Michael Cristofer’s Gia (1998) opens with a tight shot of makeup brushes accentuating an impossibly beautiful face. The features are those of Angelina Jolie in the role of 1980s supermodel Gia Carangi. The face is unnaturally still, perhaps foreshadowing the well documented fate of the model. Gia lived a life of toxic glamour—she is remembered as incredibly beautiful, setting the precedent for supermodels to come, but also for her addiction to heroin, which resulted in the destruction of her career and ultimately her health. By interweaving the personal narrative of her diaries with scenes of her experiences as a model, girlfriend and daughter, Cristofer’s biopic attempts to capture the complexities of Gia’s beauty, as well as her life.
Following the cold open, Cristofer cuts to Gia stepping onto a runway as white confetti rains down and fashion show attendees chant her name. Wearing a big pastel strapless gown and dangling diamond earrings, she stares down the runway as though the promise of sex is waiting at the end. This is the recognizable Gia of fashion spreads, but it is also the Jolie of the 1990s. The antithesis of the graceful beauty she now embodies, Jolie’s look during this era was harsh: tattoos, leather, pale skin against dark hair, eyes that stared provocatively. This Jolie, although not in likeness to the real Gia, embodies the defiant and lustful spirit that the model left behind.
“Do I be the prettiest, prettiest girl?” A flashback to her childhood shows Gia and her mother Kathleen (Mercedes Ruehl) hugging while staring at themselves in the mirror. Kathleen poses this question to her child as she holds up a dress against her own body, getting ready for a date. Gia assures her mother that she is the prettiest, and they laugh. Beauty becomes central to their relationship, a girly, flirty, and graceful feminine ideal that Kathleen strives for and attempts to inculcate in her daughter. Yet their relationship is also fraught, and Kathleen eventually leaves the family. Gia is left to become a woman on her own terms, and those terms go against everything her mother holds dear. In portraying Gia as a rebel, Cristofer highlights the tension between Gia’s own desires and the ones Kathleen has for her.
Gia grows into a rough and domineering woman with magenta spikes in her hair. “You scare the shit out of people, and then they don’t see how scared you are,” Gia explains to her friend T.J. (Eric Michael Cole) when they first meet. The first time Gia poses for the camera she’s smoking, tattoos exposed, The Pretenders’ “Brass in Pocket” playing in the background (“Gonna make you, make you, make you notice,” the lyrics hammer home). She takes these test shots to Wilhelmina Models, an agency known at the time for its legion of lithe, white blonde women. Upon arrival, Gia sticks her gum on the glass door and pushes it open. The receptionist dismissively tells her to take a seat, denies her claims to have an appointment, and refuses to pronounce Gia’s full Italian name. To evoke his character’s real-life brashness, Cristofer refuses any subtlety here. Gia doesn’t belong— uptown, at Wilhelmina, or anywhere in the fashion world. Gia responds with her first and strongest act of resistance and defiance in the film, pulling a knife from her pocket and carving her first name into the desk. “G-I-A. There. Gia,” she says. “Just fuck the rest of it, call me Gia. Do you think you can remember that, honey?”
Gia’s womanhood continues to be based in insolent rebellion. As she models for her first shoot, we see her flirting with the camera, her friend T.J., and the photographer, eventually leaving them to make out with each other as she sets her sights on the photographer’s girl. Gia likes girls, likening sex with a man to sex with a German shepherd. When she meets her future girlfriend Linda (Elizabeth Mitchell) on the set of her first official photo shoot, Gia agrees to get naked in front of the camera on the condition that Linda stay. Linda agrees—first watching, then stripping down herself. The camera moves from the set to the bedroom, where the teenaged Gia navigates Linda’s body with appetite and ease. Linda has a boyfriend but Gia is insistent in her desire. Linda tells us, “[she] was like a puppy—‘love me! love me! love me!’—I did. I did. I did right away.”
