In its original incarnation, the 1980 version directed by John Cassavetes and starring Gena Rowlands, "Gloria" was a genre throwback made by a filmmaker who never had any use for the nuts and bolts of filmmaking to begin with. The story of a former mob moll hiding a mob informant's little boy from the hoods who are out to kill him, "Gloria" combined film noir with those women's weepers in which suffering mothers make noble sacrifices for their children. Cassavetes directed it in his trademark semi-improvisatory style, with one flat, clunky scene following another. Watching it was something akin to seeing characters from Warner's central casting (circa 1940) turn up in a class at the Actor's Studio.
If there were any way to salvage the material, it would be to play up the genre elements, make them as slick and tight (and crowd-pleasing) as possible. It's hard to imagine the new version of "Gloria," directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Steven Antin (with no credit to Cassavetes anywhere in sight), pleasing anyone. The execution is a lot more conventional in this version. The movie opens with Gloria -- a considerably younger character than the one Rowlands played (portrayed here by Sharon Stone) -- being released from a Florida prison after spending three years taking the fall for her mobster boyfriend (Jeremy Northam, whose fashion statements amount to a selection of dark-hued dress shirts and a vaguely scummy-looking goatee). She travels to New York and reunites with this loser Romeo just in time to find out he's not going to hold up his end of the bargain, and that he plans on killing 7-year-old Nicky (sullen little Jean-Luke Figueora), whose family he's already wiped out. Nicky's dad had been both skimming from the mob and keeping records of the cops and politicians in their pocket, and the boy has a computer disk with the incriminating info.
There's a sappy element built right in: Tough-broad Gloria has to discover her maternal instinct and overcome her selfishness to care for little Nicky. If her growing affection was expressed in terms of wise-ass comedy (as it is between the mother and son in Martin Scorsese's "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore"), the sappiness wouldn't be so noticeable. Though you'd still have to deal with unlikable little Nicky. As in Cassavetes' version, we're supposed to think it's a hoot that the kid swears and shoplifts. But there's nothing yielding about Figueora, no real spark of inventiveness or charm.
Lumet spends most of the movie trying to keep it from coming off as a conventional heart-tugger. He relies on his trademark: location shooting in New York City. But while the bodegas and tenements and tourist hotels are meant to add some grit, you might be wondering why Gloria spends her time dragging Nicky around Manhattan when that's where the mob is looking for them, and when she has the money to get them out of town. And though Lumet is a mainstream director in a way that Cassavetes never even tried to be, in his way, he's just as clunky. His ability to juice his movies with the energy of his actors, a quality that once allowed his films to overcome their raggedness, hasn't been present in his movies in years. (The last genuine example of that I can recall was with Jerry Orbach in the 1981 film "Prince of the City.") The only performer who suggests the right tone is Cathy Moriarty, who shows up late in the picture as a well-heeled madam, and who's right at home in the old-movie noirishness of the material. She's a funny, practical, no-bullshit broad in the way that Joan Blondell was in "Gold Diggers of 1933." Moriarty is tuned into the true nature of the movie in a way that Lumet obviously isn't. He doesn't even play it for a laugh when Moriarty tries to prepare Stone for a meeting with a mob boss by telling her she has to get rid of her whorish clothes and outfits her in an ensemble that just makes her look like a higher class trollop.
The most dispiriting thing about "Gloria" is that it's further evidence that filmmakers just don't know what to do with Sharon Stone. I've seen her give good performances and bad ones, but this is the first time she's ever seemed phony. (You couldn't even say that of her in the abysmal remake of "Diabolique" in which she somehow managed to distance herself from her femme fatale bitch role.) It's not really her fault. The role has nothing of real life or experience to it, made up as it is of third-hand versions of old movies.
Stone does have some of the charisma and glamour of movie stars from the '40s and '50s, but that glamour seems false when she's put into roles that are retreads of movie icons from those eras. Filmmakers have to stop trying to find another "Basic Instinct" sexpot role for her, and she has to stop taking them. In her small part in "The Mighty," she was perfectly believable as a middle-class mother without drabbing herself down as some actors make the mistake of doing when they play ordinary people. And the role allowed Stone the brainy playfulness that has characterized her best performances. Of course, there are people for whom the idea of Sharon Stone acting is an amusing one. But they're usually the same people content to look down on all mainstream product without bothering to see that, even in junk (which Stone has done her fair share of), talent can make itself felt.
Stone has never gotten the sort of glittering comedy that might bring out her mischievousness (and let her raise a little hell to boot). But while "entertainment reporters" cluck that Stone is a big star who's been too long without a hit, "The Mighty" was a reminder of the actress inside the star. If only screenwriters and directors and producers could look at her and start seeing a real person instead of an icon.