Heroin addiction. Lesbianism. Bad ’80s fashion. If ever a life was primed for deconstruction in the latter half of the ’90s, it’s that of Gia, the gay supermodel whose bad girl beauty, sexual bravado, and scandalous behavior provided the blueprint for Heroin Chic before her death of AIDS in 1986. And if ever a network was tailor-made to tackle it, it’s HBO, the envelope-pushing capital of the small screen.
Then again, it is still TV, and we are talking explicit male and female nudity, intravenous drug use, and same-sex lovemaking. ”I’m a little surprised that HBO is doing it,” says executive producer Marvin Worth—no stranger to provocative material (Lenny, The Rose, Malcolm X). ”But at the same time, the love scenes are really tender and not gratuitous.”
HBO Pictures president John Matoian credits this sort of high-quality raciness for helping to separate his Emmy-glomming channel from the rest of the rapidly expanding cable universe. ”There’s no secret to the fact that we need to be distinctive,” he says. ”But what I love about Gia is that it’s tackling an edgy subject matter that’s also slightly more female skewing, which has not necessarily been the traditional HBO audience or movie.”
The cable channel isn’t the only media outlet banking on Gia and ’80s nostalgia. Paramount Pictures has purchased the rights to Stephen Fried’s 1993 biography Thing of Beauty: The Tragedy of Supermodel Gia (Robin Swicord, screenwriter of Little Women, has been mentioned to possibly write and direct). HBO chose Bright Lights, Big City author Jay McInerney—no stranger to the excesses of the last decade—to develop its story, which is based on interviews with Gia’s former friends and associates, in addition to portions of the model’s journals.
Where Gia differs from recent HBO shock-fests (the gritty prison series Oz; the raucously brilliant Don King: Only in America) is in its more cautionary approach. HBO okayed the $8 million project around the same time President Clinton and antidrug groups went after the fashion industry for selling products to teenagers via glassy-eyed, emaciated models (dubbed Heroin Chic by the press). The challenge—which fell to director Michael Cristofer, the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony award-winning author of The Shadow Box—was in telling the story without turning it into a heavy-handed morality play.
Cristofer (who rewrote McInerney’s original script) believes the problem was solved by refusing to make Gia a victim; rather, she is presented as both complex and contradictory. ”I don’t think that happens anymore in film, or theater, or even in books,” he says. ”Everybody wants simple stories with obvious rights and wrongs. But people are inexplicable, and even a Shakespeare would have a difficult time with [Gia].”
Imagine, though, what the Bard would have made of her life. Born Gia Marie Carangi in a working-class section of Philadelphia, she was discovered as a teenager in the late ’70s, eventually moving to New York City and signing with the Wilhelmina modeling agency (Faye Dunaway costars as the agency founder and namesake). Her exotic looks and brash sexuality—a stark contrast to the wholesome blonds then stalking runways—quickly made her the darling of top photographers like Francesco Scavullo and Chris von Wangenheim. With Gia, says one character in the HBO movie, ”it was always about sex—every look, every move, every minute, every day.”