs Gypsy (1993)

I recently had the opportunity to compare the two film versions of Gypsy, the legendary hit Broadway musical based loosely on the memoirs of ecdysiast Rose Louise Hovick.

Ms Hovick is better known by her stage name:  Gypsy Rose Lee.

The musical is considered by many to be among the finest Broadway shows, is frequently revived, and as noted has been made into a film twice.

But while many praise the musical, a number of other people have noted problems with the material, especially in the film adaptations.

First and foremost, despite the title, it’s not about Gypsy Rose Lee.

Lee appears only as a supporting character in her own story (a touch of irony to those familiar with the tale).

The central character is her harridan of a mother, Rose Thompson Hovick, who even in her sanitized depiction (hey, no lesbian murders here) comes across as the mother of all stage mothers.

Pushy, domineering, narcissistic, petty, cruel, vindictive, she propelled her two children into lives on the road as vaudeville performers, sister June Havoc (nee Hovick) being the act’s star with sister Rose handling supporting duties, then after Havoc wisely fled the scene, focusing on Lee and (depending on which version one wishes to belief) either pushing or acquiescing to her becoming a stripper.

Lee went on to become the most famous and highest paid performer in the Minsky burlesque circuit and, in the musical and the film adaptations, finally breaks free of her mother’s over-preening influence only for the two to finally reconcile.

In reality, their lives were much messier than that (see “lesbian, dead” above) but not the sort of thing one can build a feel good stage musical on.

So that’s the first problem, but it leads directly to the second, even bigger one.

As written, Gypsy needs a mature (i.e., 40-50+) actress who can really sing and belt out a couple of classic show stoppers (“This Is It” and “Rose’s Turn”).  She needs to have a dynamic, forceful personality yet be able to moderate it so that no matter how badly she treats her kids and boy friend, the audience remains fascinated with her, rooting for her despite her horrible actions.

She, much more than the character of Gypsy Rose Lee, needs to carry the show, and while there are a good many talented actresses with two of the three talents described above, when you pack all three into one performer you no longer have a good actress but rather A Major Star.

And the moment A Major Star sets foot on the stage, the audience no longer cares about the titular character, but rather the character played by said star.  

Gypsy Rose Lee becomes practically superfluous in her own story, supplanted yet again by her mother.

This is less of a problem on stage than on the screen.  Both film versions of the story follow the stage play fairly closely.

Despite this, original playwright Arthur Laurents disdained the 1962 movie, and I think a big reason behind that while the stage play calls for one dynamic star, the first movie version featured two superstars:  Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose, and Natalie Wood as Gypsy Rose Lee.

Maybe a different kind of show biz mother story could have worked with both of them, but when you cast Wood, one of Hollywood’s most ethereally beautiful stars, as the world’s most famous stripper, a big hunk of your audience is going to be sitting there waiting for her to take her clothes off.

And that doesn’t come until late in the story.

Which demonstrates again how off center Gypsy is.  Two thirds of the story is a build up to the crucial scene when Lee realizes her future is not the one her semi-delusional mother has laid out for her but an entirely different path all her own, and that works kinda if you have a lesser caliber actress playing opposite your Major Star.

Which is not snark directed at Cynthia Gibb who played Lee in the 1993 version, but rather an acknowledgement of legitimate audience expectations.  You put Frankenstein and the Wolf Man in the same movie, or cast King Kong opposite Godzilla, and the audience will want to see ‘em clash early and often.

I think both film adaptations are weakened by following the stage musical too faithfully.  

Each medium has its unique set of strengths and weaknesses, and clever creators in any given medium can figure out entertaining workarounds to various story and staging problems.

With Gypsy the challenge is cramming literally decades worth of physical and emotional development into just a couple of hours of stage time, and that’s accomplished by big musical numbers and clever re-use of sets and props (a big hunk of Gypsy occurs in various desert encampments where the troupe practices their routines).

On screen, however, these numbers and scenes drag on and on; a more cinematic approach would have been to trim 20-40 minutes out of the story and telescope their early struggles through a montage and clever editing.

You could shift a decade in a single cut on screen, but on stage it requires more set up.

Neither film is awful, both have their entertaining moments, but neither of them really seem to satisfy, either.

This may be a case of the stage musical being so successful it influenced dozens if not hundreds of similar stories in other media, and so by the time modern audiences view either film version of Gypsy, whatever electricity the original possessed has long since dissipated.


© Buzz Dixon

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