Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Gia (HBO Films, 1998)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Gia, a more prestigious movie than Lifetime usually runs — it was produced for HBO in 1998 and was about the supermodel Gia Maria Carangi (Angelina Jolie), who was born in 1960, started her career in 1977 and had a meteoric rise-and-fall until she ended up with a major drug problem and ultimately was diagnosed with AIDS, dying in 1986. Though it was based on a true story, as Charles said about the film Shine it was based on a true story that the filmmakers picked because it so closely hewed to some of Hollywood’s favorite clichés. The prestige factor extended not only to a star like Jolie in the lead but to the writers, novelist Jay McInerney and playwright Michael Cristofer (Cristofer also directed) and even the music: instead of sappily stupid rock songs by unknown performers and writers, the film featured some of the best songs (and biggest hits) of the period it depicted, including the Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” (a band whose original lineup was also decimated by drugs — two of the four founding members died of overdoses — which added an uncomfortable irony to its appearance here), David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and the surprisingly good “Dancing with Myself” by Billy Idol.

Aside from the star names, though, Gia is a typically depressing tale of a drug victim, one of those damnable movies in which almost nobody is actually likable. Despite Angelina Jolie’s skillful performance, Gia herself remains an infuriating narcissist throughout, in love with her own beauty and its effect on others of both genders (Gia is depicted here as a Lesbian who seduces her main girlfriend, Linda — played by Elizabeth Mitchell — from a male partner) and utterly unable to realize that the career of any model is a ticking time bomb, a race against the ravages of age that only gets harder if you’re prematurely aging yourself with drugs. Cristofer and McInerney send their heroine into the stratosphere and then bring her crashing down — in a scene that may have happened but sure seems like gilding the lily to me, when she’s dying of AIDS she goes forth into the drug underworld with enough money to score enough heroin to kill herself immediately (suicide by overdose is a new one on me), only her pushers jump her, beat her up and steal the money instead. We’re even told in flashback — this film is full of Reds-style talking heads desperately trying to make this story seem of cosmic significance instead of just being the rise and fall of one person in a particularly predatory industry — that when Gia was lifted from her hospital bed after her death her skin literally fell off her body, a detail I could have done without knowing.

Gia rises from a proletarian Italian background in Philadelphia, the product of a lunch-counter owner (Louis Giambalvo) and a mother from hell (Mercedes Ruehl, seven years before she played another, even more obnoxious mother from hell in Mom at 16) from whom Gia appears to have inherited both her looks and her narcissism. The problem with this story is that Gia simply isn’t that interesting a character — oh, she’s got quirks galore, including a punk-like attitude (when super-agent Wilhelmina Cooper, played by Faye Dunaway in her patented ice-princess mode, won’t see her immediately Gia takes her omnipresent switchblade knife and carves her name on Wilhelmina’s receptionist’s desk) and a devil-may-care approach to grooming and posture that makes it seem like she becomes a star model in spite of her overall approach — and neither are the people she interacts with; when a Black person she meets in rehab upbraids her for being broke after having made millions doing absolutely nothing, it’s hard to disagree with that!

Indeed, perhaps the biggest irony of Lifetime’s showing of Gia is that it was punctuated by plugs for Lifetime’s original fashion series, Project Runway (an American Idol-style contest, only between designers instead of singers), providing this weirdly schizoid effect in which the network seemed to be upholding and glorifying the myths surrounding the fashion industry even in the middle of a movie that basically trashed them.