Gia Carangi came and went – a disposable delectation of the late seventies and the early eighties, a hood ornament on the glossy grilles of the British, French, and American editions of Vogue, the domestic and Italian Cosmopolitans, in and out of Versaces unto pills, spoons, needles, Studio 54, and Kaposi’s sarcoma – without my noticing. Which is nothing to be proud of; to leave space for what we want to pay attention to, all of us ignore whole categories of the human comedy. In my case, in order to read books and box scores, go to movies and AA meetings, watch grandchildren and VH1’s Pop-Up Video, I have abandoned any interest whatsoever in cars, real estate, stock quotations, ice hockey, crossword puzzles, haute cuisine, and fashion. So I can’t tell you if Angelina Jolie actually resembles the doomed supermodel she plays in Gia (Saturday, January 31; 9 to 11 p.m.; HBO). But I can tell you that she’s more than incendiary. Like Ava Gardner or a plutonium isotope, she’s radioactive. She glows in her own dark.
Early on in Gia, we are told: “Fashion isn’t art. It isn’t even culture. It’s advertising.” In this slick and cynical cable-TV movie, directed by Michael (The Shadow Box) Cristofer from a screenplay by Cristofer and Bright Lights, Big City novelist Jay McInerney, some glamour-racket talking head will always interrupt the action, like a witch in Macbeth, to tell us something gnomic or smart-ass. (For another instance: “Every photograph is a promise, and the promise is never kept.”) The style is bedpan, skin-pop, and smirky-hip, from a broken home in an Italian neighborhood in Philadelphia to the spiky shores of downtown punk, from soft-core nudie pix to Eurotrash modeling agencies to Paris (and Munich and Milan) location shots to needle parks and AIDS wards. Like Jolie’s needy Gia – “This is meat,” says a packager, looking at a picture of her; “this is sirloin” – it’s all attitude, dressing up a wound.
It’s also the usual Grimm cautionary tale, like Bird or Lady Sings the Blues or “Little Red Riding-Hood.” Not having gotten enough love from a mother, Mercedes Ruehl, who walked out on an abusive marriage when Gia was 11, she will look for surrogate gobs of it from Faye Dunaway, a modeling-agency madam who’s seen everything; for a compensatory substitute in a lesbian relationship with her makeup artist, Elizabeth Mitchell, a nonplussed innocent with a very confused boyfriend; in go-go coke and cuddly heroin. “Your nose looks like nuclear fucking winter,” she’s told on one occasion. On another, when she’s “taking the dragon” and tricked out as Madame Butterfly among enigmatic pumpkins, her whole face looks like medieval death. But her bared breasts, on which the camera and the director are fixated, remain firm and perfect till she’s dead. At age 26.
Jolie’s been a knockout from the energetic Hackers (1995), a sort of cyberpunk Grease, to George Wallace, in which she played a sexually deprived Cornelia, to the Rolling Stones’ video “Anybody Seen My Baby.” I was about to say that, all by her ripe self, she redeems Gia from its pandering – from the fact that it ends up being a commercial for all it purports to deplore. To say this, however, is lazy and unfair. So knowing is Gia, so in love with its own slick decadence, that it does the job Robert Altman didn’t do in Ready to Wear. From Altman, one expected the cameras mounted like machine guns on both sides of the strobe-lit runway to strafe the anorexic models and savage the glad-rag scribblers under the glitterdome at the Paris freak show where the chic designers disclosed their spring collections. Yet even with his concluding parade of French lamb chops without their paper panties, Altman was more amused than appalled by those who torture women as Giacometti tortured metals; who fold, spindle, mutilate, and ordain that they look like Hebrew prophecy, Egyptian plague, industrial noise, acid dreams, or abused children; that they smell like coconuts, transistors, asparagus, credit cards, or the guts of a sperm whale.