Wednesday 22 November 2017

Bruce Hodsdon on Star Actors and Auteurs in classical Hollywood (9) - Vincente Minnelli: style in search of a theme?

This is the latest in Bruce Hodsdon’s erudite series devoted to the relationships between a number of major Hollywood directors and the actors they worked with. The previous essays can be found if you click on the links below.

Vincente Minnelli
Lester Anthony (Vincente) Minnelli was born into a family of touring entertainers in Chicago in 1903. At sixteen he was working as a window decorator, and later as fashion photographer then as a costume and set designer graduating to direction on Broadway by the late thirties. His theatrical design showed modernist tendencies, specifically a pop surrealist influence, which was carried over into his film work. He came to Hollywood in 1940 at the invitation of the premier producer of musicals at MGM, Arthur Freed. Minnelli served two years apprenticeship in various departments before being assigned to direct a musical fantasy, Cabin in the Sky (1943), with an all black cast. 

Lena Horne, Eddie Anderson, Cabin in the Sky
In 1944 he directed Judy Garland in one of Hollywood's classic musicals, the family centred Meet Me in St Louis. He then directed a GI-meets-girl-next-door romance, The Clock (1945). It was Freed's first non-musical as producer and it had a bumpy beginning in what was slated to be Garland's dramatic debut. The unconventional romanticism, after two false starts with other directors, was finally crowned by Minnelli's astonishing and acutely conceived boom shot rather than a conventional end fade-out. The result was a major critical and box office success.

Robert Walker, Judy Garland, The Clock
Between 1943-76 Minnelli made 32 musicals, comedies and (melo)dramas, all but two for MGM. I have included him here because as a director in classical Hollywood he was both representative and special. In deployment of colour, tempo and décor he took full advantage of the superior film stock, camera lenses and other equipment, designers and technicians available in a major Hollywood studio. To these advantages he brought inspiration in his interest and accumulated knowledge of painting(1). Naremore informs us that Minnelli was the first major director of musicals not to have started as a choreographer. He pioneered gracefully sweeping camera movements in the filming of musical numbers while on a more intimate level he had, from the beginning, an intuitive sense of how to visually enhance the script by the subtle choreographing of actors' bits of business in drama and comedy.

These could be considered the talents of a metteur-en-scène in themselves insufficient for full auteur status. Metteur-en-scène (literally 'film director') is a term that has been applied by auteurists to directors who intermittently show inspiration in their mise-en-scène so rising above the uniformly routine (tv style) staging of the 'journeyman' director but without the inspiration, stylistic consistency and nuance linked coherently to on-going themes that marks the work of the 'fully fledged' auteur. Andrew Sarris made no explicit reference to the term metteur- en-scène in his introduction to The American Cinema yet in some respects it constituted the core of the controversy and the crux of Sarris's claims for his revaluation of classical Hollywood.

Looking at the first 7 levels of Sarris's whimsically titled categories ordered hierarchically in 11 levels covering the work of 200 directors, the great debate centred on levels 2 (“The Far Side of Paradise”), 3 (“Repressive Esoterica”), 5 (“Less than Meets the Eye”) and 6 (“Lightly Likeable”) where auteur and metteur-en-scène mingle ambiguously. While there was relatively little controversy over the recognition factor in the 14 directors included at the apex in the Pantheon (although there was dispute over the weighting of Hawks and Hitchcock, at least initially) some critical heat was generated by the upgrading of most of the 20 directors listed in The Far Side of Paradise just below the Pantheon.

While recognition of authorship status for directors like Capra, De Mille and Borzage as more than mere réalisers of other's screenplays was at least grudgingly accepted, it was a somewhat different story with most of the the rest, including Minnelli (2). There had already been dispute about Minnelli's status in Parisian auteurist circles. For example Jacques Rivette's view on Minnelli's credentials, expressed in a Cahiers du Cinéma round table discussion, was emphatic: “to extend the politique des auteurs to him is an aberration...When you talk about Minnelli the first thing you talk about is the screenplay, because he always subordinates his talent to something else.” 

Frank Sinatra, Shirley MacLaine, Some Came Running
Truffaut also exiled him from la politique while Godard paid an on-screen homage to Some Came Running in Contempt. Locating Minnelli firmly in Paradise Sarris does refer to his “stylistic flourishes” and Minnelli's view of himself  “as more stylist than auteur.” For the auteurist critics at Movie the style of Minnelli's movies was the meaning.

