It’s late ’70s New York. Studio 54, designer jeans, drugs and disco. One girl is living life in the fast lane. She can have any man – or any woman – she wants. Sex, money, glamour, fame, it’s all within her reach. She walks toward you across the dance floor, struts toward you down the runway, stares at you from the cover of a magazine. She’s a goddess. She’s a star. Her name is Gia.
eyelights: Angelina Jolie. its treatment of Gia’s meteoric rise and self-destruction.
eyesores: the weak direction. the slomo editing. the dated saxophone score.
“Fashion is advertising and advertising is money. And for every dollar you earn, someone has to pay.”
Tales of stars who shine brightly for a short while and then are extinguished, either by their own hand or another’s, are a dime a dozen. ‘Gia’, the 1998 HBO TV movie about Gia Carangi, is yet another. What distinguishes it, however, are its lead actress and the uniqueness of its subject.
Angelina Jolie hit her stride when this was released, propelling her in the stratosphere. Though she’d been acting for a few years already, she won two Golden Globes in the same year for her performances in ‘George Wallace’ and in ‘Gia’. L’enfant terrible had arrived; there was no denying her.
Gia Carangi was also an enfant terrible. A rebellious girl from a dysfunctional family, she was tomboyish, dangerous, the antithesis of the model type. But she got started modeling in Philadelphia and, when she hit New York City, she exploded onto the scene, becoming the first supermodel.
So it seems fitting that Jolie was cast in the part; Jolie, at the time, was making headlines for all manners of outrageous behaviour – and would for many years after. Thankfully, she didn’t suffer the same fate that her onscreen counterpart did: Carangi lasted only a few years before collapsing.
Permanently. At the age of 26.
‘Gia’ focuses primarily on her modeling years, but it begins by establishing her familial relationships. Her mother, while claiming a close bond with her daughter, abandoned her and her two brothers to escape spousal abuse; Gia was left in the care of her working class father.
Forever wounded by her mother’s departure, she glommed on to her closest friends, her need for love and attention so great that no one could possibly fulfill her demands. She constantly felt pushed away, rejected. This led to the destructive behaviour that eventually became her undoing.
Gia had a reputation for being dangerous but it’s her attitude that first made her appealing; it was something about the look in her eyes, about her ability to cross lines that other models didn’t. That all faded away when drugs made her so unstable and unreliable that she became unhirable.
She went to rehab a couple of times, but could never properly clean up; unable to cope with her inner pain, her emotional fragility, she succumbed. And if that wasn’t enough, she contracted HIV through the sharing of needles. She became one of the first celebrities to be felled by AIDS.
‘Gia’ is an interesting story because it doesn’t show Carangi as a victim of the industry or of the system, but as her own worst enemy. She lived on the edge, defying gender lines, sexual orientation and social expectations to express herself and live in exactly the way that she saw fit.
And paid dearly for her freedom.
The movie was particularly notorious for the abundant nudity and its sex scenes: Angelina Jolie bared all for the camera and had no hesitation partaking in homosexual sex scenes, leading many to watch the picture if only for that. It’s even considered in some circles as one of the hottest.
To each’s own.
Frankly, the reason to see it is for Jolie’s performance – not her body, splendid though it may be. Perhaps because of the headspace she was in at the time, she was the perfect person to incarnate Carangi. Some might even say that, being an extension of herself, it was her most natural role.
The rest of the cast is also fairly good, but they don’t come close to stealing her light. Part of the problem may be the direction, which was frequently weak; director Michael Cristofer made terrible decisions, like shooting sex scenes in slow-motion, an outdated technique that made them corny.
(He would go one to direct Jolie again in 2001’s ‘Original Sin’, a real stink nugget.)
Also pungent is Terence Blanchard’s sax-infused score, which gives the impression that Carangi’s career took place in the mid-to-late ’80s. This would have been fine if he’d intended to reflect the period, but he was off by about a decade. By 1998, when this was made, his score was excruciatingly dated.
One thing that works great for this movie is the inclusion of interviews with the people who were familiar with Carangi – or at least, in this instance, their Hollywood stand-ins. Their insight on Carangi herself and with respect to the demands of the industry helped to provide perspective on her.
On top of that, Jolie read extracts from Carangi’s personal diary, allowing us into her heart and mind. By the time that we get to the end, we understand what it was about her personality that drew her into modeling, what fueled her relationships, and what contributed to her destruction.
It’s easy to point the finger when someone dies so young, but it’s almost always a complex and messy affair with more than one guilty party. ‘Gia’ does a good job of illustrating that, and Angelina Jolie does a splendid job of bringing the desperate, hungry and lost little girl to life.
…so that we may watch her die all over again.
Date of viewing: December 19, 2016