The recent on-again, off-again buzz about whether Barbra Streisand is being eased into a new film version of “Gypsy” serves to remind us that the celebrated Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical would benefit from a decent big-screen adaptation. The 1962 Mervyn LeRoy film version is an excellent case study of how not to bring a Broadway classic to Hollywood.
There is no pleasant way around the basic problem with the film version of “Gypsy”, Rosalind Russell was abysmally miscast as Mama Rose. It is easy to understand why she went for the role (by way of producer hubby Frederick Brisson acquiring the rights to the show), Mama Rose is one of the most challenging and demanding parts imaginable, and pulling off the character’s lethal mix of delusion, cunning, pathos and terror is a feat that few stars could dream of achieving.
The problem, though, was that Ethel Merman scored that achievement first, while belting out the landmark score in a manner that put a permanent lock on the role. Russell could sing (she won a Tony Award for her performance in the musical ‘Wonderful Town’), but she could not pull off the “Gypsy” score with the depth and intensity of Merman. The unbilled presence of Lisa Kirk dubbing the tunes may have eased the star’s vocal burden, but it also diluted much of the tension surrounding the role, especially in the climactic ‘Rose’s Turn’ number, which plays like an elaborate pantomime of a frantic Russell mouthing someone else’s soulful angst. As a result, Russell’s Mama Rose came across as Auntie Mame’s shrill sister, which threw the film completely out of balance.
Not that it had much balance to begin with. LeRoy’s direction was stale and theatrical, rarely has a big screen production looked so small and puny. Twenty-four-year old Natalie Wood was visibly too old to be credible as the bedraggled teenage Louise and too vapid to imitate the glamorous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Karl Malden, as Rose’s long-suffering suitor, has little to do but look on with concern at his co-stars’ machinations.
Perhaps it is best if “Gypsy” remains off the screen, a 1993 made-for-TV version with Bette Midler was nothing special, and Streisand is three decades too old to play Mama Rose today. Really, if filmmakers cannot get the adaptation right, they should just leave “Gypsy” on the stage and move on to creating new chaos instead of recycling old material.