Gia January 19, 2017
The mantra of Sri Lankan rapper M.I.A.’s “Bad Girls” — “live fast, die young/bad girls do it well” — only half applies to the life of Gia Carangi, renowned as the fashion world’s first supermodel. She lived fast and she died young, true. But as a young woman never having had an unsinkable sense of self, never having had a moment lived not marked by raging vulnerability, she never lived on the edge well. Addicted to hard drugs for most of her career and among the first well-known celebrities to contract the AIDS virus, she died, weak and despondent, at the age of twenty-six.
Why Carangi’s legacy remains obscure in the public eye is a mystery. Our society tends to worship beautiful young things who met their ends before their prime, and it tends to rabidly inhale stories wherein ethereal beauty is destroyed, never to be brought back, by the pains that come with inescapable notoriety.
And yet photographs of the model are hard to come by. She was a pioneer — an original wild child — arguably denied lasting fame because of the industry’s unwillingness to admit that propelling someone to unreasonably high heights can be enough to kill them if they come with enough emotional baggage. The rise and fall of Carangi is an American tragedy. It also makes for a story ripe for hankie baiting diversion and sharpened commentary with fingers pointed directly at the material-over-feelings preferring people behind the runway.
So 1998’s Gia, starring an exquisite Angelina Jolie as the titular figure, proves to be something of a disappointment because it explores those aforementioned topics of interest so glossily. Until we reach the chillingly affecting stretch of the film in which Carangi’s career is over, her AIDS in full swing and her final goodbyes locked and loaded, the movie’s as innocuously chintzy as the unnamed Anna Wintour doppleganger who decides that Carangi is the It Girl of the 1980s.
Left unscathed are, of course, Jolie, able to play tough, to play spunky, like few other actresses of her generation, and Elizabeth Mitchell, who embodies Carangi’s love interest with such heart that even the simulated scenes of Skinemax imitating cinematic sex don’t deter the relational believability that rests between them.
But Gia’s too conventional to flirt with authenticity. Its story expands all the way from its eponymous tortured soul’s unhappy childhood to her tragic death, scenes only interrupted by fictionalized talking head interviews with Carangi’s loved ones (that we assume are for a TV special in the works and for supplemental, manipulative nuances to up the film’s emotional range).
As it goes for most biographical features that make the deadly mistake of trying to cover every juncture to have colored its spotlighted personality’s life, however, several moments, as well our general understanding of character motivations, are stretched hopelessly thin. The Carangi we see is irreparably emotionally unstable — just look at the way she nearly has a nervous breakdown after her mother decides to head back home following a long-winded stay at her daughter’s New York apartment, and just look at the way the young woman’s life melodramatically hits its quickest downward spiral after mentor Wilhelmina Cooper (a miscast Faye Dunaway) loses her battle to cancer — but never clear is why Carangi’s the way she is. In front of us is a self-destructing person who self-destructs for the reason of self-destructing alone. We assume that maybe her slightly off-balanced childhood caused her need for all-encompassing love. Or that her erratic behaviors were actually just attempts to try to distract herself from her misery.
But I can’t stand the vague development — it makes it seem like Carangi was the way she was just for the sake of being Gia Carangi, and no one decimates themselves so badly that they die before they reach the age of thirty for no real reason. If the movie used her final days as the outlining story rather than a TV doc, with everything coming beforehand fragmented together to heighten her tragedy, its poignancy would drastically leap. The final forty minutes alone almost cause us to forget the earlier ersatz efforts to pull heartstrings. They’re beautifully stirring. But with its two-plus hours long and sometimes needlessly languid, it becomes more an HBO-distributed vehicle for Jolie to prove herself. And she does. It’s the film that struggles to match her brilliance. C+