Lust for Life: Minnelli’s Masterpiece (Part Two)

Part Two of Five:

Casting the lead role of Van Gough was easy.    Kirk Douglas, who by then had become Minnelli’s favorite Hollywood actor, was ideal to play Van Gogh in both physique and temperament.    As Minnelli recalled, “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.”

Read Part One

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 Corwin’s scenario, MGM and Douglas came to an agreement.    The film represented a reunion for Douglas with producer Houseman and director Minnelli, who had 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 Gogh painting, but the studio turned him down.  “I can afford to play Van Gogh,” Douglas quipped to the press, “but I can’t afford to own him.”

Minnelli’s main problem was to locate the dramatic locus of Van Gogh’s rich, diffuse life, since the tale could go into any number of different directions.   The last thing Minneli 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 written 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 1951 Jane Wyman melodrama, was not exactly the most natural or best choice for such a life.  But he was one the studio’s fastest and most prolific writers, and it was his idea to focus the story on Van Gogh’s lifelong conflict with his brother Theo.

To achieve greater clarity, Minnelli had suggested a more dramatically unified profile.   Relying on Van Gogh’s letters to Theo, Corwin stripped away Stone’s character of a seductive young woman who appears in the artist’s hallucinations, opting instead for a more straightforward account of his life.   Changing the book’s sentimental conceit, specifically the female figure who brought to the surface Van Gough’s inner, dark demons, Corwin instead adhering more accurately to the historical record of the painter’s life.

In the new conception, Van Gogh emerged as a sensitive artist who suffers rejection and abuse in all of his relationships.   Lust for Life made Van Gough’s neurosis a direct result of society’s hostility toward artists’ deviance as outsiders and their creative genius as a special gift.  Minnelli liked Corwin’s approach, which was based on a thorough examination of the painful correspondence between the siblings.   However, since the letters were the property of Van Gogh’s surviving son, who threatened to sue if the script contained direct quotes from them, the dialogue had to be extremely cautious in paraphrasing the brothers’ words.