Lust for Life: Minnelli’s Striking Biopic of Van Gogh, Starring Kirk Douglas in his Best (Oscar Nominated) Performance

Minnelli regarded Lust for Life as the toughest film challenge of his career. It was the most visually evocative film he had made about a subject he was passionate about: Van Gogh as an uncompromising artist. Lust for Life was the first and only movie Minnelli initiated during his length MGM residence; all the other films were planned for him by Freed or initiated by Poandro Berman and other producers.

A personal film, Lust for Life deals with the creative impulses and emotional isolation of Van Gogh as an artist. Minnelli felt a special emotional affinity with France’s cultural legacy, particularly history of painting, as he showed in the grand ballet finale in American in Paris. For this film, as an artist and painter himself, Minnelli used color as both a psychological and artistic expressive tool. Making what this biopicture, Minnelli’s first, was an exhilarating experience from start to finish.

Shooting on location, in the actual landscapes where Van Gogh had worked and lived, Minnelli felt liberated from the studios interference and from his own previously self-imposed constraints.

Compared with his other self-reflexive films, The Bad and the Beautiful and The Band Wagon, both of which center on artistic types, Lust for Life was the grimmest and most self-reflexive of Minnelli’s portraits of an artist. Placing his own artistic pulse at the center of the work, Lust for Life reflected Minnellis compulsive zest for work, and his long-held belief that commitment to art (and creativity in general) should be carried out to the exclusion of all other matters. Minnelli’s main problem was how and where to locate the dramatic locus of Van Gogh’s rich and diffuse life, since the tale could go in different directions. The last thing Minnelli wanted is to do one of MGM’s conventional biopictures that followed a formula, particularly when they concerned suffering artists or performers.

Robert Ardrey (who had scripted Madame Bovary) and Daniel Taradash (who scripted the Oscar-winning From Here to Eternity) declined to work on the film, claiming that the story was too internal and emotional to be effective as big screen entertainment. Norman Corwin, who had recently written The Blue Veil, a Jane Wyman melodrama, was one exactly the most natural choice for such a life. But he was one the studio’s fastest and most prolific writers, and it was his idea to center the story on Van Gogh’s lifelong conflict with his brother Theo. Relying on Van Gogh’s letters to brother Theo, Corwin stripped away Stone’s seductive young woman who appears in his hallucinations, opting instead for a more straightforward account of the artist’s life. To achieve greater clarity, Minnelli had suggested a more dramatically unified profile of the artist. In the new conception, Van Gough emerged as a sensitive artist who suffers rejection and abuse in all of his relationships.

“Lust for Life” made Van Gogh’s neurosis a function of society’s hostility toward artists and creativity. This time around, Minnelli was more careful not to adorn a downbeat story with entertainment values. In fact, Paris featured only peripherally in the film, with few outdoor scenes that depict artists at work. Instead of showing the Parisian nightlife, as Moulin Rouge did, Lust for Life offers Van Gogh’s own work and personality. Van Gogh is usually portrayed as a womanizing artist, who wanders around Europe socializing with prostitutes, and sneering at Degas for painting feminine art, such as ballet dancers.

Minnelli’s film, there’s only a brief love affair with Christine, a working class prostitute-mother. More importantly, Minnelli refrains from Hollywood clichés in depicting artists. He refuses to show Van Gough as a sensitive bohemian artist, suggesting that there was nothing urbane about him, his life, and his work. Structurally, the film concentrates on four phases of the artist’s life: The black-and-white drawings from the mining district of the Boringe; the Dutch drawings and paintings of rural labor in the Hague; the impressionist landscapes of Paris; and the portraits and nature paintings of Southern France.

Hollywood’s most impressive color films of the 1950s. Minnelli asked cinematographers Frederick Young and Russell Harlan to devise a different color scheme for each of the four phases of Van Gogh’s career: The coal-mining scenes were dominated by gray; the Dutch sequences by bluish green; the Parisian episodes by bright Red; and the concluding session, which became Minnellis favorite, not the least due to it color, were in sunny yellow. Minnelli was interested in bringing the viewers closer to Van Gogh’s work, showing, as he wrote in preparation for the film, “all the brushstrokes and even those places where he’d squeezed paint out of the tube onto the canvas.” Minnelli pans the cameras across the paintings or zooms in on significant details, like the sunlight in the late paintings.

