• James Kunovski

1958 Best Picture: Did Gigi Deserve Its 9-Oscar Sweep?

If you've had the misfortune of seeing Vincente Minnelli's musical Gigi, you're probably frustrated to know it not only snatched 1958's Best Picture but won eight other Oscars. Gigi follows the relationship between the eponymous courtesan-in-training (Leslie Caron) and the wealthy playboy Gaston (Louis Jourdan). Despite songs by Lerner and Loewe (of My Fair Lady fame) and a rich Belle Époque Parisian setting, Gigi offers little excitement for today's audiences. You'll feel every minute of this one. Minnelli's film, one of the worst in his calibre, opens on the wrong foot with a creepy tune by Maurice Chevalier (whose songs and character I request to Eternal Sunshine from my mind) and never steps into a better place. Instead, Gigi relies on the nauseating push-pull chemistry between Caron and Jourdan that dips and dives so often it had my head genuinely spinning. Sure, the sets and costumes are a banquet, and Caron, whose actual charisma (as opposed to the others perceived charm, ahem Chevalier) carries most of the film, but Gigi feels doomed from the get-go.

At the 31st Academy Awards, Gigi tied with The Defiant Ones for the most nominations. After winning all nine categories, it became the Academy's most awarded film (if you exclude Gone with the Wind's two honorary Oscars). The feat of a clean sweep would be matched thirty years later by The Last Emperor, which went nine-for-nine and then smashed by Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, which went eleven-for-eleven. Gigi mostly beat a few modest prizefighters, The Defiant Ones among them. Snubs in the nomination process, an open playing field in the eventual nominees, and a then-favourable critical response that described the film as "elegant" and "cultivated" paved the way for Gigi's ridiculous sweep. But was anything from that clean sweep warranted? And if I could make my own choices, regardless if they were nominated or not, who would I choose in lieu?

The almost complete shutout of Vertigo, a film that the Critics' Sight & Sound poll ranked as the "greatest film of all time" (but was coldly received in 1958), becomes less Gigi's blame and more the fault of the myopic Academy. Hitchcock still has his Best Picture winner in 1940's Rebecca, but the man always had trouble breaking past below-the-line categories. As a result, 1958's Best Picture pool is relatively shallow. They're not bad films, per se, just nothing exceptional enough. Auntie Mame, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Defiant Ones and Separate Tables, are all worthy entertainment but wouldn't you be just as surprised if they were picked as the Best Picture?

You'd be surprised to learn the number of critics pinning the success of Gigi squarely on the back of Vincente Minnelli. Variety reviewer Abel Green describes Minnelli's "good taste in keeping [the sum of the film] in its bounds." Unfortunately, it feels like Minnelli, who flawlessly directed other musicals, Meet Me in St. Louis and An American in Paris, took a backseat during production. For a musical, there's a surprising lack of movement. I just wish the blocking had a little bit more oomph and didn't overly rely on entries/exits as transitions.

On the other hand, Hitchcock, who never won an Oscar for directing, feels so much more involved as a creator in Vertigo. He certainly had his ways, but his style sticks out in three ingrained moments. The hallucinatory nightmare, the circling green-lit daze during a lustful embrace and the tense bell tower exchange. There's a challenge in judging "best directing," in fact, I'm sometimes confused by the meaning, but there's no denying how much Hitchcock injected into the film — you can almost see the marionette strings.

It's tough to judge Gigi's screenplay. Most reviewers describe Alan Jay Lerner's adaptation of Colette's novella as the film's libretto, owing to the "musicalization" of said novel. There's not enough substance in the plot. It's spread so thin, you've nothing to chew on. The other nominees were mainly adaptations of plays. Even they would've been more deserving. But Alec Coppel and Samuel Taylor's screenplay for Vertigo, based on "D'entre les morts" by Boileau-Narcejac, not only deserves praise for its flawless relocation from Paris to San Francisco but for its thrilling, haunting take on duality and love.

When your distinction for merit comes from adoration of wide-screen photography, it's understandable to see why Gigi won. Sadly, apart from that all-encompassing vision that rakes up everything in its midst, there's not much else to be said about the habitually flat look. I think the Academy members confused good photography for good art direction. There is one shot of note - of Gaston's silhouette against a blue moonlight. It's a shame that the rest of the film takes place at the brightest corners of daylight. Vertigo being overlooked is the closest we'll get to a film crime. That film is awash with a mesmerising, dreamlike haze. Academy voters clearly didn't fall for the trance.

I was so close to picking Vertigo. I was even tempted by Gigi. However, I still have to go with Auntie Mame. Even when Gigi isn't overly dependent on real-life locations, most of its sets feel cluttered and claustrophobic. It doesn't even pull off the best red walls. That obviously goes to Ernie's in Vertigo. Auntie Mame basks in the wealthy socialite's excessive apartment where decor changes with the seasons, no less than six times. It's materialism notched up to an eleven and a fitting couple for the film that gave us the line "life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death."

Legendary designer and photographer Cecil Beaton, who would rake up double Oscars for My Fair Lady, does beautiful work here. His designs are on par with that elegant Edwardian affair. Though Gigi lacks a centrepiece costume as famous as the film (think Eliza Dolittle's Ascott gown), the stunning black-and-white evening dress worn by Caron in a heightened moment of romance and wanderlust comes pretty darn close. Gigi is no doubt a feast for the eyes, as sweet and rich as a decadent dessert. Beaton ought to take the most credit for that.

Gigi revels in long-takes, cross-fades and a play-like, wide-screen scope. None of this constitutes an impressive editing job. The editing is not only merely complimentary but painfully by-the-books. I was close to blaming this on the era until I saw the Susan Hayward-starring I Want to Live! Bursting with modernity and an atmosphere akin to a seedy, underground jazz club, the editing is tight and deliberate. Constantly hitting every beat, it should have won for this cut alone — the tapping feet of a loosely dancing Hayward smash with the doom of a gavel. Our free spirit is weighed down and interrupted by the burden of the law. In this case, those two are not mutually exclusive.

If we're judging musicals based on how hummable their tunes are, Gigi falls relatively low in the ranks. Save the cheery opening of "The Night They Invented Champagne," there's nothing particularly memorable in melody or originality. As expected, "Gigi," the title song that won this category and soon became a jazz standard, follows that downward path. "A Very Precious Love" from Marjorie Morningstar, sung by Gene Kelly, is not necessarily show-stopping, but it feels much more earnest than anything Gigi cooks up.

André Previn, a four-time Oscar winner, does a decent job arranging and conducting Loewe's music. Though he gains extra points for starting from scratch, a rarity at the time when stage successes were quickly shoved into the cinematic realm, I prefer Heindorf's work on Damn Yankees. That score is leagues above Gigi, both in spirit and ingenuity. In that musical, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon interject "Who's Got The Pain?" Well, that'd be the guy who just watched Gigi...