Lynn Redgrave burst to stardom with this fine study of romance vs. reality in swinging London circa 1966. Georgy thinks of herself as a plain Jane next to her popular roommate, played by Charlotte Rampling. Alan Bates is the flighty boyfriend and James Mason the old millionaire making indecent proposals. How can a good girl get somewhere in life? As sometimes happens, the song by The Seekers has retained more fame than the movie.
1966 / B&W / 1:85 widescreen / 99 min. / Street Date November 26, 2018 / available from Powerhouse Films UK / £14.99
Starring: James Mason, Alan Bates, Lynn Redgrave, Charlotte Rampling, Bill Owen.
Cinematography: Ken Higgins
Film Editor: John Bloom
Art Direction: Tony Woollard
Original Music: Alexander Faris
Written by Peter Nichols, Margaret Forster from her novel
Produced by Robert A. Goldston, Otto Plaschkes
Directed by Silvio Narizzano
Georgy Girl likely first existed in our minds as a hit song, with a message that seemed a key to the year 1966. Tthe British Invasion was going strong and all of us high schoolers (in my case, Junior High) desperately wanted to be ‘cool’ in the way that only English pop stars seemed capable:
“Hey there, Georgy girl, Swinging down the street so fancy-free
Nobody you meet could ever see the loneliness there inside you
Hey there, Georgy girl, Why do all the boys just pass you by?
Could it be you just don’t try or is it the clothes you wear?”
I can’t think of lyrics that could make an average teenaged girl seem more inadequate. In the interesting movie of Georgy Girl the peppy song seems a terrible put-down of the title character, a fairly marvelous young woman convinced that she’s nobody’s dream girl, and that none of the good things in life are heading her way.
Georgy Girl has swingin’ London written all over it. Dominated by director Richard Lester’s The Knack … And How to Get It, it was the year of youthful Brits running and laughing in the streets, under overcast skies that guaranteed soft, lush B&W images. These kids danced in the rain and performed mock- emotional scenes in front of disapproving old folks — the very definition of young freedom.
The movie seems a split item; it isn’t really about freedom, but with making a compromise with reality. Georgy finds that she isn’t going to achieve her dreams in any ordinary way, and in the end strategizes her peculiar situation in a very practical manner that goes against the grain of the conventional Cinderella story. Atop this pragmatism is a more commercial ‘swingin London’ veneer, with the breezy pop song, an evocation of a flashy fun night life (that Georgy only observes from afar) and a jolly irresponsible dreamboat boyfriend who wears a cute mod cap that would soon be seen on the Brit member of The Monkees.
The show is also a powerful vehicle for the talents of English star offspring Lynn Redgrave. It tries too hard to make her lovable but Redgrave’s performance compensates. As with Lester’s ‘ugly duckling’ star Rita Tushingham, we care deeply what happens to Redgrave’s Georgy, a bright personality who doesn’t fit into the fashionable mod landscape. We can scarcely believe that the producers initially petitioned Lynn’s sister Vanessa to play Georgy; she steered them to her younger sibling. Their mother Rachel Kempson takes a role in the movie as well.
‘Plain’ Georgy (Lynn Redgrave) runs an activity class for children that she conducts with great spirit, but outside of class she feels completely inadequate. Georgy lives with the swingin’ single Meredith (Charlotte Rampling), whose active, in-demand lifestyle gives Georgy another source of self-doubt. Her relationships are all out of whack: Meredith’s free-spirited boyfriend Jos Jones (Alan Bates) is a teasing friend, but he’s obviously into the more ‘popular’ girl; Georgy vacates the apartment when they make love. The daughter of a butler (Bill Owen), Georgy is actively pursued by his wealthy employer James Leamington (James Mason), who definitely turns her off. The clueless older man is married to the bedridden Ellen (Rachel Kempson), yet has the nerve to present Georgy with a proposal that she become his mistress — with a contract.
Everything turns upside down when Meredith gets pregant by Jos and decides to have the baby: it’s Georgy who’s excited about the prospect of motherhood. She suddenly seems the only mature person in sight, surrounded by infantile personalities. Meredith has no intention of letting her swinging lifestyle be interrupted, Jos is fundamentally undependable and the rich old Mr. Leamington seems intent on bedding Georgy. What is she to do?
In 1966 London’s Mod bubble was just entering its second full season. The year before, Richard
Lester’s The Knack had codified new hipster techniques of jump cutting, eccentric dialogue and semi-improvised horseplay for later imitation by the American copycats The Monkees and You’re a Big Boy Now. Lester favored self-humiliating public theatrics for his romantic scenes. The emblematic image in The Knack is a taste of guerilla theater as two excited youths roll Rita Tushingham around the streets in a bedframe.
