VINCENTE MINNELLI: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer,
By Emanuel Levy
St. Martin’s, 448 pages, $37.95
The division over Vincente Minnelli has always been between those who believe him to be an underappreciated artist, and those who believe him to be a glorified window dresser. Much of this difference does not truly relate to Minnelli’s films—which, for the first 10 or so years of his career, held to a high standard—but, rather, his personality.
As a young poof about town in New York, Minnelli wore pancake makeup and eyeliner, and even after he got to MGM and toned down his act, he remained slightly effeminate, not to mention painfully shy and inarticulate.
Making up like an actress wasn’t bad enough; he had to act like an actress by trimming seven years off his age, telling people he was born in 1910 when he was actually born in 1903.
Directors with successful Hollywood careers didn’t act like that—George Cukor was gay, but he was also peppery, highly verbal and acutely intelligent—but here was Minnelli, flying in the face of social conventions, and managing to sustain a career.
But, as Emanuel Levy’s studious, slightly stiff but serviceable biography demonstrates, Minnelli’s taste for the unconventional only went so far. In his youth, Minnelli seems to have led a predominantly gay life, with women usually being older and Minnelli serving as a presentable escort where sex was not necessarily part of the equation.
In Hollywood, a different tactic seemed called for, so he had four wives, including Judy Garland, as well as two children, including Liza Minnelli.
Yet, once again, Mr. Levy implies that Minnelli continued to lead a gay life, although he doesn’t offer up any specific examples. Nor does he expressly make the claim that the marriages were strictly political in nature.
Professionally, Minnelli came to MGM in 1940, after an unsuccessful apprenticeship at Paramount. He spent more than a year floating around Culver City, coming up with ideas, directing screen tests and the occasional scene, generally learning how MGM operated.
From the beginning, Minnelli was recognized as a superb director of musicals (The Band Wagon, An American in Paris, Gigi), but the French, among others, have lavished praise on his floridly artificial melodramas as well: Lust for Life, Some Came Running, Home From the Hill and Two Weeks in Another Town—movies often directed like musicals from which the songs have been removed.
(Although The Bad and the Beautiful is every bit as emotionally intense as its successors, it plays as much more realistic, because it deals with the hyperbole of the movie business, and, at least as importantly, it’s in black and white. For Minnelli, color was often the bridge too far.)
The problem with Minnelli’s melodramas is that they make Douglas Sirk look subtle, perhaps because Sirk’s films actually are, especially when it comes to performance. In Lust for Life, Minnelli permits Kirk Douglas to begin the film in such an advanced state of hysteria that there’s little room to elevate the performance as Vincent Van Gogh grows increasingly desperate; in Some Came Running, which takes place in a small town in Indiana, a group of teenagers hanging around on a street corner are costumed and directed to look like they’re about to break into “Gee, Officer Krupke.”
IT MAY BE ten-penny Freud, but it’s hard to avoid the view that Minnelli’s florid color schemes and luxurious camera moves were somehow related to his own neurotically conflicted personality. Even in a glorified sitcom like Father of the Bride, which is funny only because of Spencer Tracy’s expert slow burn, Minnelli tosses in a goofball nightmare sequence. On the one hand, he was always aware of the slow-burning fuse of potential humiliation; on the other, he courted embarrassment in his life as well as his work.
If Minnelli was anything, he was a brilliant framer of great performers in expressive, predominantly emotional moments—Ethel Waters in Cabin in the Sky, Astaire and Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon, Judy Garland and Robert Walker in The Clock and so forth. He didn’t have much interest in, or for that matter, talent for the middle range.
When Minnelli was working with the right performer and the right song—Astaire and Charisse in Dancing in the Dark, Astaire in This Heart of Mine and a dozen others—he could orchestrate the movement of the camera, the rhythm of the dance and the rise of the melody until they all beat with the same heart.
He was, in other words, primarily a stylist, and in dealing with a stylist, at least a modicum of style is itself called for.
Unfortunately, Mr. Levy is a clunky writer (“Freed, who was amorous of [Lucille] Bremer, felt that she had the making of a star.”) In any case, Mr. Levy is clearly more comfortable writing about Minnelli’s films than he is writing about Minnelli’s life. As a result, the book meanders from film to film with lurching side trips into Minnelli’s life, when personal and professional should ideally proceed hand in hand.
But there are interesting tidbits scattered throughout the book, such as Minnelli’s affection for Elaine May’s ruthless The Heartbreak Kid, because, he said, “it was played for blood and was sophisticated in dealing with real feelings.”
It feels like it must have been hard being Vincente Minnelli. Certainly, his life compels a retrospective respect and admiration for the maturity and self-awareness of George Cukor—not really a stylist, and certainly a more self-effacing director, but an incomparably more self-aware man.
Scott Eyman reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at email@example.com.