Minnelli Legacy: Auteur or Just Stylist?

Vincente Minnelli: Genuine Auteur or Just Stylist?

As noted elsewhere, I consider Andrew Sarris to be the most infl uential fi lm critic in American history. Yet one of the few disagreements I have had with his assessments of directors concerns Minnelli. For most of his career, Minnelli suffered from the notion that he was more of a decorative
artist than an auteur, a perception that took hold after the 1968 publication of Sarris’s The American Cinema, still considered the bible of auteurism.

Minnelli was often attacked for his stylistic flourishes, for believing in beauty rather than in art. He was charged with distracting audiences from narrative and dialogue with fancy camera angles. For Sarris, Minnelli was a director who believed that style could transcend substance, that the camera was powerful enough to transform trash into art. Hence, he deemed Minnelli’s art as more visual than personal, more decorative than meaningful.

However, even Sarris acknowledged that Minnelli “had an unusually somber outlook for musical comedy,” a point of view that lent most of his films unexpected levels of depth and gravity.

What provides justification for the subtitle of my book is the dark sensibility that prevails in all of Minnelli’s films, not only his melodramas, a form expected to be somber and grave, but also his seemingly bright musicals and sunny comedies. He
was the fi rst to admit, “I love comedy that’s played as tragedy, and vice versa.” Of the comedies he saw later in his life, Minnelli particularly liked Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid (1972) because “it was played for blood and was sophisticated, dealing with real feelings.”

In a rare instance of self- aggrandizement, Minnelli once observed: “Some erudite types point to An American in Paris as the perfect example of the studio as auteur theory. I disagree. Though I don’t minimize anyone’s contributions, one man was responsible for bringing it all together. That man was me.”

Nonetheless, his stylistic accomplishments worked against his being taken seriously as an auteur. By the late 1950s, he was dubbed by the critic Albert Johnson as “the master of the decorative image.” No doubt, his films are impeccably crafted, filled with lush and stylized sets, exuberant long takes, subtly executed dissolves, and a fluidly mobile camera—all devices particularly suitable for presenting song- and- dance sequences in exciting spatial arrangements.

Yet as Ed Lowry has noted, this sensibility also informs the nonmusical sequences of Minnelli’s fi lms, which are marked by a liberal, nonjudgmental approach that allows
both his screen characters and their audience greater freedom of movement
and interpretation within time and space.

Thus, it’s possible to demonstrate that Minnelli was an auteur in thematic,
stylistic, and ideological terms. His fi lms demonstrate vividly that
concepts of art and artifi ciality run throughout his work. Stylization and
artifi ce are addressed by musicals naturally, as in the baroque otherworldliness
in Yolanda and the Thief or the interplay of character and
actor in Fred Astaire’s interpretation in The Band Wagon, but they also
prevail in his melodramas.

Though style may occasionally overwhelm theme, it ultimately confirms Minnelli’s contribution to the refinement of the strategies by which Hollywood films translate visual style into meaningful entertainment. A painful sense of self, and the impossibility of meaningful relationships, inform melodramas like Some Came Running and Home from the Hill, and it’s no coincidence that principal characters in both fi lms—Shirley
MacLaine in the former, Robert Mitchum in the latter—end in death.
The dichotomy between appearance and reality is a theme that Minnelli
explored repeatedly. He acknowledges the need for individualized
existence, defi ned by innermost fantasies that strive for fulfi llment. The
tensions in his screen narrative (and his own life off screen) derive from
the necessity to accommodate an ideal (and idealistic) world within the
bounds of a more mundane reality.

The gap between dreaming and the waking life could be narrow or
wide, but it’s a recurrent motif throughout his oeuvre, often realized in
his expressive use of light, color, décor, and composition. In Cabin in the
Sky, waking up is more than a meta phor; it’s a narrative device. The
movie ends when Little Joe awakens in his bed and learns that his odyssey
was a delirious and haunting nightmare adventure.

