Allow me to start off by saying that I don’t think it matters how much of The Act is true, re-ordered, fictionalized, or incorrect. The story of Dee Dee Blanchard (Patricia Arquette) and her daughter Gypsy Rose (Joey King) has all the make-up of the loud, the sensational, the ‘lifetime’ movie, the Dr. Phil special, and the screaming tabloid headline, of which it has had all but one. For 20 years Dee Dee deceived all those who interacted with her into believing that Gypsy Rose was mentally challenged, confined to a wheelchair, and riddled with terminal disease. Dee Dee appropriated her daughter’s budding existence and exploited it to dust. Gypsy asked her boyfriend to kill Dee Dee to save her, so he did. (If you’re unfamiliar with the case I suggest checking out this quick video )
The person Dee Dee created was so in her mother’s thrall that I don’t think Gypsy believed there was any other way out. The Act does such a good job of conveying that, and the raw emotion of what it would have been like to be Gypsy. Every aspect of the filmmaking is expressive and emotional. No matter the liberties taken in the story telling The Act succeeds emotionally which is really the only place to go if you want to understand a story like this one.
Dee Dee & Gypsy live in a bright pink house built for them by Habitat for Humanity. It sits on a cul-de-sac surrounded by a gleaming white wheelchair ramp for Gypsy. The house is the focal point of the series: most action of a note takes place there, and the home reflects the disintegrating psyches of its occupants as the series progresses. In the beginning the house seems like a little girl’s paradise. Everything is pink and fluffy and filled with princess-cheer. A portrait of Gypsy Rose dressed like a Disney princess and resplendent in a tiara sits in a place of honor. Indeed, this is the house that Gypsy built. It’s The Little Girl role foisted on Gypsy at Dee Dee’s hand that made everything possible. The pink house is Gypsy’s breath, and the lie.
At first Dee Dee cleans the place obsessively. She religiously administers Gypsy’s food and drugs through a feeding tube. They perform their bedtime ritual before Dee Dee helps Gypsy put on her CPAP mask and they both drift off – so happy in mother-daughter land. Everything in the house seems so benign when it is actually evidence of Dee Dee’s control over Gypsy; symbols of the oppressive role of Little Girl. The house is filled with stuffed animals. Gypsy later explains to a doctor that she gets a new stuffed animal every time she has a medical appointment. The implication is that that each cuddly little plushie is a sinister representation of every time Dee Dee coerced Gypsy. The house is filled with them. As time goes on stuffed animals spill out from every crevice, hang off of counters, and drift in plastic bags. The little pink house becomes a sordid mess. It disintegrates as Gypsy’s adulthood forces itself out into the open. But it’s a beast because who the fuck taught Gypsy how to be a grown-up? Not Dee Dee.
The series really blossoms with Gypsy’s hopeful, budding, and ultimately destructive forays into adult relationships. Gypsy naturally turns to the Internet to find someone to love and starts a relationship with Nick Godejohn (Calum Worthy), a loner and a dullard even more naïve than Gypsy. The scene I’d like to highlight here is in episode 5 when Gypsy and Nick concoct an absurd plan to introduce Nick to Dee Dee. Gypsy organizes a trip to the movie theatre with her mother to see the new Cinderella. The plan is that Nick will “run into them” and somehow charm Dee Dee and be accepted into the family. In order to really highlight the naiveté of the moment Gypsy dresses up in her Cinderella costume.
When her mother is ordering popcorn Gypsy anxiously looks around for Nick. She’s so afraid he won’t be there. When he steps through the door and she sees him for the first time it really is like a fairy tale. Delicate music plays and they are brimming with excitement. The spell breaks quickly as Nick approaches mother and daughter. Suddenly he is nothing more than a creepy weirdo loitering at an AMC theatre at 11am. Nick tries to approach them in the cinema numerous times before Gypsy manages to sneak off for a rendezvous in a family restroom. They approach each other awkwardly, throwing expressions of love and admiration back and forth. Gypsy rises from her wheelchair and kills the lights.
The room fills with diffused violet light. The twinkly music of a ballerina box plays They embrace. Gypsy removes her Cinderella gown for them to lie on: effectively defiling The Little Girl. They gaze into each other’s eyes and Gypsy says, “I dreamed it would be perfect”.
So perfectly are these moments of intimacy compartmentalized in the visuals that it’s easy enough for the audience to forget that Gypsy is having her first kiss in a toilet, with a man-child, while hiding from her crazy mother. The sex that follows is awkward as shit but we know they are simpatico. The whole sequence is interplay between Gypsy’s idealized fantasy world (which Nick inhabits) and the awkward reality of this plan and these people. It’s a sequence repeated again and again. Gypsy expects the world outside her mother to be better and more exciting. Why wouldn’t she? Nothing has taught her otherwise and her acts are that of a person with conviction there is something better. Maybe that’s part of what makes Gypsy’s story so compelling. When Gypsy rejoins her mother at the theatre her expression is one of barely suppressed exhilaration. In this moment it is as though she believes she has actually broken through. Like the sex act would change everything.
There are many and more scenes to get into but we’re almost at a thousand words. Suffice it to say that The Act does justice to the source material. Patricia Arquette and Joey King deliver virtuosic performances as Dee Dee & Gypsy. The Act succeeds because it’s doesn’t treat its subjects like tabloid fodder or less than. It dives deep into the emotional make up of all its subjects. It is crafted around fine filmmaking, respect, as well as a deep interest in these people. We are not left with a feeling of horror at what we have witnessed but rather a deep and desperate sadness. There is a disquieting undercurrent to this story. It is that of the lies that lurk inside the things we wholeheartedly believe to be benign.