Director Silvio Narizzano was actually a Canadian by birth. Rather than imitate Lester, he soft-pedals the editorial trickery and concentrates on character felicities. Alan Bates’ sprightly boyfriend character comes the closest to the Mod norm, with his snappy dialogue and antic bits of business begging to be seen as cute. For this film, Bates pursues Lynn Redgrave through the streets and hotel lobbies, going down on one knee to loudly propose and threatening to strip naked unless she hears him out.
Despite those funny moments Georgy Girl is basically much more serious. The opening scene sees the insecure Georgy sitting for an elaborate, unflattering hairstyle, and then shaking it down when she realizes she has once again failed to transform herself into her father’s notion of femininity. This reality makes the Georgy Girl song lyrics seem cruel: social pressure expects Georgy to ‘break out’ and ‘bloom’ when all she needs to do is be herself to be adorable. She’s further established as an unacknowledged success in the kiddie activity class scene, which bears comparison to the 2008 Sally Hawkins hit Happy-Go-Lucky. Georgy would seem a similar feminine personality. But the men of 1966 seem to like that talent in nannies, not girlfriends.
Although the film works for a balance between realism and flat farce, some of the particulars of Georgy’s situation are downright depressing. James Mason’s wealthy Leamington comes off as a dirty old man with designs on his butler’s daughter, who he’s watched grow up in his household. When he makes his proposal to her out in the open, he seems a complete sleaze. Our reaction is shaded by Mason’s previous performance in Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita, the story of a genuine child molester.
Beyond Ms. Redgrave, the film’s second surprise is Charlotte Rampling, who captures perfectly the dismay of a flighty charmer disgusted at the idea of becoming a baby factory. Meredith doesn’t know which is worse about pregnancy, looking “like the back end of a bus” or “having nothing to do at night.” For some reason, Meredith’s revulsion at the prospect of an inconvenient child is hilarious. The film’s best, most original scenes show Meredith enraged by the whole motherhood idea, while Redgrave and Bates get into the excitement of having a baby.
Meredith’s rejection of motherhood is one of the movie’s most adult, even disturbing elements. Although such things happen frequently in real life, it’s almost never depicted in films unless the woman is depicted as totally unworthy. In one of her first pictures Ms. Rampling is already choosing roles that challenge the audience. In short order she would affect a more gaunt, fashion model appearance; for later shows like The Night Porter she would almost shrink into a skeletal creature. Here she looks a lot healthier, even if her near-gaunt appearance serves to make the normal Lynn Redgrave look non-svelte.
To live up to the dowdy unattractiveness demanded by the script, the beautiful Lynn Redgrave is made to dress like a truck driver. Everyone makes cruel jokes about her looks. Tthe way she rejects that horrible hairstyle and party dress tells us that she’s completely uncomfortable playing the ‘be a girl’ game. But Georgy just wants to be loved, even if she feels unfit. She seems to be happiest when inspiring the tots in her preschool activity class. Unlike the hapless Toni Collette in Muriel’s Wedding, it’s other people that pressure Georgy to be more feminine.
Does the movie push the Georgy character too hard? A scene or two present her as a combo Charlie Chaplin / Giulietta Masina clown for all occasions. The lowpoint is a vampy gag song she croons in a tight gown and overdone eye makeup. She’s meant to be bad, but the stunt still seems too broad and embarrassing. That James Mason’s distracted Leamington isn’t offended makes him seem all the more thick-headed.
We don’t know exactly what to make of Leamington’s obsession with Georgy. Lusting after her while his wife lies unhappy in an upstairs room comes off as unhealthy, perverted. The tacit approval of Georgy’s submissive father, encouraging Georgy to play up The Boss, is equally dispiriting. Yet Leamington is certainly committed: if all he wanted was a mistress he could easily find a flashier model.
Georgy Girl’s third act plays out like a revisit to Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hatches the Egg. The surrogate mother Redgrave is the one to make an emotional bond with the baby while Rampling returns to her carefree dating whirl. The story seems destined for a negative ending in the Kitchen Sink mold, when Georgy finally takes a bold proactive step, playing her trump card with Leamington to bargain for her future. And it’s quite a bargain: Georgy wanted romance, gaiety, marriage and children, and the compromise she chooses almost plays like matrimonial blackmail.
