Not one of his many hit musicals with Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, or Gene Kelly, but rather a film about a man driven mad by his art. A film that lost money in its American release (it’s been called “an art house sensation on a Cinemascope budget”).
But you can see why Minnelli was drawn to the story of Vincent van Gogh. The painter, after all, was all about color. And Vincente Minnelli may have had the finest grasp of color of any director of the Technicolor era.
But there were other attractions. Minnelli’s favorite words were “magic” and “beauty,” and though Van Gogh’s life was filled with frustration, pain, loneliness, and finally death, through his art he surrounded himself with both beauty and magic.
Lust for Life was the only film Minnelli personally sought out during his two decades at MGM. All of his other films simply were assigned him.
“Minnelli’s deepest affinities as a filmmaker converged in this treatment of Vincent Van Gogh’s life,” wrote Minnelli biographer Stephen Harvey, “from the link between emotional isolation and the creative impulse expressed in the medium Minnelli so revered, to the urge to use color as a psychological tool, plus his special sensitivity to the social landscape and cultural legacy of France.”
There was never any question about who would play Vincent. Actor Kirk Douglas had long dreamed of bringing Irving Stone’s 1934 novel to the screen as a project for his personal production company. But the rights to the book were held by MGM, which also held Minnelli’s long-term contract.
When MGM finally decided to go ahead with the production (its option on the book was running out) and tapped Minnelli for the project, the director immediately turned to Douglas, with whom he had worked so well on The Bad and the Beautiful. He never even considered another actor. Not only did Douglas bear an uncanny physical resemblance to Vincent, he carried with him an aura of unpredictability, even violence. Indeed, Douglas had a reputation for terrorizing some of his directors.
But he got along famously with the borderline effeminate Minnelli, who claimed that working with Douglas was his most rewarding and stimulating collaboration: “He is blessed with tireless energy, a willingness to try anything, and a complete disregard for his own looks. He couldn’t care less about being the handsome hero. His enthusiasm and devotion to the project is contagious and transmits itself to the crew, the cast, and everyone connected with the picture.”
Although he was a hired gun on the picture, Douglas threw himself into the pre-production effort with the same intensity he’d have shown had he been the producer of record. With Minnelli completing his current MGM assignment (he only joined the company on location in France three days after shooting the last scene of Kismet), the director relied on Douglas and producer John Houseman to get things up and running.
Douglas read the five volumes of letters written by Vincent to his art dealer brother, Theo. These epistles are jammed with often contradictory ideas about life and painting, suggesting to Douglas that Vincent may have been afflicted with schizophrenia.
The actor also hired a French artist to coach him to paint in Vincent’s thick brushstrokes. Knowing that in the movie’s ultimate scene just before Vincent’s suicide he would be shown painting a landscape of crows over a corn field, Douglas struggled to master the black daubs that would become crows. He claimed to have painted 800 of the black birds before getting his technique right.
Douglas’ Vincent is a man of almost childlike innocence when it comes to his emotional life. He feels everything too deeply, from his early desire to be a preacher to the poor and abused to his intense and unreciprocated devotion to fellow artist Paul Gauguin (played by Anthony Quinn, who got an Oscar for his performance).
While doing publicity for the picture Douglas confided to several reporters that the key to his Van Gogh was the painter’s latent homosexuality. The MGM publicity department went ballistic and, in the words of biographer Harvey, “ordered the star henceforth to keep his motivation to himself.”
With exteriors filmed in France, Holland, and Belgium – often in the same locales frequented by Vincent – and filled with actors who looked exactly like the individuals in Van Gogh’s portraits, Lust for Life feels eerily authentic.
At least in its physical production. Some of the acting – like that of Pamela Brown, who played the prostitute with whom Vincent co-habits, or James Donald as Theo – feels stagy and artificial. Indeed, the entire movie is permeated by middle-brow notions of culture.
(As a useful comparison, check out Robert Altman’s 1990 Vincent & Theo, which is as gritty and messy as Lust for Life is carefully – perhaps too carefully – composed.)
Still, thanks to Douglas’ Oscar-nominated performance Lust for Life is a hair-raising journey into genius and personal agony.
The Saturday Review raved about the film’s “curious, exciting sense of self revelation as the artist probes the depths of his soul with an ever-greater frenzy ... Kirk Douglas’ physical resemblance to Van Gogh is extraordinary, but more extraordinary still is his projection of the inner turmoil of the artist, the restless search for a purpose in life.”
Other critics praised Douglas’ “sense of lonely, passionate devotion to his craft, capturing the almost evangelical insistence the painter had on communicating through his brush.”
John Wayne attended a preview screening and reportedly was appalled to see macho-man Douglas cutting off his own ear and later killing himself.
“Fellers like us,” Wayne complained to Douglas, “are the tough guys of movies. We’re in a certain class.”
By playing Van Gogh, he indicated, Douglas had violated his tough-guy credentials.
Douglas recalled being hugely amused by the encounter.
“I’m an actor,” he said. “I thought the whole idea was to play someone you’re not.”
Other films in the series “Vincente Minnelli: A Little Magic”
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- May 5: Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) Not Rated
- May 12: The Band Wagon (1953) Not Rated
- May 19: Lust for Life (1956) Not Rated
- May 26: An American in Paris (1951) Not Rated
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- May 7: Father of the Bride (1950) Not Rated
- May 14: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) Not Rated
- May 21: The Clock (1945) Not Rated
- May 28: Some Came Running (1958) Not Rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.