Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Fellini's Ginger and Fred (1986)

Fellini's Ginger and Fred (1986)

Needless to say, the Bear was on this one like a duck on June bug. But then he was reminded why Bears don't eat June bugs. This unfunny reflection on aging set in a satire of Italian television gets a SPOILED 2 out of 5 Salmon. Unlike Fellini's usual sentimental fare, Ginger and Fred just was just sad, even mean-spirited. The version the Bear watched was dubbed, which is always unfortunate.

Pippo and Amelia on "We are Proud to Present"

Thirty years ago, Pippo (Marcello Mastrioanni) and Amelia (Guilletta Masina) had a minor career as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers impersonators. Now, in their old age, they are reunited on a television show called We are Proud to Present. A very few of the details are affectionate. Amelia's costume includes Ginger's famous feathers, and Pippo nearly sneezes onstage when one goes up his nose. But there are too few chuckles that are not bought with the coin of humiliation. 

We Are Proud to Present turns out to be a freak show. Pippo and Amelia should have known this if they owned televisions. Italian television is bizarre. A good example is prime time Il Colpo Grosso, which was like Jeopardy, if Jeopardy had strippers instead of questions. So much of We Are Proud to Present barely sinks below the real thing, into recognizable satire. Although Pippo and Amelia consider fleeing the set when the studio lights go out, inevitably, they have their moment in the spotlight.

However, they must share it with a good-looking transvestite (no country has greater reason to be proud of its transvestites than Italy), dancing midgets, dodgy spiritualists, and a long list of 80s celebrity impersonators. Clearly, Pippo and Amelia are just another no-name novelty.

Pippo has forgotten the steps, and Amelia talks him through them. It would be a spoiler to say more about their performance. Can Pippo and Amelia rise above the schlock, and recapture something of their own small magic?

Humiliating Roles

On the theme of aging, Masina (Fellini's real-life wife) is mostly her usual sweet, vulnerable character, hiding behind a little smile, such as we have seen in Fellini's 1965 Giulletta degli Spiriti. However, in private, she gets angry at the slackness in her skin. Since the old act broke up, she has become a successful business woman. Despite her shock at the program, she is nonetheless game.

Bill Murray would have made the ultimate Pippo, doing his lovable, cranky old man shtick. In fact, if ever a remake of a Fellini movie were justifiable, this would be it. Mastroianni plays Pippo very broadly, fending off the decline of age with a barrage of self-deprecating jokes that cross the line into uncomfortableness. ("I wet the bed now. Prostate!") The Bear suspects the exaggerated English dubbing does this version (Microsoft Movies) no favors. 

There are some movies that make you feel sorry for the actors, not the characters. This is one of them, especially for Mastroianni, who deserves better. (He  won Best Actor at Cannes for Dark Eyes the following year. He would die ten years after Ginger and Fred.) 

Pippo drinks too much, makes up vulgar doggerel about women, is divorced, and apparently broke. Yeah, we know Mastroianni in 1986 is not the handsome, chic actor of the 1963 Otto e Mezzo. But we don't want our noses rubbed our noses in it.

Ironically Titled We are Proud to Present

We are Proud to Present reminds the Bear of the ridiculous television show in Rocky Horror Picture's quasi-sequel, Shock Treatment. It is hard to satirize Italian television - or advertising. The ridiculously suggestive sausage ads got a laugh the first time, but fall into the category of (shrug) Bear's seen worse. Maybe in 1986, Italian TV was not yet a ridiculous vehicle for game-show strippers, and commercials for unexpected products that the Bear would not here mention. Perhaps the satire had more bite.

Fellini clearly does not like television, but uses a sledgehammer to kill a fly. It is ironic that a film whose subtext is that film is better than mindless television, is submerged into the very subject it attempts to satirize. Fellini's Ginger and Fred turns out to be a less a satire -which requires a deft touch - as a sad capitulation to trash. It is barely watchable for the most part, although Masina's performance walks a sweetly delicate line between knowing she's being exploited, and yet clutching at a chance to be Ginger one more time.

Seems un-Felliniesque

At the end, the characters are the same as they were in the beginning: geezers willing to be humiliated for a few minutes of relived youth in the spotlight. Some might argue Pippo and Masina recapture something wonderful, and transcend the medium. The Bear would concede the possibility, while not agreeing with it. Or, maybe Fellini was satirizing his own penchant for nostalgia. Maybe you can't turn back the clock and shouldn't try. Other than a fascination with the grotesque, however, it barely even seems a Fellini movie. As they say in Sicily, "Booh-" Whatever; I don't know and never will.

Another unfortunate circumstance was that composer Nino Rota had passed away long before this movie was made. A good old Nino Rota soundtrack might have set the right emotional tones. What a partnership he and Fellini had! The ending was depressing. There was no bittersweet serenade from a Sicilian village band, no little circus. You might need a hankie during one or two scenes. Like Macbeth's Cawdor, nothing in the film becomes it so well as the leaving of it. But it is rooted firmly in the decade of the 80s. No timeless classic is Ginger and Fred.


  1. Sorry I'm behind on my beta-readership, just hit chapter 31 and will send notes tomorrow. In the meantime I thought I'd share the video that introduced me to Fred Astaire and Ginger. I'm pretty sure this will horrify you (remember I'm a Millenial, lol)

    1. Swing Time! Ginger's fave and mine, too. Her dancing the number in the dark dress with the whirling skirt is possibly the best number they ever had, and Ginger dancing that number is on the cover of her autobiography. The A Fine Romance number in the snow in just adorable. Ginger is so ready for that kiss that never happens - madonn'! (Sometimes some Sicilian comes out when I see something like that.) But it's brilliant because that's for the guys - Fred is like, "Well, I got hit with a snowball, so just pretend I'm not here." Fred's RKO screen test notes are "Can't sing. Can't act. Balding. Can dance a little." From memory. And like all good Hollywood stories, ya never really know.

  2. Some writer said, the beginning and the end of a novel are what gets crossed out. It is here where writers do most of their lying.


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