The artist’s struggle to control or appropriate his external reality often
fails, but it’s a worthwhile pursuit, for without such battle there is no
chance for freedom. Throughout Minnelli’s work, he is concerned with
different levels of reality and unreality, as in the self- refl exive meditation
on the Hollywood industry, The Bad and the Beautiful. Contrast, however,
the cynical and bitter view of Billy Wilder in Sunset Boulevard with
Minnelli’s more complex, ambiguous, and ultimately positive view of
industry types in The Bad and the Beautiful.

This exploration of levels of fantasy/reality reaches its limitation in his
last fi lm, A Matter of Time, where the story of an aspiring actress (played
by Liza Minnelli) becomes an examination of his own daughter’s talents
and persona, haunted by the ghost of her mother (and Minnelli’s fi rst
wife, Judy Garland), not to mention the casting of the iconic Hollywood
star Ingrid Bergman as the woman who feeds the young girl’s fantasies.
Fantasies are almost always present in Minnelli’s fi lms, even when
they address more “ordinary” themes in “realistic” settings. In these fantasies
the narratives recede in order to allow free play of ideas on both
symbolic and formal levels. In the musicals, they take the shape of an
extended “ballet,” most memorably the seventeen- minute dance that
concludes An American in Paris. But equally powerful is Garland’s erotic
fantasy of Gene Kelly as “Mack the Black” in The Pirate.

In Meet Me in St. Louis, the strongest expression of style occurs in the nonmusical sequences, including the romantic interludes between Judy Garland and the boy next door played by Tom Drake, and of course in the horrific Halloween sequence, dominated by Margaret O’Brien, a child star who at the time was known for her upbeat personality. O’Brien’s obsession with death (including the killing of the snow fi gures)
and the overt morbidity in the movie as a whole may account for audiences’
ongoing interest in the film.

In the comedy Father of the Bride, it’s the sequence in which Spencer Tracy’s fatherly anxieties come to the fore during the wedding, upon the realization that he is about to “lose” his daughter. The hallucinatory chase through a carnival in Some Came Running and the fast, hysterical car drives in The Bad and Beautiful and it quasi-sequel, Two Weeks in Another Town, are more about intense emotions and visual stylization
than plot elements per se, offering escapes from the banalities of the real
world, which Minnelli depicts as frustrating, limiting, and suffocating.
All of Minnelli’s comedies explore rather serious themes. Some are
critiques of America’s new consumer culture of the 1950s. Notice the
unnecessarily huge amounts of money spent on weddings and the
lengthy, overblown, and exhausting preparations for them in Father of
the Bride. Or the use of an outsize mechanical trailer as a metaphor for
the shaky marriage of newlyweds Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in The
Long, Long Trailer. Father of the Bride and its sequel, Father’s Little Dividend,
deal with the inevitable loss of a daughter, while The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, a serio- comedy about a one- parent family headed by a male (Glenn Ford), was one of Hollywood’s fi rst fi lms about the changing structure of American families. In this picture, the images that linger are those of the young boy (Ron Howard), forced to adjust to his mother’s death, who is horrifi ed to discover his deceased goldfi sh, his
fi rst real encounter with death.

The tentative or unstable nature of love, and the inability to reconcile domestic and professional demands, are evident in all of Minnelli’s melodramas. But they may be at their most explicit in The Cobweb, where an argument over drapes for the recreation room in a mental institution ultimately reveals dark secrets, neuroses, and disorders among the staff members and their families, which are not much different from those of the patients they’re supposed to “cure.”

The Four Horse men of the Apocalypse is considered to be one of Minnelli’s weakest fi lms, and yet in terms of visual style and color scheme it had a far- reaching impact on French, Italian, and American directors.

Jean- Luc Godard’s Contempt, considered to be one of his masterpieces, Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, which costarred Ingrid Thulin (who had appeared in Four Horse men), Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist, and Vittorio De Sica’s elegiac period piece, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis all owe a debt and/or pay tribute to Minnelli.

You really can’t understand or appreciate Martin Scorsese’s musical New York, New York without acknowledging Minnelli’s influence, and not only because Liza Minnelli
is the star and is made up to look like her mother in the 1940s.