The Complete Vincente Minnelli
September 23-November 2 at BAM
For me, life was free association, with my imagination leading me from one subject to another. —Vincente Minnelli
As a young aspiring dandy, Vincente Minnelli fell in love with the work and aphorisms of painter James Whistler, who once said, "Nature is very rarely right." In his career as window dresser for Marshall Field's in Chicago and then set designer and director for Broadway revues in the 1930s, Minnelli created his own visual, scrupulously non-natural world, inspired equally by the Surrealists, the Harlem Renaissance, and a love of Art Nouveau furnishings. When he was brought to MGM in the early 1940s, Minnelli gradually insinuated himself into the bloodstream of that most major and most conservative of movie studios, working there exclusively for twenty years in a variety of genres.
In all of his work, Minnelli focuses obsessively on settings that are meant to express shifting psychological states. At his best, as in the great and still-undervalued mental hospital meltdown The Cobweb (1955), Minnelli designs rooms so that they exactly reflect the characters in his drama. Look at the meager 1907 domicile of hospital administrator Victoria Inch (Lillian Gish), and then marvel at the barely contained hysteria almost vibrating out of the plush bedroom of discontented Karen McIver (Gloria Grahame) and the striving for peace inherent in the just-unpacked room of grief-stricken Meg Rinehart (Lauren Bacall). When Meg offers beer to Karen's discontented husband (Richard Widmark), she says, "Put it in a red glass!" In essence, Minnelli puts whatever he has to work with in his own red glass, whether it's Campari (The Pirate ), sparkling lemonade (An American in Paris [1951), expensive champagne (Gigi ), tea (The Reluctant Debutante ), or whiskey (Some Came Running ).
Minnelli was a highly feminine man who wore make-up when he first came to Hollywood until he was told to lay off the eyeliner by MGM and get settled down. He nurtured and eventually married Judy Garland, crafting two world-class films around her, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and The Clock (1945), and then patiently submitting to her nightmarish behavior as she descended into drug addiction. There are echoes of the hell he went through with Garland in the paint-peeling marital fights between the McIvers in The Cobweb, but Minnelli was not generally a man who put his personal life into his work. He's often at his best when he retreats into totally self-sufficient celebrations of movement, color and design like Kismet (1955), an assignment he accepted with zero enthusiasm which now looks like perhaps the purest example of his dream-like aesthetic. Minnelli was a man of dreams, a daydreamer or tripper, influenced most by Rouben Mamoulian's experiments with montage and voiceover that might illuminate a character's sub-conscious. In Father of the Bride (1950), a slickly written comedy, Minnelli masterfully handles all the comic set pieces with a hushed air of barely-there dread until he unleashes a nightmare scene toward the end that reveals the German Expressionist/Freudian hell lurking right below the surface of middle class American contentment.
It seems obvious now (and then) that Minnelli was gay, but he married three more times after Garland. Then again, if nature is very rarely right, why not play some necessary yet heartfelt games with it? In the America of his time and place, male homosexuality was such a serious offence that it can barely be hinted at, so that his adaptation of the hit play Tea and Sympathy (1956) winds up being both a fascinating window into Minnelli's status as a "sissy" hoping to pass for straight and a hopeless muddle hampered by the dictates of censorship. Minnelli sees the masculinity of Robert Mitchum's muy macho father in Home from the Hill (1960) as mainly a question of red leather chairs, hunting trophies on the wall, and stone fireplaces. (Mitchum joked afterward that "the sets got a lot of fan mail.") After a disastrous party in Designing Woman (1957), sportswriter Mike (Gregory Peck) starts to mock choreographer Randy Owens (Jack Cole) as unmanly to his fashion designer wife (Bacall). He stops when he sees Owens standing at the door of their apartment, whereupon the insulted choreographer feels the need to defend himself by whipping out his wallet and showing Mike a photo of his "wife and three kids." It's a horribly uncomfortable scene that the film tries to laugh off, and it's difficult to read now, just as it's hard to parse Minnelli's scathing treatment of "tramps" like Ellie Martin (Norma Crane) in Tea and Sympathy and Ginnie Moorehead (Shirley MacLaine) in Some Came Running as anything more than contemptuous (Minnelli wrote that MacLaine in that film represented "the failure of sex."). Sexual desire in his movies is either dismissed or mummified by curtains, lampshades, plush pillows, the persistent use of his favorite color, yellow, and endless arrangements of flowers that often take precedence over people in some of his lesser films and express a love that cannot be named. The sexiest moment in his work, the section of the American in Paris ballet where the Gershwin music slows to a crawl for Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron, begins and ends in the dark.
Minnelli's closest rival at MGM, George Cukor, was a director who believed in self-transformation, but Cukor's humor and his drama comes from remaining fully aware of what came before the transformation, whereas Minnelli insists on living in the dream of what has been created; he offers us fantasy, and the lure of his fantasy visions is still tempting but can be baffling. Some of his early MGM musicals, like Yolanda and the Thief (1945), feature a series of sets filled with outré furniture (is it Las Vegas Versailles?) arranged with such skill, flair and sensitivity that they transcend the bad taste of the individual pieces; it's pure interior design camp, consciously created as such but also adored by Minnelli as a source of consoling beauty. As his career progressed, Minnelli was asked to handle all kinds of material, and he often passively accepted scripts in the spirit of a cinematic aesthete who trusts that his audience will not mistake narrative, dialogue and performance for what he actually wishes to accomplish with a movie. Few directors were his equal when it came to animating crowds of extras so that they all seemed to have an inner life (it was his habit to give each extra on his sets specific instructions, so that they become vital, swirling aspects of the decor).
In his last film, the badly cut but often very beautiful A Matter of Time (1976), when his daughter Liza first enters the empty room of the Contessa (Ingrid Bergman), Minnelli's camera makes the space vibrate uncannily both with the Contessa's absence and also with a presence of its own. Minnelli's films are a series of rooms to be entered, and what you find in them depends on you own sense of taste and proportion. Sometimes the rooms turn into a labyrinth, and I'm often afraid that I'll never get out of them. What Minnelli meant by some of these rooms remains tantalizingly obscure, but they are full of what his daughter in Cabaret (1972) calls "divine decadence." They are against nature and against realism, mitigating and even outright blotting out the drearier beige aspects of life like bolts of yellow silk. They remain as dream worlds in favor of flowering artifice, wit, color and cathartic, frenzied acting out.