Any discussion about the degrees or traces of authorship in commercial cinema starts with the assumption voiced by Naremore that “some notion of personal agency is necessary in any cultural politics.” As he reminds us, the radical element in early auteurism, the core of the controversy, was “that traditional forms of literary interpretation were being applied to mass-cultural texts” or, as Naremore suggests Roland Barthes would have put it, auteurists were “trying to bestow a “writerly” quality on an ostensibly “readerly” set of movies...objects of consumption that were to be seen then forgotten.” This was the basis of much of the dismissal of the notion of authorship applied to genre and studio stalwarts like Minnelli. Auteurism has nevertheless outlasted the attempted all but obliteration through the radicalisation of film theory striving for legitimacy in post-68 academia, analysis of film texts being seen of interest only in terms of their relationship to the dominant ideology. Minnelli's melodramas  (and those of other auteurs such as Douglas Sirk) in particular were seized upon for their subversive potential despite the fact that neither critics nor audience saw them that way.

Risking the accusation that thematic analysis of popular genre films amounts to little more than 'schoolboy profundities', Thomas Elsaesser has argued the case for Minnelli as a moralist despite the fact that he, like Cukor, never wrote (or rarely ever had a major hand in writing) his scripts. Elsaesser's core contention is that, following the proposition that all romantic art aspires to music, “all Minnelli's films aspire to the condition of the musical.” In negotiating for himself between what he saw as the balancing of his conception of his art and the studio's employment of him for his ability to convert this into commercial return, Elsaesser sees what would seem to emerge  across the spectrum of his work, “is the theme of the artist's struggle to appropriate external reality as the elements of his own world, in a bid for absolute freedom.” 

Kirk Douglas, Lust for Life
This would seem to be vindicated by Minnelli's nomination of his biopic based on the life of Vincent Van Gogh, Lust For Life, as the personal favourite of his films. In the context of this broad generic perspective, Elsaesser proceeds to argue “that while the Minnelli musical celebrates the fulfilment of desire and identity, whose tragic absence so many of his dramatic films portray, ...the dramas and dramatic comedies are musicals turned inside out.” Naremore and Richard Dyer would seem not to be in contradiction with Elsaessser's analysis. David Thomson concludes that “Minnelli's stress on style is itself reaching out for dream: the fluid self sufficient sequences of fantastic imagery. That could explain the occasional feeling of indifference to narrative, just as it directs attention to his style.” Naremore warns that “we should not ignore the nuances of Minnelli's style or the ideological aims of Hollywood, but we should remember that aesthetic pleasure is negotiated at a social level, and that meaning is always up for grabs.”

According to Mark Griffin, in his recent biography of Minnelli, when he was working in the theatre in New York Minnelli was openly gay. In Hollywood, although fellow director George Cukor was relatively open about his homosexuality, Minnelli felt obliged to go into the closet. While not as liberal as the bohemian New York theatre scene, the film industry back then did not scrutinise its stars for their sexual behaviour or drug taking. The studios were even less concerned about directors who, compared to actors, had a low public profile. Nevertheless Griffin says that the studio was upset when Minnelli arrived in Hollywood wearing make-up so he changed his lifestyle channelling his sexual tensions and anxieties into his filmmaking. (3)

As has been said “Minnelli was expensive but brought the studio prestige.” He was described as “passive-aggressive” in his direction on the set - inarticulate with actors but very particular about design.  Jack Nicholson, who had a supporting role in On a Clear Day said that Minnelli could spend days “shooting  a vase of flowers from different angles” (as he did in this film) but never gave him any instructions on how to play the part.  By the same token Minnelli successfully guided Judy Garland through her first dramatic 'adult' role in The Clock and nursed her through The Pirate (1948) - make-up cannot disguise that she does not look well in the film - when amongst other things she became jealous during filming believing her husband (they married in 1945) was favouring Gene Kelly at her expense. 

Louis Jourdan, Jennifer Jones, Madame Bovary
Jennifer Jones gives a remarkable performance in Madame Bovary (1949), further testimony to Minnelli's success directing actresses. He was not comfortable with method actors, as Naremore says “more at home with old fashioned movie stars.” He quotes Ellen Burstyn, who starred in Goodbye Charlie, as complaining that Minnelli's style of directing “is to do the scene and then you imitate him – not one of the most stimulating ways of working.” Naremore adds that Minnelli “probably didn't do the scene for Tracy or Astaire” and that his approach to the craft had been formed directing comedy on Broadway where naturalism and spontaneity were not much valued.

James Harvey emphasises that it was central to the Minnelli ethos “that no design detail (was) ever too trivial not to matter.” According to Emanuel Levy he depended heavily on people like Metro's artistic director Cedric Gibbons for support. Harvey takes a different view - that Minnelli clashed with the authoritarian Gibbons and he persuaded his superiors to allow him to employ outsiders to aid him in meeting ambitious design challenges on several films. It is however true that the careers of Minnelli and that of other directors like George Cukor - they both came to filmmaking when the studio system was at its peak- declined with the breakdown of system accelerating through the sixties.

