Saturday, August 3, 2013

Lust for Life (MGM, 1956)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Lust for Life, one of those classics that’s been in my range of vision for some time (TCM has shown it fairly often) but I’d never got around actually to seeing until now. It began as an historical novel by Irving Stone about the legendary painter Vincent Van Gogh, who’s become one of the superstar artists even though during his lifetime he only sold one painting; today the few works of his that enter the private market (most are in musea, some of which are credited in this film for allowing their Van Goghs to be photographed for it) sell for eight- or nine-figure sums and the musea lucky enough to have substantial Van Gogh holdings — including the largest one of all, appropriately enough in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in Van Gogh’s ancestral homeland, the Netherlands — organize touring exhibitions of them and make tons of money showing them. I’d never seen this film before, nor have I seen Robert Altman’s Van Gogh biopic, Dear Theo, and seen today Lust for Life is a movie that overwhelms with the sheer relentless power of Van Gogh’s art and Kirk Douglas’s portrayal of him. Lust for Life was directed by Vincente Minnelli, for whom this film was a personal project he deeply wanted to do — though he had a squabble with MGM over it and, much to his disgust, they forced him first to film the hit musical Kismet. As he explained to interviewers Charles Higham and Joel Greenberg in The Celluloid Muse, “I had to finish [Kismet] in a hurry and get on a plane and go to Europe and start Lust for Life: they were keeping a field of sunflowers alive for me artificially in the south of France until I got there!”

Lust for Life was pretty obviously influenced by John Huston’s marvelous biopic of Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, made four years earlier (1952) and noted for the determination of its director and cinematographer (Oswald Morris) not only to make a movie about a famous artist but to reproduce, as much as possible, the visual style of the artist they were depicting in the movie’s images, framing and (especially) color design. Minnelli and his cinematographers, Russell Harlan and Freddie Young, managed not only to shoot in some of the same locations where Van Gogh had actually lived and painted, but to a quite remarkable extent to capture the look of Van Gogh’s art in the film: the dramatically etched images, the off-kilter framing, the blazing (and sometimes surprisingly subdued) colors — usually Van Gogh went to town color-wise on his landscapes but muted his palette considerably when depicting people, which may itself be a comment on his mental state and his troubled relations with the rest of the human race — to the point where even on the (blessedly few) occasions the film stops to give us what amounts to a slide show of Van Gogh’s paintings, the visual style remains strikingly the same. Scripted by Norman Corwin (one of the most interesting and sensitive writers from the golden age of radio drama) from Stone’s novel, Lust for Life often falls back on typical Hollywood cliché (especially in the scripting of Van Gogh’s relationships — such as they were — with women and some rather obvious cues in Miklós Rósza’s score), but the Faustian energy of Minnelli’s direction, Corwin’s writing, Douglas’s acting and the overall success in evoking the “look” of Van Gogh’s art all come together for a quite remarkable movie.

There is one big weakness in the film, and that is the horrendously miscast Anthony Quinn as Van Gogh’s friend and fellow artist, Paul Gauguin; it seems totally unbelievable that the Academy Awards should have overlooked Kirk Douglas’s monumental portrayal of Van Gogh (unlike his son Michael, Kirk Douglas never won a competitive Oscar) and given Quinn a supporting award for one of the schtickiest performances I’ve ever seen in my life (rivaling, among misplaced and undeserving Oscar-winners, Luise Rainer’s in The Great Ziegfeld and Al Pacino’s in Scent of a Woman). Not only are we supposed to believe the half-Irish, half-Mexican Quinn as a French painter (who, after Van Gogh’s death, relocated to the South Seas), he’s playing Van Gogh’s sidekick almost exactly the way he played Tyrone Power’s sidekick in the marvelous 1941 remake of Blood and Sand (directed by Rouben Mamoulian, who started the trick imitated by Minnelli here of spray-painting great swaths of nature to make them look more like the work of a famous artist), only this particular Quinn schtick is much more believable when he’s playing a bullfighter than when he’s playing an artist. I couldn’t help but wish for George Sanders in the role; though he was a bit on the seedy side by 1956, Sanders had already played a character based on Gauguin in the 1942 film The Moon and Sixpence and his ice would have been a much better counterpoint to Douglas’s fire.

