Lust for Life (1956): Minnelli’s Most Personal Film?

Director Vincente Minnelli regarded the making of 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 Gough 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 Pandro Berman and other producers. Minnellis plea was helped by Dore Schary’s wife, who was an art lover, particularly Van Gogh. Once again, it was easier for Minnelli to go through the wives, when business was concerned.

A personal film, Lust for Life deals with the creative impulses and emotional isolation of Van Gough as an artist. On this production, Minnelli’s work was totally unhampered by the studio. Except for a few scenes (one showing Guguin 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 which of his movies was his favorite, Minnelli always cited Lust for Life.

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, Minnellis first, was an exhilarating experience from start to finish. Shooting on location, in the actual landscapes where Van Gough had worked and lived, Minnelli felt liberated from the studios interference and from his own previously self-imposed constraints. After this film, Minnelli began working in a freer, more improvised style that blended his subjective imagination with a more realistic sense of his stories time and place.

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.

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 it with Spencer Tracy. 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 Gough seem 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 potential Oscar contender.

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

Casting the lead role of Van Gough was easy. 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.”

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.

Relying on Van Gough’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 Gough’s neurosis a direct result of society’s hostility toward artists and creativity.

Minnelli liked Corwins approach, which was based on careful examination of the painful correspondence between the siblings. However, the letters were the property of Van Goughs surviving son, who threatened to sue if the script used or quoted any of the letters. Corwin changed the book’s sentimental conceit, specifically the central female figure created by novelist Stone, who brought to the surface Van Goughs inner, dark demons. Instead, Corwin adhered more accurately to the historical record of the painters life.

MGMs new technology presented another major problem. Metro refused to shoot Lust for Life in any other way than CinemaScope, which was not suitable for the reproduction of Van Gough’s work. Minnelli had to find a way to fit Van Gough’s canvases into the frame. MGM then dropped Technicolor and used another process, Ansco, which Minnelli found more suitable. But Ansco had halted their stock production, and it was hard to find any stock at the warehouses.

Minnelli wanted the dramatic scenes to look as closely as possible to Van Goughs paintings. Arguing against the use of a wider-frame Cinemascope, Minnelli went to New York to persuade Arthur Lowe in favor of the old-fashioned Academy ratio, which was closer to the paintings’ dimensions. Lowe countered that, no matter how the movie was shot, it would still be projected in Cinemascope. In the 1950s, MGM had abandoned the expensive Technicolor in favor of Eastman, which didn’t require special cameras. Minnelli disliked Eastman because it was unable to register a shade of yellow, a color that was crucial to Van Gough’s palette, and as noted before, was Minnelli’s favorite color, which dominated most of his pictures art design. In the end, Minnelli was able to get the studio’s last remaining stock of Agfacolor.

With Minnelli’s help, the studio pleaded with various art collectors, from actor Edward G. Robinson to the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, to allow them to use Van Gough’s paintings. At the end, those chosen for the painter’s studio in Arles were faked. Other paintings appeared in close-up inserts of Van Gough at work. Minnelli also sent a crew to several galleries to shoot Van Goughs canvases with still cameras.

Housemann hired MoMA’s Impressionism expert, John Rewald, to serve as consultant. And two other artists were hired to execute the ersatz Van Gough: one provided the finished paintings, the other doubled for Douglas’s painting scenes.

Minnelli had no problems persuading MGM to shoot Lust for Life on location. For this picture, the natural landscapes were essential in conveying the details of the artists work. The crew went to the coalmines of the Belgian Borinage and to Van Gough’s Dutch countryside, then to Paris, the Provence, and the Ile-de-France, where Van Gough spent his final years.

Since Minnelli was busy with Kismet until midsummer, the fields and vineyards were ripening under the sun. Housemann thereupon decided to shoot the script in reverse order, with the company going north as the weather grew colder. Before principal shooting began, cameraman Joseph Ruttenberg flew to Arles to film the orchards while blooming, and Minnelli was very pleased with his footage.

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 Gough’s own work and personality.

Lust for Life was one of Hollywoods most impressive color films. Minnelli asked cinematographers Frederick Young and Russell Harlan to devise a different color scheme for each of the four phases of Van Gough’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 Gough’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 Minnellis 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.

Judy Garland had been the first to observe that, beneath the calm faade of Minnellis personality, there was neurosis and even hysteria that he chose to express in his work rather than his personal life. Indeed, its hard to think of another Hollywood director who, consciously and subconsciously, channeled his neurotic anxieties and inner demons into his film work, particularly in his melodramas, a genre that benefited from excess and hysteria. However, digging beneath the surface of Minnellis most cheerful films, comedies and musicals, one finds another realm thats deeply disturbing.

Going outdoors to the actual locales and striving for accurate detail, the film supports a more realistic style than other Minnellis movies, most of which were studio-bound. Lust for Life depicts Van Goughs painting as the expression of lonely, tormented, decidedly not romantic, life. Minnelli’s deliberate aestheticism complicates these matters and creates a tension with the films other trend of realism. James Naremore has claimed that Lust for Life deconstructs romantic ideas about art, and at the same time, offers a complex account of a romantic personality. Though whats a romantic personality, or romanticism in general, is a matter of interpretation, my repeated viewings of the film suggest less romantic and more deeply tormented and complex persona.

Yet, both thematically and stylistically, the brand of realism propagated by Minnelli in Lust for Life is that of a hightened 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.

Consistent with Minnelli’s artistic vision and his own personality as an effete, Lust for Life rejects Van Goughs 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.

Minnelli identified completely with Van Gogh as an artist, bound by both personal and social forces. He could particularly relate to the contradiction between Van Gough’s idealistic artistic purpose and the social conditions under which he worked.

The storys ironies do not escape Minnelli, either. The most important of which is the irony that Van Goug didnt sell any work during his lifetime. Another poignant irony resides in depicting Gauguin sneers at Millet (an other painters of the time) for painting “calendar art,” unaware that both he and Van Gough would become the ultimate calendar artists. Its hard to tell how the phenomenon began, but from the 1960s onward, one could find Van Goughs calendars decorating students campus dormitories.