John Kerr, Deborah Kerr, Tea and Sympathy
 Levy highlights some examples of the relationship between Minnelli's sexual anxieties and his filmmaking suggesting that, coincident with the rise of camp, Minnelli foreshadowed a coded on-screen gay sensibility (also indicative of the degree of control Minnelli had at MGM), later taken up by other gay directors in their movies. Levy identifies how he used colour coding in, for example, Tea and Sympathy - deep blue for masculinity, light blue for effeminacy with yellow and green dresses worn by Deborah Kerr in key scenes. Colour coding is also used for the three levels of masculinity in Home From the Hill. A queer sub text is claimed for Nina Foch as the sugar daddy in An American in Paris to Gene Kelly's gigolo. Minnelli himself suffered from his effeminacy which is played out in Designing Woman through Lauren Bacall's best friend, a choreographer that Gregory Peck puts down for being “too sensitive.” The courtesan played by Leslie Caron in Gigi can be seen as representing Minnelli's sexual insecurities. Although he never treated homosexuality directly, from the mid-fifties Minnelli's films repeatedly questioned  American standards of “sexual normalcy.” As Naremore comments Van Gogh and Gaugin, in their homo-erotically charged conversations in Lust For Life, can be seen as “the original odd couple” (4).

Naremore suggests that Minnelli “favoured actors who could embody certain character types” and was intrigued by Garland's child-woman image dressed in highly artificial fashion. He also worked repeatedly with “feminine” males
such as Louis Jourdan, John Kerr and George Hamilton “who functioned more like romantic versions of himself.” An interesting variation however was his increasingly productive collaboration with Kirk Douglas who in certain respects did prefigure method performance, “no actor in his day being less 'cool'.” He was a robust, athletic performer who liked stagey dialogue. In this way classical Hollywood and the Minnellian world came together none more so than in The Bad and the Beautiful. Through Douglas Minnelli identified with Van Gogh, Naremore suggests, “confronting all the dilemmas and contradictions of his own career in the movies.”

Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, The Bad and the Beautiful
Key films
Musicals: Cabin in the Sky (1943), Meet Me in St Louis (45), Yolanda and the Thief (46), The Pirate (48), An American in Paris (51), The Band Wagon (54), Gigi (58), On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (70). Melodramas: The Clock (45), Madame Bovary (49), The Bad and the Beautiful (53), The Cobweb (55), Lust for Life, Tea and Sympathy (56), Some Came Running (59), Home from the Hill (60), The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Two Weeks in Another Town (62). Comedies: Father of the Bride (50), Designing Woman (57), The Reluctant Debutante (58), The Courtship of Eddie's Father (63)

1.  Minnelli claimed that a biography of the painter James McNeil Whistler was a key inspiration for his career.
2. The attribution of authorship in the studio system as Andrew Sarris attempted, is a less than clear cut issue. Unlike all 14 directors in the Pantheon, of the 20 in Paradise, in addition to Capra, DeMille and Borzage, only a further 8 -  Samuel Fuller, Erich von Stroheim, Preston Sturges, King Vidor and arguably Blake Edwards, Otto Preminger, Robert Aldrich and George Stevens – could have been identified  as having a major hand in initiating and shaping many of the screenplays they directed leaving 9 (including Minnelli) in the ambiguous field between metteur-en-scène and auteur which becomes increasingly dominant in the next two of Sarris's main categories the aptly named “Esoterica” and “Lightly Likeable.”
3.  Two biographies of Vincente Minnelli were published in quick succession Hollywood's Dark Dreamer by Emanuel Levy (2009) and A Hundred Hidden Things by Mark Griffin (2010). I have not read either but the latter purports to tackle the ambiguities around Minnelli's sexuality. For an interview with Levy by Harrison Pierce see   Griffin is interviewed by Joe Viglione on YouTube.
4.  In a review of Emanuel Levy's book, Dana Stevens makes scathing reference to Levy's treatment of Minnelli's sex life centred on what he describes as his “brief, dreadful marriage to Garland.”
Main Sources: James Naremore The Films of Vincente Minnelli 1993; Thomas Elsaesser “Vincente Minnelli” essay in Home is Where the Heart Is Ed. Christine Gledhill 1987; James Harvey Directed by Vincente Minnelli 1989; Richard Dyer essay in Films of the Fifties Ed. Ann Lloyd 1982; Barrett Hodsdon The Elusive Auteur 2017; David Thomson The New Biographical Dictionary of the Cinema  6th  Ed. 2014.

Liza Minnelli, Vincente Minnelli on the set of A Matter of Time (1976)

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