Continuing Minnellis lifelong exploration of visual style, in this movie, Minnelli deliberately goes for an excessive approach that draws on strikingly swirling patterns of light and color, pushed to the extreme. Visual Excess had marked some of Minnelli’s previous films, but not to such an extent. In this picture, excess became more prominent through hysteria, in the manner of The Bad and the Beautiful.

The characters’ intense feelings are heightened by Miklos Rozsa’s music, which resembled the Waltz he had composed for the ballroom sequence in Madame Bovary. By now, Rozsa had become Minnelli’s most reliable composer for melodramas, and its useful to think about Lust for Life as an intense melodramatic biopicture.

The film is replete with thrilling montages of Van Gough’s canvases spread across the sets. Minnelli shot exteriors in the actual places where Van Gogh had lived and worked. This meant that the wheat fields and vineyards of Provence had to be filmed in the summer, before the harvest. Minnelli shot some of the outdoor sequences in ways that approximated how Van Gogh’s famous paintings came to actual life. To accomplish this effect, Minnelli often poses Douglas in the foreground, laboring over a Van Gogh painting that duplicates what we see in the background.

Both thematically and stylistically, the brand of realism propagated by Minnelli in Lust for Life is that of a heightened or stylized realism, which may sound as a contradiction of terms but its not. Minnelli perceives Van Gough as a complex figure who chose art as a quasi-religious vocation, a tragically under-appreciated artist who refused to adapt to bourgeois life and felt a quasi-religious affinity with nature. The film takes violence and excess as the keys to Van Gough’s personality, treating him as a primitive artist with uncontrollable, intense emotions.

However, like Minnellis other films, Lust for Life ends on a positive note that suggests light and brightness. No matter how dark his movies are, either as a result of the strictures of the time, dictates of the Production Code, or the moral climate of the studio he worked for, Minnelli opts for resolutions that are more hopeful than the stories that precede them. These resolutions could be seen as compromises on Minnelli’s part rather than genuine expression of his artistic impulses.

Consistent with Minnelli’s artistic vision and his own personality as an effete, Lust for Life rejects Van Gogh’s more established masculine image, instead endowing him with some feminine traits. In fact, the unsympathetic portrait of Paul Gauguin’s machismo makes Van Goughs sensitivity stronger. Minnelli thought that Anthony Quinn’s natural animalistic sensuality was right for Gauguin, and would contrast well with Douglas more complex, contradictory persona, equal parts macho brutality and feminine vulnerability.

At Oscar time, Lust for Life was nominated for four Oscars: Actor, screenplay to Norman Corwin, color art direction-set decoration to Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters, and Preston Ames; Edwin B. Willis and F. Keogh Gleason, and supporting actor to Anthony Quinn, who won.

Vincent Van Gogh (Kirk Douglas)

Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn)

Theo Van Gogh (James Donald)

Christine (Pamela Brown)

Dr. Gachet (Everett Sloane)

Roulin (Niall MacGinnis)

Anton Muave (Noel Purcell)

Theodorus Van Gogh (Henry Daniell)

Anna Cornelia Van Gogh (Madge Kennedy)

Willemien (Jill Bennett)

 

Credits

 

Produced by John Houseman

Associate producer: Jud Kinberg

Assistant Director: Al Jennings

Screenplay: Norman Corwin, based on the novel by Irving Stone

Cinematography: F.A. Young

Art Direction: Cedric Gibson, Hans Peters, Preston Ames

Set Decoration: Edwin B. Willis; Keogh Gleason

Music: Miklos Rozsa

Editing: Adrienne Fazan

Costumes: Walter Plunkett

Color consultant: Charles K. Hagedon

Print process: Metrocolor

Recording Direction: Dr. Wesley C. Miller

Hair Stylist: Sydney Guilaroff

Makeup: William Tuttle

 

Running Time: 122 Minutes

 

 

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