Designing Woman: Minnelli’s Satire of Masculinity

A reworking of the 1942 hit comedy, Woman of the Year, Vincent Minnelli’s Designing Woman concerns a sleek designer (Lauren Bacall, in the Katharine Hepburn role) and a rumpled sportswriter (Gregory Peck, in the Spencer Tracy role) who wed in haste, only to realize their “irreconcilable differences,” and the incompatibility between her chic friends and his crass cronies. Further complications arise with the reappearance of the groom’s old flame, a musical star.

The story features a gallery of types familiar from 1930s comedies: tart-tongued working- women, Runyonesque gangsters, scrappy editors, and so on. The plots gimmick is a throwback: Protagonist Marilla gets angry not at the prospect of an actual affaire between her husband and the voluptuous dancer Lori Shanon, but at his past affair with Lori.

Mike and Marilla first meet around the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel. They move into her Park Avenue apartment with its chic white sofas and bleached antiques. Marilla wears black-jersey sheaths of her own design. Early on, shes seen pacing her studio, contemplating which white chiffon to choose for her collection. The sets and costumes represent a gaudy blend of Danish Modern and French Provincial. Marilla is a Minneli type heroine, a woman of refined taste; a Modigliani hangs over her marble fireplace.

Mobsters threaten Mikes life to squelch a hot story, but they are soft-spoken gangsters, deferent to the ladies; the worse they can do is to punch Mike’s nose. They are certainly not as dangerous as his spurned fiance, Lori Shannon, who dumps a spaghetti dish into the lap of Mikes suit over lunch.

The triumph pf Randy, Marilla’s effeminate friend, over the macho men is used by Minnelli as a poignant commentary on masculinity. Though a secondary character, Randy is a key figure, who matches Minnelli’s own character as an aesthete. Designing Woman deals in a comic way with issues of gender and sexuality that Minnelli had earlier probed in Tea and Sympathy and would continue to probe in his future films, such as Home from the Hills. Mike’s blunt male-bounded world and Marilla’s artsy trendy set clash. While she dislikes the masculine exclusiveness and taste for bloody sport among his cronies, Mike is sickened to learn that her pals include an “excitable type, known on his labels as Mr. Chris.”

The two milieus collide, and both sides get their satirical treatment, when Mike’s poker game lands at Park Avenue on the same evening that Marilla hosts a reading of the show she’s about to design. While the men mutter profanities over their cards, the women giggle with laughter over such clich theatrical lines as “Aunt Agatha, she’s done it again.”

As in Tea and Sympathy, Minnellis sympathies are clearly for the underdog and misunderstood. When Mike maligns Randy’s manhood, the dancer is forced to show photos of his wife and kids as evidence that hes straight. Randy, like Minneli, has visions of dream ballets. And Minnelli, like Randy, carried his own photos of wives and daughters ready to display on demand to prove his heterosexuality. Minnelli has always embraced the outsiders and misfits in his movies. His eccentric flair has always made him suspect, no matter how many times he got married and divorced. In the 1950s, unmanliness, or effeminacy, was a more serious violation than membership in the Communist Party. Minnelli wanted to show that real men too could wear Capezios.

With few exceptions, in the 1950s, no filmmaker would dare flaunt his homosexuality. Even openly gay directors, such as George Cukor, had to be discreet about their lifestyle. Though it was an open secret, Cukor never dared have a live-in relationship. And both Minnelli and Cukor were aware of how the career of James Whale had suffered as a result of what Hollywood considered an outrageously flamboyant gay lifestyle

Minnelli skewers a virile code that equates imaginative and personal conduct and balues like his own with deviance or outright and perversion. In Minnellis movies, creativity goes beyond sexual orientation, and the protagonist-artists always get the last laugh. Its no coincidence then that in Designing Woman, it’s Randy’s fancy footwork that wraps up the plot.