Like the supermodel herself, the 1998 HBO movie Gia, which charts the spectacular early-80’s rise and fall of the real-life lesbian supermodel Gia Carangi (played by Angelina Jolie), means different things to different viewers: a rags-to-riches tale, a lesbian love story, commentary on the heartlessness and fear of the first days of the AIDS epidemic, a harrowing look at the ravaging effects of long-term drug abuse, or the story of a little girl who spent her whole life trying to find someone to fill the hole left by her mother’s departure.
Based on many of the real-life model’s journal entries, the film is shot in a documentary style that includes commentary from various people in Gia’s life — photographers, friends, fashion editors, Linda, and her mother Kathleen (played by Mercedes Ruehl).
When the narrative begins, Gia is sporting a punk hairdo and working at her father’s diner in Philadelphia, where she is discovered by a photographer and shortly thereafter makes the leap to the big time modeling world in New York — and almost immediately begins to self-destruct as she is drawn into the drug culture that was accompanied the model lifestyle.
Gia meets Linda on the set of her first big shoot, and the two women hit it off immediately despite the fact that Linda has a boyfriend and perceives herself to be very “square,” and they end up sleeping together that night. Gia quickly falls in love with Linda, but her mother’s departure at an early age has also left her fundamentally needy and unable to be alone. As Linda describes her, Gia is “like a puppy,” saying “Love me! Love me! Love me!” all the time.
Linda is not ready to give Gia what she wants in the beginning, however, and by the time she is, it’s too late — Gia is already addicted to drugs. Still, they keep trying to make it work, even at the very end when Gia is dying of AIDS.
Jolie’s scenes with Mitchell are some of the best in the film, and their chemistry together is excellent. From Gia plaintively asking Linda to stay while standing naked in front of an elevator full of people, to Gia’s attempts to steal Linda away from her boyfriend right in front of him, to Linda’s ultimatum that Gia must choose between the drugs or their relationship, their scenes are alternately playful, intense, moving, and heartbreaking.
Although Jolie had generated some buzz from two previous films — Hackers and Foxfire — Gia is arguably the movie that really announced her presence to the world. She is simply superb as Gia, the perfect actress to embody the contradictory mix of emotions and the proper balance of frailty and strength that this role required.
Her performance in Gia earned her an Emmy nomination and a Golden Globe award for best actress in a TV mini-series, and this, combined with her Oscar-winning role in the movie Girl, Interrupted a year later, propelled her to the movie stardom she enjoys today.
Elizabeth Mitchell, who went on to play a lesbian on ER for a short time, plays Linda with a deceptive ease as the girl next door bewildered by this wild thing she’s grown to love, but ultimately can’t save.
Mercedes Ruehl is excellent as Gia’s mother, who clearly doesn’t grasp her role in contributing to Gia’s self-destructive tendencies, and Faye Dunaway is an effective substitute mother for Gia as the head of the modeling agency.
While the first half of the film is fascinating, inspiring, and unpredictable, the second half, which focuses on Gia’s decline, is as predictable and depressing as most movies about drug-addiction are. Jolie’s performance as a former drug-addict dying of AIDS is intense and moving, but difficult to watch; although these scenes were probably necessary to give a faithful account of Gia’s life, that doesn’t make for great entertainment.
Which is why although I’ve seen the first half of the film several times, I’ve only seen the second half once.
There have been few movies, however — on television or the big screen — that portray a lesbian relationship as frankly and movingly as Gia does, and this, combined with the knowledge that Jolie is herself bisexual in real life, makes this film a favorite among many lesbian viewers.
The fact that it ends tragically is unfortunate given how few lesbian couples we ever see on TV or film, but doesn’t negate the fact that is one of the few realistic lesbian relationships you’ll find in a mainstream movie.
And if you don’t watch the second half, you can even pretend it all works out okay in the end.