CAPSULE: GINGER AND FRED (1986)

Ginger e Fred

Recommended

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Giulietta Masina,

PLOT: Retired Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers impersonators return for a guest spot on a television spectacular.

Still from Ginger and Fred (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: One ten-teated cow does not a weird movie make. In Ginger and Fred, Fellini’s once-aggressive surrealism mellows into bemused quirkiness. Fans will find plenty to appreciate in the colorful, chaotic oddity on display, but this is a conventional comedy, by the maestro’s standards.

COMMENTS: Ginger and Fred is not a “Felliniesque” movie per se. It’s more of a roadmap for how Fellini’s vision might be channeled into something nostalgic and whimsical: Fellini for grandpas and grandmas. It’s a pleasing elegy for grand old entertainment, mixed with an unsubtle but effective satire of television. It features Fellini’s muse (Masina) and alter-ego (Mastroianni) working together for the first and only time, a pairing that in and of itself would make Ginger and Fred noteworthy. Fortunately, it’s also a good movie, with excellent performances from both stars. Masina’s Ginger is likeable and dignified, bemused by modernity without being overwhelmed or embittered. Mastroianni’s Fred hides his growing feebleness under a mask of rakishness, quick with a wolf whistle and a drink order. The scene where Fred repeatedly lifts Ginger while her eyes cross and they both start breathing heavily is as amusing a proxy for geriatric intercourse as I ever want to see on film.

Ginger and Fred‘s unseen network executives assemble a collection of human oddities for their Christmas spectacular variety show, with whom the elegant and put-upon Ginger is forced to share a hotel and a stage. There’s a transvestite with a divine calling to visit prisoners, Kafka and Proust impersonators (!), a troupe of bolero-dancing dwarfs, a mutant cow, a couple who tape-record ghost voices, and a throng of supplemental weirdos: extras wander around dressed like video game characters and decapitated geishas. There is some inherent irony in the way Ginger and Fred trots out its freakshow parade as a criticism of television, given the fact that Fellini himself was famous and celebrated for populating his films with odd-looking people and carnivalesque performers. The distinction, of course, is that Fellini isn’t criticizing television’s reliance on the grotesque, but the shallowness of its fascination, of the spectacle format in which every story is cut to fit in as short a slot as possible and not explored beyond its surface. His satirical circus is something stranger and more curious than television could ever accomplish (except, of course, when Fellini worked in the medium). He spends time exploring Ginger and Fred in-depth, making them three-dimensional characters inhabiting a two-dimensional world.

Some of the best bits are the brief parodies of television programming. There’s an absurd puppet show version of Dante’s “Inferno,” spot-on recreations of MTV music videos, a commercial with sexy French maid pouring olive oil on a huge lobster, a game show where housewives shovel pasta into their mouths from sinks, with the sauce delivered from the faucet. Televisions are everywhere in Ginger and Fred; in the hotel lobby, on the studio’s buses. Modern audiences will identify with the way the characters are always looking at screens rather than people—only back then, it was television that was the distraction. The screen has changed, but the message is the same.

In a strange footnote, Ginger Rogers unsuccessfully (and foolishly) sued Ginger and Fred‘s producers for trademark infringement and defamation.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a hysterical send-up of Italian television, which looks like an LSD-induced vision of ours 30 years ago – a combination of Morey Amsterdam’s ‘Broadway Open House,’ ‘The Ed Sullivan Show,’ Alistair Cooke’s ‘Omnibus’ and the Irv Kupcinet show… One longs for fewer midgets and bizarre misfits and for more of Miss Masina and Mr. Mastroianni.”–Vincent Canby, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

One thought on “CAPSULE: GINGER AND FRED (1986)”

  1. I like this film but I feel it to be Fellini-Lite in many ways. There are moments of brilliance (most of which you reference) but it doesn’t all quite gel for me. For me “And The Ship Sails On,” released three years before, is Fellini’s late-career masterpiece. Even that film, it can effectively argued, is Fellini-Lite (particularly compared to something like “Satyricon,” which is my favorite of his films), but for me it meshes organically and constitutes a brilliant whole. “Ginger and Fred” feels a bit cobbled together by contrast for me. Fellini, of course, was so astonishingly talented that even his lesser works are well worth watching, so I’m essentially splitting hairs in my comparisons.

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