Lust for Life: Making of Minnelli’s Masterpiece

Part One of Five:

Vincente 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 lengthy MGM residence; all the other films were planned for him by Freed or initiated by Pandro Berman and other producers.  

Minnelli’s plea to make the film was helped by Dore Schary’s wife, who was an art lover, particularly of Van Gogh.  Once again, it was easier for Minnelli to go through the executives’ wives, when business was concerned.


A personal film reflecting Minnelli’s fantasies as well as anxieties as a filmmaker, Lust for Life deals with the creative impulses and emotional isolation of Van Gogh as an artist.  


On this production, Minnelli’s work was totally unhampered by the studio.   Except for a few scenes (one showing Gauguin arriving in Arles), that were later eliminated, the released film reflected Minnelli’s singular vision and the cut he submitted.   


Not surprisingly, when asked to single out the favorite of his movies, Minnelli always cited Lust for Life.  (Second choice was Band Wagon and third The Bad and the Beautiful.


 Minnelli felt a special emotional affinity with France’s cultural legacy, particularly 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 this biopicture, Minnelli’s first foray into the genre, 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 studio’s interference and from his own self-imposed   constraints.   As Stephen Harvey noted, Lust for Life became a turning point in his career, after which he began working in a freer, more improvised style that blended his subjective imagination with more realistic approach of his stories in terms of’ time and place.


Compared with his other self-reflexive films, The Bad and the Beautiful and The Band Wagon, both of which center on showbiz or artistic types, Lust for Life was the grimmest and most self-reflexive of Minnelli’s portraits of artists.    Placing his own artistic pulse at the center, Lust for Life reflected Minnelli’s 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.


Irving Stone’s fictionalized portrait of Van Gogh, first published in 1934, was purchased by MGM in 1946 after a new edition became a bestseller.   At one point, MGM had considered filming the tale with Spencer Tracy in the lead. 


In 1952, the unexpected popularity of John Huston’s Moulin Rouge, a lush biopicture of Toulouse-Lautrec, with Jose Ferrer in the lead, and an innovative visual design, made a film about Van Gogh more attractive and more pragmatic as a project.  


Moulin Rouge set a precedent for future films about artists in its impressive attention to detail and meticulous reproduction of its specific locale, Paris.  Nominated for Best Picture and Director, the film deservedly won two Oscars: Color Art Direction by Paul Sheriff and Marcel Vertes, and Color Costume Design by Vertes.   Hence, from the start, Lust for Life was positioned not just as a major MGM production but also as a serious Oscar contender.  


It’s doubtful that Lust for Life would have been made without the success of Moulin Rouge.  Additionally, in the 1950s, Van Gogh became popular with American students.    Producer John Houseman was happy to report that Van Gogh’s Sunflowers reproductions decorated almost every student’s dormitory in America.


Oscar Nominations: 4


Actor: Kirk Douglas

Supporting Actor: Anthony Quinn

Screenplay (Adapted):  Norman Corwin

Art Direction-Set Decoartion: Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters, and Preston Ames; Edwin B. Willis and F. Keogh Gleason


Oscar Awards: 1

Anthony Quinn


Oscar Context


The winner of the 1956 Best Actor Oscar was Yul Brynner for the musical movie The King and I.


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

RT (Running Time): 122 Minutes


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)