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Monday, June 8, 2009

Review: Gypsy The Art of the Tease

The past few months have seen the publication of a biography of Gypsy Rose Lee, Stripping Gypsy, by Noralee Frankel, plus this cultural examination by American theatre academic Rachel Shteir. A TV biopic, starring Sigourney Weaver, is in the works.

Odd, this flurry of activity around a 1930s striptease and burlesque performer who died nearly 40 years ago leaving almost nothing behind except a name that still resonates, even if we're no longer quite sure why.

Odd, that is, unless we appreciate just how 21st century Gypsy Rose Lee was in her attitudes.

She was a tenacious businesswoman and a mistress of illusion and reinvention 60 years before the phenomenon of Madonna, Shteir points out. As someone who became enormously famous for doing almost nothing, she anticipated the stars of reality television. "Sometimes you have no specific talent," she cheerfully admitted towards the end of her life. "I have a talent for life, for living. Oh, I could have been a second-rate actress. Instead I've channelled my mediocrity."

The 1962 musical Gypsy, in which she was played by Natalie Wood, was based on Gypsy Lee's mythologised and revisionist memoirs and told the story of a monstrous stage mother, memorably played by Rosalind Russell, virtually forcing her shy teenage daughter to strip for a living in tatty burlesque theatres.

In reality, claims Shteir, the girl was only too compliant in the enterprise. American vaudeville was a brutal world, and performers did whatever it took to claw their way up the ladder and establish a niche. George Burns, a near-contemporary, once said of his early days: "I did anything to stay in show business. If I had to be a single, I'd do a single. If I had to do a two-act, I'd do a two- act. If I had to work with a seal, I'd work with a seal. I wanted to stay in the business."

And streetwise Gypsy Rose, whose true gift was for survival, stayed in the business by stripping, the first such performer to become a household name. By all accounts it was very decorous, leaving much to the audience's fevered collective imagination, with an emphasis on suggestion, banter and charm rather than the exposure of flesh.

The only clip of her work that seems to have survived, from Stagedoor Canteen(1943) - you can find it on YouTube - shows a studiedly inoffensive version of an act that, even in its original form, was more tease than strip.

Still, for America in the 1930s, Gypsy Rose embodied what Camille Paglia referred to as "the sizzle of outlaw sexuality".

This smart and courageous woman single-handedly made striptease - once seen only in brothels and the lowest kind of theatrical dive - more or less respectable.

She made it possible for women to strip on television and in nightclubs without being arrested, yet you might well ask, as the author does, what kind of accomplishment is that?

By the time her physical allure began to fade she had already branded herself in the nation's consciousness and went on to host her own television show, a much-loved relic of an imagined naughtier age. She wrote novels and plays, and was said to enjoy reading Proust.

Rachel Shteir, burrowing industriously away through her subject's inventions, evasions and downright lies - one colleague said Gypsy Rose was "allergic to the truth" - cannot credibly claim her for feminism, "although to my mind she anticipates Gloria Steinem".

The book has a slightly apologetic and ambivalent edge and the somewhat scrappy text occasionally has the quality of notes for a work-in-progress.
By Stephen Dixon

More Gypsy Rose Lee Items

1 comment:

burlesque performer said...

thanks for the review!.. enjoyed reading it and look forward to watching it now!