We can see the censors having a fit at the ‘immorality’ depicted in Georgy Girl. A mother abandons her traditional role and isn’t ‘punished,’ or even condemned as a monster. A father proves himself a total flake, and his charm doesn’t compensate; he doesn’t come to the rescue, as in, say, Love with the Proper Stranger . Georgy takes her one night of sexual abandon, and then settles for a bargain that does the most good for the most deserving person she knows, Meredith’s little baby. It involves a marriage made not for love, but security. None of this fits into a censor’s moral cubbyhole, but it’s the kind of compromise that happens all the time in real life, to people without the luxury of easy choices.
Silvio Narizzano shows that his directing smarts go beyond his previous Hammer hit Fanatic (aka Die! Die! My Darling!). He’s really good with the actors, and he chooses not to fill this ‘swinging London’ show with flashy shots (not that Richard Lester does). The film became a sleeper success and launched Lynn Redgrave as a viable star, although sadly roles of equal quality were few and far between. Her 1969 film Smashing Time, directed by Desmond Davis, is prime example of a flashy ‘swinging London’ fiasco that’s all but unwatchable.
The “Georgy Girl” song by The Seekers likely guaranteed audience awareness of the movie, just as would the even bigger hit tune that helped make To Sir, with Love a breakout hit. The song leaves the audience with an upbeat feel-good vibe: we’re not sure that Georgy has done the right thing when she takes her place in the Honeymoon limousine, with a new husband for whom she has no real affection. Then the baby is handed to her through the window — the big crying face melts our hearts and we know Georgy has made the right choice. Without that shot the film’s message to impoverished ‘ugly ducklings’ might have seemed cynical. Too many ‘serious’ romances conclude with a convenient millionaire solving all problems.
Powerhouse Indicator’s Blu-ray of Georgy Girl is a very clean and bright Sony HD transfer, with a consistent grayscale. English films shot under those overcast skies can be gloomy, but the soft light also makes people look at their most attractive. Although published in England, this particular disc is all-region; it played on my standard U.S. equipment.
The disc cover features original poster art showing a ‘footloose’ image of Georgy unlike her normal behavior in the movie — it looks more like Hayley Mills than Lynn Redgrave. It have to say that with the song and their campaign, Columbia ignored the film’s actual leading character and instead positioned the movie as a feel-alike to the Broadway hit Funny Girl.
Good extras further place this fun Brit comedy-romance into filmic perspective. Disc producers Chris Barwick, Michael Brooke and Anthony Nield locate good interview prospects, which gives us great input from Charlotte Rampling as well as key creatives. Rampling’s contribution is not a new interview, as the Powerhouse webpage says, but a hour-long Guardian audio interview recorded on stage after a screening of her film Under the Sand. She talks about a few other movies, especially her picture with Visconti, but not Georgy Girl.
The video interviews track down several key Georgy Girl artisans. Songwriter Jim Dale tells us that putting a pop tune on the movie was a contentious issue, and other songs were tried out before The Seekers submitted their song. We’re told that the radio version of the song is different than what’s heard in the movie, more subdued. The art director hasn’t much to say but the co-screenwriter Peter Nichols talks about his travails at length. Editor John Bloom’s talk is fascinating — he recounts the sequence of events that got him promoted to cutting a major feature project, and gets into the details of cutting specific scenes. Bloom has a terrific track record; I watched him win a Primetime Emmy at an awards function in 2001, on the Saturday before 9/11.
The bright commentary is by Kat Ellinger, who taps into the London scene during the swinging ‘sixties and expends considerable energy analyzing the characters and situations. Ms. Ellinger keeps getting better — she has an affinity for the material and her voice is a pleasant listen. Perhaps some of this is that she’s inspired by the quality of the film on view; Ellinger also talked cheerfully through Smashing Time, but nothing could get me to appreciate that awful picture.
The illustrated booklet accompanying the disc has good content too. Quotes from Narizzano tell us that he grafted two scripts together because he liked the dialogue written by the author, Margaret Forster. A selection of critical excerpts show us fifty un-chivalric ways a reviewer can refer to Lynn Redgrave’s appearance in the movie. As might be predicted, Bosley Crowther’s notice is the most hateful; he calls her “a grimly good-natured young woman who has the grace of a growing pachyderm.”
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good + Plus
Supplements: Audio commentary with Kat Ellinger; audio interview with Charlotte Rampling (2001), new video interviews with actor and award-winning songwriter Jim Dale, author, playwright and co-screenwriter Peter Nichols, editor John Bloom and art director Tony Woollard; trailer; Image gallery. Plus an illustrated booklet with an essay by Leanne Weston, an overview of contemporary critical responses and historic articles on the film.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 19, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson