There are undoubtedly, even in this tinselly town, people who live unimpressed by celebrity. But not so many that it, you know, matters. The Spice Girls still rule the world, and you can't assume an attitude superior enough to change that. People, Vanity Fair, The National Enquirer all subsist on our strange, insistent need to know as much as possible about individuals whose importance is indicated in large part by their presence in People, Vanity Fair and The National Enquirer. The funeral of Sonny Bono was carried live on television and, according to Variety, in repeats boosted the ratings of Entertainment Tonight, Inside Edition and Access Hollywood - what that publication politely calls "syndicated magazine shows" - to season highs. Such heavy coverage was held by some of my acquaintance to be way out of proportion to Sonny's actual contributions to world peace and culture (though I wouldn't turn down the publishing on "I Got You Babe," I'll tell you that). Fair enough, he wasn't Gandhi; on the other hand, Gandhi wasn't eulogized by Cher.
A couple weeks back, along with gazumpteen million other viewers who undoubtedly could have found something better to do, I sat still for three star-packed hours of the Golden Globe Awards, one of those several overlong celebrations of celebrity, full of sound and cleavage and signifying nothing much, that come around like Christmas and work ratings magic. I could claim that my interest was merely professional - I do have that weird luxury - but the fact is, I just wanted to see famous people dressed up pretty.
The Golden Globes, which are awarded by the whoever-they-are Hollywood Foreign Press Association (and which give props to TV as well as to the flickers), have acquired a reputation as a kind of New Hampshire primary for the Oscars, but I much prefer them to the main event. Where the Oscar broadcast is strictly, even grimly controlled - 30 seconds and hasta la vista, baby - the Globes, coming to you from the International Ballroom of "Merv Griffin's Beverly Hilton Hotel," are staged (in the image of the original, pre-public Academy Awards) as a party, with the result that participants seem to let down their hair, and also their guard. There's a lot of whistling and stamping, and much kissing and hugging and rubbing of heads as winners pick their way through the tables to the stage; few other places on broadcast television will you see men kiss one another on the lips. With no opening monologue (no host), no production numbers (no production values), no explaining, again, what a sound editor does, there is time and space enough for something like actual human behavior to occur; and as we never quite expect celebrities to be human, that can be sort of interesting.
Sometimes this amounts to a simple lapse of taste, as when James Cameron, picking one up for his titanic Titanic, asked, "So does this prove, once and for all, that size does matter?" - a crack so weak one hopes he hadn't worked it out in advance. Sometimes it's an unexpected glimpse deep into the thespian psyche, as when Ving Rhames, justly honored for HBO's Don King: Only in America, and bawling like a baby all the way to the microphone, remembered something Stanislavsky said about loving the art and not yourself and called (loser) Jack Lemmon to the stage in order to re-award him his award, which Lemmon, after a fashion, accepted - anyway, he made a speech and couldn't manage to give the thing back. (That couldn't happen at the Oscars: Jack would keep his seat, the band would play Ving down, Billy Crystal would crack wise, and we'd go to commercial.) And sometimes it's a moment of pure animal commonality, as when Christine Lahti had to be fetched out of the head to accept a statuette for her work on Chicago Hope; "I was just flushing the toilet," she breathlessly announced, paper towel still in hand, "and someone said, 'You won.' And I thought, 'What a terrible joke.'"
Of course, she hadn't heard Jack Nicholson yet. Grinning like a kindergartner, and apparently thinking like one, America's senior bad boy croaked during his own strangely careening acceptance speech that it was, and I do quote, "number two" that had occupied Lahti in the ladies'. Really, you have to wonder if some of these people could survive anywhere outside of the show business. But you've got to love 'em, all the same. They're talented! They're famous! They're living our dreams!
It is, of course, at the same time not unpleasant to believe that there is a price for such absurd good fortune, that those with the luck to be born beautiful or gifted or energetic are dunned somewhere down the line, that life evens the accounts - that in a way one is lucky to be ordinary and uncelebrated, if only to not be . . . Robert Downey Jr., ladies and gentlemen. Stories of people who had it all and either threw it or had it snatched away never go out of favor, and it is only in the natural way of things that television, our dearest informant, should cooperate in the telling.
Gia, on HBO this month, retraces the sadly parabolic trajectory of disco-era supermodel lesbian heroin addict Gia Carangi, who died of AIDS a little more than a decade ago at the age of 26. (Executive producer Marvin Worth has been to this well before: Also on his CV are Norma Jean and Marilyn, Lenny, the Janis Joplin-inspired The Rose and Patty Hearst.) Directed by playwright Michael Cristofer (The Shadow Box) with both evident nostalgia for the bad old good times (See! Cocaine Snorted Off the Stomach of a Live Naked Woman!) and a chastened relief at having survived them, it is an on-the-whole cautionary tale about the perils of fame and the flipside of celebrity, the happiness money doesn't buy and the pain it won't kill, the heartlessness of the city and the evil of drugs. None of this is news: Norman Maine and Vicki Lester were grappling with the same stuff onscreen in A Star Is Born back in '37. But it's evergreen.
Biopics are trouble; they compromise both the lives on which they're based and the stories they might, less fettered by fact, become - truth is stranger than fiction, but rarely as conclusive. Complicated, largely unknowable motives are inevitably misrepresented, or underrepresented, mere struggling humans cast as heroes and villains. And Gia does slip now and again into caricature or oversimplification or easy blame - it certainly doesn't make the fashion world look good. Yet, for the most part, and I mean this in the best way, it keeps you from making up your mind about its subject. "Anybody who tries to tell you exactly who she was, they didn't know her," one character is made to say, perhaps preemptively. The script, by Cristofer and novelist Jay McInerney (Bright Lights, Big City), with recourse to and quotes from Gia's own journals, is smart, low on platitudes, and hides the expository dialogue pretty well. As director, first-timer Cristofer courts audiovisual cliche, but lives to tell the tale.
Still, the film rests most crucially on the wide shoulders of actress Angelina Jolie - who, at 22, neatly splits the difference between the age Gia got famous and the age she died - and she proves a regular Atlas. Jolie, whom Golden Globe watchers will have seen rewarded for her portrayal of Cornelia Wallace in TNT's George Wallace, isn't quite built on a model's lines (she's usually the shortest person in the shot), but she's physically impressive on her own terms, and her performance is dynamic, unselfconscious and abandoned. If in her early scenes as a grape-haired punkette she seems a little forced and willful, well, punks always did seem to me forced and willful, and both the actress and the role grow more compelling as the film begins to focus past the kinky details of the high-life lowlife to issues of love and satisfaction and responsibility; Jolie's scenes with Mercedes Ruehl, as her adoring but clueless mother, and with Elizabeth Mitchell, as her on-and-off girlfriend, are sweet and heartbreaking. The less required Jolie is to be beautiful and fantastic, as Gia's life winds down, the more beautiful and fantastic she becomes - she expands into the quiet. Expiring, she is nearly sublime.
GiaHBOVarious times through February 18
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.