Movie Review – Gypsy

Gypsy (1962)
Written by Leonard Spiegelgass, Arthur Laurents, Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim, and Gypsy Rose Lee
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy

Stephen Sondheim died at the age of 91 in 2021. He left behind 16 full-length stage musicals and penned songs for both film & television. I can’t say I was ever a theater kid, but I did grow to have a deep appreciation for Sondheim’s work as just a fan. While I do not have the musical vocabulary to talk about the complexity of his work, I can address it as an appreciator of his clever lyrics and stories centered on people. His work has such maturity compared with many popular Broadway shows, particularly his writing in the 1980s when the industry was leaning into spectacle over quality. His stories refused to end on “Happily Ever After” sentiments and instead made audiences confront the nuance of being alive in the modern world. I don’t think someone like Sondheim would ever happen in today’s corporate Broadway musical landscape.

Louise Hovick (Natalie Wood) lives in the shadow of her little sister June (Ann Jillian), a vaudeville headliner. Even if she’d rather not get on stage, June is supported by her domineering mother, Rose Hovick (Rosalind Russell). Rose manages to cobble together a traveling show with the help of promoter Herbie Sommers (Karl Malden), and the family starts touring the country peddling their song & dance. Louise ends up playing a dancing cow in a farm scenario but is never seen as having real potential. When June suddenly runs away to marry one of the male background dancers, Rose suddenly pivots to putting her dreams into Louise. The thing is, Louise just isn’t talented in these ways and by the end of the story becomes a burlesque striptease artist, something she shines at while her mother feels her own dreams are now dead.

While written in the late 1950s, Gypsy feels still very relevant with its examination of fame, but even more relevant in how it addresses parents putting their hopes on the backs of children they haven’t prepared to live in the world. The relationships in Gypsy focus on four characters and how each of their personal dreams creates conflict between each other. Herbie dreams of marrying and settling down with Rose, whom he loves for her passion. We have to wonder if, in settling down, the fire inside Rose would be extinguished and how Herbie would handle that. Rose is, of course, fixated on making June and then Louise famous as proxies for herself. She hated growing up in a suburban setting, and the idea of becoming a domestic horrifies her. She’s never truly concerned with her daughter; they are expected to go along with her wishes. 

June brightens up at being a Broadway star when the contract is offered, but there’s a stipulation: Mama Rose is not to be involved. This is the line Rose won’t let her daughter cross and is what leads to June running away. Louise is, ironically, the most challenging character to pin down. It makes sense as Rose dominates every space she occupies, and Louise has learned to fade into the background. What Louise wants is stability, to know where she’s sleeping every night and that she’ll have a full belly when she sleeps. There’s only slight tension between the girls; Louise never feels jealous of June because that is not the life she wants. The girl has learned to go along with whatever Mama says, but as she gets older and understands the world better, she just can’t do it anymore.

Gypsy is an extremely faithful adaptation of the stage musical, but its direction by Meryn LeRoy is entirely lifeless. LeRoy was a journeyman director that worked at Warner Brothers during Michael Curtiz’s tenure there. Like Curtiz, the filmmaker was only as good as the material given. With Gypsy, he has a stage musical, and he films it as if it’s a theater production. There’s no particularly interesting cinematography here which makes it look much older than the previous year’s West Side Story, where director Robert Wise gave a lot of leeway to choreographer Jerome Robbins on how to stage scenes. 

It’s also not helpful that Natalie Wood is in the lead. Wood has taken on a slight air of tragic beauty since her death in 1981. It is horrible that her life was cut so short. As an actress, though, I have never been terribly impressed by her. Wood reminds me of your average Hollywood starlet, conventional attractive but nowhere close to being an acting powerhouse. That is made so apparent when you look at her co-stars over the years, much more skilled performers like James Dean, Rita Moreno, and Warren Beatty (to name a few). Gypsy appears to be Wood trying to push her child star, saintly ingenue image away by playing a striptease artist. I didn’t find her convincing in the least. Her singing is okay, but it’s embarrassing when put up against Rosalind Russell. Russell understands Mama Rose is the core of the whole production and puts everything into it.

Gypsy is not Sondheim’s best musical, but it still presents the audience with characters who aren’t one-dimensional and speak to conflicts that people still deal with today. Fame has become a dream of many people, young and old, in American culture, believing that if they can attain some undefinable level of fame, they will be happy. Unfortunately, a survey of the landscape of digital fame shows that it isn’t a reality, just as it wasn’t in the days of vaudeville. Despite the changes in the aesthetic, people like Mama Rose still haven’t managed to learn how to find genuine joy in their lives.


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