By all accounts this film is a faithful rendering of the 1959 Broadway musical starring Ethel Merman. Arthur Laurents, who wrote the original play, provided the teleplay; Jerome Robbins’ original choreography was recreated; and songs omitted from the 1962 film version have been restored. As a record of a seminal piece of theatre, it is something to be treasured. As a film, it creaks like a museum artefact.
At first glance the film seems ideally cast. Fame alumnus Cynthia Gibb portrays Gypsy Rose Lee. Peter Reigert is his usual stolid self as the story’s conscience, Herbie. Even Tony Shalhoub, Ed Asner and a young Elizabeth Moss make the most of their fleeting appearances. Inexplicably it is Bette Midler, in a role that could have been tailor-made for her, who lets down the show.
Granted, Mama Rose is difficult character to warm to, but Midler strips her of any compassion. She attacks her fellow cast members with the same vim and vigour she employs when bellowing Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, robbing both of any chance to breathe. It’s as if Midler based her entire performance around the line “The whole family shouts. It comes from living near the railway tracks”.
Tellingly, the movie’s best scene occurs with Midler is off-camera, when Tessie Tura, Miss Mazeppa and Miss Electra teach Gypsy the art of stripping. The screen has not witnessed more pelvic thrusts since The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s ‘Time Warp’.
as Gypsy Rose Lee
as June Havoc
“I didn't want to be accused of being unfaithful to the facts. So I said it was a fable. Of course, Gypsy's memoir is a fable, too.”
"I cherish and am extremely proud of my childhood. If you'd been a child -- a phenomenon, really -- someone who earned fifteen-hundred dollars a week on the Keith-Orpheum circuit, who was a headliner with all the applause and laughter and raised in that glorious vaudeville family, and then see yourself portrayed as a no-talent, whining nothing, well, it hurts terribly."
“There was that meeting. The contracts hadn't been signed and June had been protesting.... And Gypsy was sitting right there, calm and demure. She had one fear. That the show might not go on. She didn't care whether it was truth or untruth.”
“Gypsy was deliriously happy. She said, ‘It's my monument, June.’ I said, ‘Do you want the world to remember you as someone with nothing but a gimmick?’ She said, ‘I don't care what they say about me as long as my name is up there.’ How are you going to quarrel with that? You can't. I gave up. I always gave up. Because she was my sister.”
Though June Havoc appeared in a few Hal Roach shorts during her heyday, there are no scene recreations in this biopic. Havoc would go on to a successful acting career after the events depicted in this film. Gypsy Rose Lee would also appear in a few films.