June 23, 2022

Gia (1998)
Grade: 72/100

Director: Michael Cristofer
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Elizabeth Mitchell, Mercedes Ruehl

What it's about. A made-for-cable HBO biopic of Gia Carangi, who as a teenager became a world-famous fashion model, regularly on the cover of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Due to a heroin addiction, Gia's career fizzled out within a few years. She became a sex worker, developed AIDS, was robbed and beaten, and died in a hospice in 1986, all by the age of 26.

But now we know what happened to Gia, we can celebrate her life, albeit in the form of Angelina Jolie. She begins the film as a waitress in her father's Italian hoagie cafe in Philadelphia. Her gay friend Eric Michael Cole takes her to New York, where the fresh and striking Gia is discovered by leading model agent Wilhelmina Cooper (Faye Dunaway).

On her way up, Gia encounters Linda (Elizabeth Mitchell), a beautiful woman connected with the modelling world. The stress of long shoots and a fear of being abandoned combine to lead Gia down a road of addiction, from pills to cocaine to heroin. Not long after, she becomes unreliable in her work, and journeys back and forth between Basketball Diaries addiction and methadone-driven rehabs, sometimes with Linda or her mother (Mercedes Ruehl), a nice and caring but somewhat addlepated Italian-American Catholic.

How others will see it. Back in 1998, HBO movies were generally superior to theatrical films, a little-known secret since their marketing department could not compete for attention with the Hollywood machine. But the folks at the Emmys knew, since Gia was nominated for six of them. Jolie picked up a Golden Globe, the Directors Guild of America bestowed an award on Michael Cristofer, and so on and so forth from the Screen Actors Guild, the Casting Society of America, and the Satellite Awards.

All those trophies are probably not why Gia has 45K user votes at imdb.com. No, the reason why is that Jolie has lesbian sex scenes and shows off her anatomy, tattoos and all, for the world to see. At least as long as they have a streaming login to HBO Max.

The user rating of 6.9 out of 10 is fairly high, yet underwhelming relative to the festival circuit honors bestowed upon the film. The user reviews, though, are dominated by praise. One has to venture past pages of accolades for Jolie and HBO to get to those who carp about stereotypical drugs-are-bad morality plays, made-for-cable biopics, and Jolie is naked alot.

How I felt about it. The dramatic rise and fall is a familiar story in the movies, often with the moral crime does not pay (Scarface, Little Caesar). For biopics, the moral is changed to suit the life story. If the subject is Karen Carpenter, don't become bulimic. For Elvis Presley, it's don't take too many prescription pills. In Leaving Las Vegas, the message is lay off the booze. Here, in Gia, it is don't become a heroin addict.

Certainly, Gia makes wrong choices, but it's not all her fault. First her gay boyfriend moves back to Philadelphia, then her lesbian lover doesn't stick around. And her companions press drugs on her. Even her agent, Faye Dunaway, tells her to take pills. Alas, the drugs are tolerated if not encouraged by her fashion photographers, who prefer vacant stares to neurotic behavior. It's only when she stops showing up, or shows up with track marks on her arms, that her career careens to a halt.

What makes Gia different from the standard up-and-down trajectory is the performances. Among the film's many Emmy nominations is one for Outstanding Casting, and indeed, it's a joy to see a youthful Angelina Jolie, an radiant Faye Dunaway, and an exasperated but forgiving Mercedes Ruehl. Elizabeth Mitchell is good, and Eric Michael Cole is credible in the less than credible role as the nice gay guy who truly loves Gia ... as a person.

Jolie, we know, is the daughter of Jon Voight, a Best Actor Oscar winner and Academy nominated for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor on three other occasions. It is tempting to dismiss her as another Charlie Sheen, someone blessed with hot looks and a famous actor as a parent, and therefore overindulged and incapable of self awareness or depth.

Such an assessment, whether out of jealousy or a sense of karma, is misplaced in the case of Jolie, at least during the early years of her A-list career. Here, she has considerable charisma, and she holds her own in every scene.