For anyone who is been following my work at The Solute, you have probably learned I have spent a lot of time writing about social issue dramas. Similarly, I have already explained my thoughts on most biopic films. So, it was only appropriate to explore both in one review! More often than not, a lot of biopics jettison all the nuance and complexities of their subjects (i.e. the interesting stuff) in favor of A-to-B-to-C easy uplift or heart wrenching tragedy. This is doubly true if the biopic in question also serves as a social issue piece. Occasionally, some of these biopic/social message films burst through their trappings and offer sharp social commentary, along with indelible showcases for their actors. Before Night Falls is such example. Gia is another.
Gia, a 1998 HBO film about the life and death of late 70s/early 80s supermodel Gia Carangi, is one of the more peculiar biopic/social issue films for an assortment of reasons. The most obvious one is Gia Carangi occupies a niche part of history; in the words of the film, ‘the closer you are to having your moment, the closer your moment ends.’ Those unfamiliar with fashion have likely never heard of her, and I’ll bet even some of the more fashion-savvy readers are unfamiliar with her name. Outside of her supermodel status, Carangi has the tragic distinction of being one of the first famous women to die from AIDS, at the young age of 26. However, despite being a fashion model and dying of a disease ostensibly associated with gay men in the 80s, Gia wasn’t a terribly remarkable individual. Her biopic argues just this, and works just as much as a deconstruction of ‘Gia the Image/Myth’ in addition to being an exploration of ‘Gia the Person.’
One of the hardest things about making a biopic about a famous person, particularly one who is famous for their beauty, is trying to find both an actor and a certain grace to elevate the production beyond being a multi-million dollar version of ‘Let’s play dress up!’ ‘Thankfully, a thoughtful script from Jay McInerney and Michael Cristofer (who also directs), who used some of Gia Carangi’s own journals, and a ferocious, Golden Globe/SAG Award-winning performance from Angelina Jolie give Gia it’s necessary vitality and tragedy. It’s a powerful film, at times humorous, always insightful, and ultimately horrifying and shattering.
There is often something that tickles me about period pieces: how one decades of the past says volumes about its own moment in time. The film was made in 1998, as the heroin chic look in fashion was in its twilight years. Heroic chic was the fashion industry at its most openly nihilistic; death and addiction as a trendy wardrobe and look. It is perhaps unsurprising that a biopic about Gia Carangi, a case study who epitomized how the toxic underbelly of the fashion industry can rapidly destroy lives, was made during this time period. However, the bar bones cynicism of the 90s allowed Crangi’s life to receive the biopic treatment, it’s remarkable that it doesn’t play like a vacuous advertisement.
Gia, much like Star 80 and Stuart: A Life Backwards, is constructed as a quasi-documentary. Her family and acquaintances talk about her rise and fall in the industry, often with contradictory points of view; her mother (Mercedes Ruehl) says she loved getting her picture taken, while a photographer friend said she loathed having her picture taken. These scenes are interspersed in the main narrative of Gia Carangi’s rise from wise-cracking punk rocker to creme de la creme of high fashion, before her addiction destroyed her career and AIDS took her life. The fake interview scenes cast a curious judgement on all the other characters: the film implies they are all responsible, in one way or another, for Gia’s downfall, but it was more a failure of the system than anything else. Gia’s girlfriend had to keep her distance to prevent herself from being hurt. Gia’s mum was more than willing to ignore all the warning signs her daughter was in trouble. In one of the film’s most scathing critiques of the fashion industry’s ambivalence, an assistant on one of Gia’s fashion shoots finds her pipe and says, ‘A little death around the eyes looks good.’
However, the film argues even that would be an easy cop-out to present the fashion industry as uniformly evil and portray Gia as ‘the poor fallen angel.’ Sure, the film never shies away from uglier moments, such as Gia’s final cover shoot for Cosmo, where she is so strung out and covered in track marks the director insists she hide her arms behind her back. But, the screenplays says: this woman had demons and pain, and her beauty landed her in an industry where all to many people fall victim to destructive behaviors. Or, as a fellow patient at a rehab center says to Gia: ‘What am I supposed to feel here? Sorry for you because you’re beautiful? Because you made ten thousand a minute doing fuckin’ nothing? “Oh it was so hard, so terrible, they treated me so bad.” Listen girl, you had a free ride. And you fuckin’ blew it.’
All of this would go to waste had it not been Angelina Jolie’s incendiary performance. Jolie is an actress I have always had ambivalent feelings towards; she often feels miscast in a lot of her films. Here, she’s fantastic. She finds Gia’s magnetism, her darkness, and her fear and makes it feel so palpable, one would think she is exorcising some of her own demons. It’s a showy role, but Jolie never gets too carried away: she grounds Gia with a down-to-earth essence that makes her feel like she could have been anyone. She is matched by similarly great performances from Faye Dunaway, who vamps it up as Wilhelmina Cooper (founder of Wilhelmina Models) and Mercedes Ruehl, as Gia’s well-meaning, but distant mother.
Gia is a great, profoundly sad film, but it’s never needlessly miserable. All of the tragedy depicted is what happened in Gia’s life, and the film wisely avoids sugarcoating it. Near the end of the film, after Gia is diagnosed with AIDS, it becomes one of most harrowing, brutal looks at the disease, and puts to shame so many other films that use it as tacky awards bait. It’s ugly, it’s disturbing, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. But, it’s honest in its portrait and beautiful because of it.
Or like Gia herself said,
‘Life and death, energy and peace. If I stop today, it was still worth it. Even the terrible mistakes that I made and would have unmade if I could. The pains that have burned me and scarred my soul, it was worth it, for having been allowed to walk where I’ve walked, which was to hell on earth, heaven on earth, back again, into, under, far in between, through it, in it, and above.’