Despite the love she finds with Linda, Gia still longs for a mother. She eventually adopts Wilhelmina Cooper (the founder of Wilhelmina Models, played by Faye Dunaway) as a maternal figure—like Gia’s biological mother, Wilhelmina pushes Gia further into the consumptive modeling industry. At the height of Gia’s career, Kathleen reappears in her life, yet still fails to offer the kind of support Gia needs, prioritizing her new husband over her daughter. She is a wife first. “If you need me, just call me,” she tells Gia, who yells, “You have to be here when I need you! I need you, I need you now, mom.” Like a small child about to taste unwanted independence, Gia begs for her mother to stay. Kathleen’s only response is to tell Gia to be a big girl, because a big girl takes care of herself and, more importantly, she succeeds. Kathleen, like Wilhelmina and the fashion world, fails to see anything beyond Gia’s commodifiable beauty.
This becomes increasingly evident when Gia tells her mother about her sexuality. Celebrating Gia’s first Vogue cover and enamoured once again by her successful, beautiful daughter, Kathleen strokes Gia’s hair like a doll and asks whether she has a boyfriend. Gia replies that she has a girlfriend. “Oh yeah, that’s nice too,” says Kathleen. “Though it’s not the same thing, is it?” Because Gia is understood to be beautiful by glossy magazine standards, she is seen as exceptionally femme, and therefore read as straight. More than once, she makes her sexuality known to her mother, who consistently ignores or delegitimizes it in favour of an idealized image of her daughter, refusing to accept Gia for who she is.
Eventually Gia’s fame, coupled with the death of her matron Wilhelmina, propels her into a deep heroin addiction, in one instance leaving her high, bloody and bruised in an alley after sharing a needle. After hitting this low, Gia returns to Philadelphia, away from modeling, and begins visiting a methadone clinic and rebuilding her relationship with Linda. This is a glimpse into a healthy episode in Gia’s life— she jokes about being a housewife after preparing a candlelit dinner of fast food burgers for Linda, and signs for her methadone day after day.
In one scene during this period of recovery, Gia sits slouched in a dark green sweater smoking a cigarette as her mother joins her. Gia’s skin is grey, her eyes heavy—her body is struggling to keep up with her wishes to recover. “I hate what this methadone is doing to your shoulders,” Kathleen tells Gia as she pokes her body, attempting to rearrange it back to propriety and gracefulness. Gia shifts away from her touch in annoyance. “You used to stand up so straight, so beautiful”—before the addiction. Kathleen’s words, though horribly familiar, are painful to hear uttered from a mother’s mouth.
Even during the direst moments of the decline in Gia’s health, Kathleen’s priority is for her daughter to stay physically appealing. She must be beautiful to her full potential— you do be the prettiest prettiest girl. “You have to watch your weight, too,” says Kathleen during Gia’s recovery. “Wanna look good for when you go back to work.” The pressure to be beautiful, feminine, and graceful ends up driving Gia to self-destruction; dazzled by her daughter’s beauty, Kathleen fails to notice how it harms her. Work is a site of danger for Gia, the threat of relapse looming over her, and yet work begs for her graceful return. Gia’s beauty is in demand and only she bears the costs. Kathleen’s insistence that Gia return to work points to her desire to capitalize on her daughter’s beauty. In the beginning of the film, Kathleen tells the camera that unlike with sons who eventually marry other women, you have a girl forever: “When Gia was born I said, ‘this one is mine. All mine.’” But despite people’s efforts to contain her and tame her, Gia is her own girl and she acts for herself, often with tragic results.
Watching Angelina Jolie, who was 23 when she starred as Gia, it’s easy to forget that the real Gia was only a teen when she began her career. In the film, she’s in New York on her own, vulnerable to the city’s vultures, and forever seeking someone to watch out for her. “Who’s gonna take care of me?” she asks T.J. after he helps her move into her first apartment and tells her he’s going back to Philadelphia. When Gia asks this question she isn’t looking for physical protection—she has a knife for that. Instead, Gia wants someone who will understand her for who she is, someone willing to see the true grace and complexity under her hard exterior and beyond her lauded beauty.