Minnelli Legacy: Queer Sensibility

Vincente Minnelli–Queer Sensibility, Channeling Sexual Anxieties into Art

Over the past de cade there’s been a growing literature of queer sensibility, a rather vague but useful concept. As I discussed in my book Cinema of Outsiders, there are directors who imbue their work with a gay-queer sensibility regardless of the par tic u lar genre or narrative they work in; among them are Gus Van Sant, Todd Haynes, and Gregg Araki.  This sensibility goes as far back as the studio system, reflected in the work of openly gay directors, such as James Whale and George Cukor, and bisexual ones, such as Minnelli.

Not surprisingly, Minnelli’s most personal films, the good (Lust for Life and Home from the Hill) and the mediocre (Tea and Sympathy and Designing Woman), deal explicitly with sexual politics, gender roles as imposed by society, the meanings of masculinity, and stigmas and punishments that result from deviations from cultural definitions of manhood.

I have devoted a lengthy analysis to these issues in the chapters discussing those films. Which leads directly to the prevalence of creative types—artists, writers, journalists, dancers—in Minnelli’s musicals, melodramas, and comedies.

In his world, artists are gifted individuals doomed to existential isolation and emotional loneliness. Minnelli’s humanistic perspective doesn’t romanticize artists as “special” people—they’re just more sensitive, and he devotes as much attention to their neuroses, petty jealousies, and moral and professional fears as to their unique talents and singular accomplishments.

Two Weeks in Another Town is a highly personal movie in more ways than one: It concerns the loss of control experienced by a once-powerful director (Edward G. Robinson) who now operates in an unfamiliar social and commercial environment. One of the harshest sequences in any Minnelli picture is the argument between Robinson and Claire Trevor, who plays his drug- addicted, suicide- prone wife, when he tells her not to take another overdose of sleeping pills, because they would just have to
pump her stomach out again—and she knows how sick that makes her.

You wonder how many times Minnelli had said something like this to Judy Garland.

Consider the artists and the sponsors in An American in Paris. Who’s Milo Roberts, the woman enamored of Jerry who wants to help him financially and professionally? An American expatriate and nouveau riche, she bears a male name, is older than Jerry, and is not particularly attractive; we also get a feeling that Milo has done it before and will do it again. Is she a stand- in, as one of my students suggested, for a sugar daddy, an older rich man, perhaps gay, who’s attracted to younger, attractive,
potentially gifted males? Kelly’s Jerry expresses his fear of being owned and patronized by Milo, and some questions remain. What would have happened if he had stayed with Milo and not Lise? Would
he have developed into his own artist? Would she have continued to support (and to love) him if he didn’t show results as a painter?

Laura in Tea and Sympathy is also more complex than she seems to be.  Though married to a macho man, she is not the typical house wife; it’s also her second marriage. She’s seldom seen in the kitchen or indoors, which is traditionally women’s domain, and the most crucial scenes are played out in exteriors, in her garden, on the beach, in the park.
In Minnelli’s criticism of the gender roles as prescribed and proscribed by society, he dresses Tom in a blue suit before he goes to the town’s whore, Elly. At one point, Tom himself states explicitly, “Put me in a blue suit and I look like a kid.”  Similarly, Laura is repeatedly told that she needs more blue, a color associated with maleness.