The Gypsy Moths

The Gypsy Moths ★★★★½

FrankenheimerFest, baby! With Nick and Min! Check out their reviews on this one as well. Nick's review here ||| Min's review here.

I’ll come right out and say it: I truly despise the general cynical existentialism the 60s and 70s found themselves to be a part of. Something about those tumultuous times in American culture have left more of a stench than a fragrance, and I cannot help but laugh at some of the characters that were bred through these self-pitying, totally aimless times. The Gypsy Moths certainly is at fault to some degree of these things I personally have a distaste for, but even with that, do I find an incredibly underrated and all-around great film within the folds. It’s a good slice of classic Americana in the vein of Tennessee Williams. If not in the vein, then clearly inspired by him. 

Maybe the story of three showboat skydivers is not going to be your thing, especially with how the paraphernalia surrounding it makes it a film on the threshold of the sports genre, but the acting and directing push this into a realm of quality cinema. I do believe also, the main character is a rejection of the “free” and aimless lifestyle that metaphorically is in tune with the gypsy moths and how they are attracted to light. 

Burt Lancaster reprises a role he had been known for and would eventually cement himself as portraying; the elderly fellow looking upon the twilight of his career and reminiscing of his past endeavors. He did this in The Leopard, The Swimmer, here, and eventually once again in Atlantic City—perhaps there are more—the point is, Lancaster had the capability of stretching his onscreen persona passed the physical beast he became famous for. 

A then-relatively-unknown Gene Hackman and baby-faced Scott Wilson (best role of his career) round out the triad of skydivers. Hackman is simultaneously bravado and aloof, trying to commiserate his woes covertly by church and overtly by the stripper joint. While Scott Wilson is the mid-western lad with a broken past and (in ways) is being handed the torch of succeeding Lancaster’s Rettig in the spectacle of skydiving. The penultimate moment is thrilling and Wilson’s acting in those moments are ferocious and heartfelt, all within the verge of tears. If The Gypsy Moths had not literally flown under the radar and bombed terribly at the box office, Wilson could have been a much bigger name. I am glad he still managed to have a successful career.

Speaking of good beginnings, we are also introduced to Bonnie Bedelia in one of, if not, her first onscreen roles as a local college girl staying in the house of Wilson’s Aunt & Uncle. The aunt is played by Deborah Kerr, who appropriately forges a sexual relationship with Lancaster both reprising their onscreen love affair from From Here to Eternity. But here… they’re NAKED. The ladies act their hearts out, but are let down immensely by the writing as Kerr’s distraught, domestic housewife bobs and weaves for purpose on the fringe of the cultural phenomena I mention earlier. Although she seems rightfully distraught with how her husband (played by William Wondon) conducts himself.

All these parts come together at the hands of John Frankenheimer, a guy who already established himself as a massive talent but was at the beginning of what would be his massive downslide into mediocrity (due to the deaths of close personal and political friendships), diving into bouts of alcoholism. I think it’s abundantly clear how talented Frankenheimer is, as he was always able to shed light on these “extreme” sports-fringed lifestyles (think Grand Prix and Black Sunday). His technical prowess is potentially unmatched for the 60s, and here, gives audiences some real intense moments of guys falling tens of thousands of feet from the sky. Once again, this is an example of Frankenheimer caring about “the process” and 100% nailing that overall quality. He cares about what these guys do and how they do it, and these small things slowly integrate into the personal and thematic issues at hand. 

The comparison of midwestern Americana to the doldrums is not a new idea, but it plays a heavy role in how these men come to the pivotal drama in their lives. Gypsy moths are attracted to any light that comes across their path, and this metaphor works for the skydivers and the inhabitants of the small town of Bridgeville. These skydivers are the biggest thing to come into these people’s lives in some time, while always on a dose of adrenaline, are these guys on the never-ending search for more. This ties into the existential crisis for meaning more broadly. Since skydiving is one of the most adrenaline-inducing things one can do where are they to go from here? Maybe this is why Lancaster yearns for Kerr. Maybe this is why Kerr falls for Lancaster. Maybe while Lancaster is on that plane he realizes he has made a life of regret, always teetering on the verge of pulling the chord or not. Which is why when Wilson has his shining moment, his tears and heartache ring outwardly in regards to living. Wilson is seemingly as broken as Lancaster, but still on the precipice of going down the same road. This is ultimately where I give points off because the themes sort of drift and die without any concise conclusion, but it is still an amazing moment to see Wilson walk off the platform with fireworks booming in the distance. Perhaps, having been in midwestern country, America is the attraction. Frankenheimer once again fascinated by home and hearth in all its gradations.

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