Lust for Life: Kirk Douglas’ Greatest Role

For director Minnelli, casting the lead role of Van Gough in the biopic Lust for Life was easy.


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Kirk Douglas, who by then has become Minnelli’s favorite Hollywood actor, was ideal to play Van Gough in both physique and temperament. As Minnelli recalls, “Once we got the green light to proceed with the picture, there was no question if Kirk would play Van Gogh. No other actor was even considered for the part.”

There was another reason for choosing Douglas. In 1955, Douglas announced that Bryna, his production company, would be launched with a film about Van Gogh to be directed by Jean Negulesco and starring himself. Douglas recalls: “I got a call from MGM and they said, ‘Guess again. We own Lust for Life. The Bryna fantasy was over.

After reading Norman Corwins scenario, MGM and Douglas came to an agreement. The film represented a reunion for Douglas with producer Houseman and director Minnelli, all of whom worked together harmoniously on The Bad and the Beautiful. By that time, the tensions and disagreements on the set of The Cobweb were long forgotten.

Douglas offered to forgo his entire salary for Lust for Life in exchange for a single Van Gough painting, but the studio turned him down. “I can afford to play Van Gough,” Douglas quipped, “but I can’t afford to own him.”

Vincente Minnelli enjoyed the intimate rapport he was increasingly cultivating with Douglas, his leading man. Douglas unabashedly expressed his views of Van Gough, and how certain scenes should be played and shot. Minnelli liked and respected Douglas, and he readily accepted most of his ideas. In between takes, Minnelli and Douglas were always seen working on the next scene to be shot, mapping and blocking the space.

Douglas became as involved in the movie as Gene Kelly had been in his lat two movies with Minnelli. Indeed, Lust for Life represented Minnellis most harmonious collaboration with an actor since his work with Gene Kelly on American In Paris. Upon arrival in Arles to begin shooting, Minnelli immersed himself completely in the production, with Douglas as his willing ally. Minnelli and Douglas spent long hours studying Van Gough’s paintings, and visiting the museums that had the originals. Their extensive research helped them to understand the specific way in which Van Gogh used his creative urge and channeled his ferocious energy into his art.

Working with Douglas on Lust for Life became Minnellis most rewarding and stimulating collaboration. Douglas couldn’t care less about whether he looked handsome or projected an appealing image as a hero. Throughout, Douglas was dressed in dowdy clothes with his famous dimple hidden behind a fuzz of red beard.

After the shoot, Minnelli was ecstatic in praising his actor: Kirk is blessed with tireless energy, a willingness to try anything and a complete disregard for his own looks.

Douglass enthusiastic devotion rubbed off on the entire crew and cast. Minnelli hoped that that Douglas would finally win the Oscar for his performance, having been nominated twice before. Douglass previous nomination, for Minnellis Bad and the Beautiful was a particularly unpleasant and painful experience, since it was one of the films six nominations that didnt win the Oscar. Nevertheless, Minnelli perceived Douglas as the only possible choice to play Van Gough due to his physical appearance and potentially violent temperament. In real life, Douglas, like Van Gogh, was fierce in his loves and hates.

For Douglas, Lust for Life was a wonderful experience. Aware that Minnelli could be impatient with actors, Douglas felt like the teacher’s pet. As he recalled I always seemed to do the right thing; Vincente looked with pleasure on everything I did. Was it because we had worked together successfully in The Bad and the Beautiful I don’t know. But it was a wonderful feeling for me to have supportive looks from a demanding director.