As for Kirk Douglas, one reviewer on this film quoted his son Michael as saying “his father isn’t considered a great actor because the style back then in the types of roles he played has changed.” Like his friend and frequent co-star, Burt Lancaster, Douglas made his initial reputation playing villains — he’s galvanic in films like The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, Out of the Past and Detective Story (he’s a cop in the last, but a morally corrupt and underhanded one) — but soon got to be too big a star to be cast as anything but a hero. Vincent Van Gogh as portrayed here isn’t really a villain, but he is a literally larger-than-life character, an emotional sponge who sacrificed virtually everything — material success, friendship, romance — for his art, and went through life blithely obsessed only with his own struggle, convinced that the world owed him a living (though Corwin’s script also — with the complexity of life rather than the neatness of fiction — shows Van Gogh as a workaholic with a profound sense of guilt that he couldn’t make a living from his painting even while he had no inclination, desire or even ability to change his style to make his work more salable) and reminding me a great deal about what jazz musician Jackie McLean had to say about a similarly obsessed, unreliable, irresponsible artistic genius (who also died young), Charlie Parker: after detailing how often Parker hit up his friends for money, drugs, instruments (he was often hocking his for drug money and would need to borrow a saxophone to work) and whatever, McLean said, “Which of us could afford him? And I mean that the other way, too: which of us could afford to pay him what we owed him?”

One odd thing about Lust for Life is how homoerotic it is; though it doesn’t depict Van Gogh as outright Gay (and the biographical evidence doesn’t suggest he was), the film really revolves around the two closest relationships of his life, both with men and the sort of things that would be called “bromances” today. One was with his actual brother Theo (James Donald, giving the sort of marvelously understated performance we often get from British actors; if anyone in the supporting cast deserved an Oscar, it was he, not Quinn! — and intriguingly, when the soundtrack gives us the “Dear Theo” letters that are the primary source for Van Gogh’s life, we hear Donald’s voice, not Douglas’s, reading them), on whom he relied for financial support as well as what little promotion his art got to potential buyers. The other is with Gauguin, and the depiction of their time together in Arles shows them as a bitchy Gay couple with virtually diametrically opposed views on how to paint and how to live — Van Gogh still dreams of a committed relationship with a woman whole Gauguin’s attitude towards women is about picking pretty and dumb ones and exploiting them sexually, more like the stereotype of a Gay man than any way straight men are expected to behave — who get increasingly on each other’s nerves until they finally part. Van Gogh’s biographers insist that the infamous incident in which the painter cut off part of his ear was over a breakup with a prostitute he’d been dating (non-professionally — such a relationship is depicted in the film, but considerably earlier), but in Corwin’s script it’s the final quarrel with Gauguin that precipitates it. (In Michael Douglas’s TCM interview, he recalls seeing an early screening of Lust for Life and freaking out over this scene, even though in the tactful way of a Code-era movie we’re spared any shots of bloodletting or gore; Kirk Douglas had to show his son both sides of his face to assure him that, whatever he’d seen on screen, in real life both his ears were still on his face where nature put them.)

Lust for Life may be compromised in some of the details — like the careful “planting” of hints about suicide in the early scenes (when Van Gogh as a would-be minister lectures his working-poor parishioners that suicide is a sin, Norman Corwin obviously means us to see that as ironic coming from one of the most famous suicides of all time) — but at base it’s a galvanic movie, filled with the energy and passion of its subject, a worthy portrayal of the thin line between genius and insanity, told with the grimness and exaltation its story deserves and convincing us not only that Kirk Douglas is Vincent Van Gogh, but that this individual could have lived no other way: his peculiar combination of artistic genius and utter lack of social skills — and his inability to compromise, which made him a great artist and a terrible person — set him up for precisely this fate. Another oddity of this movie, especially for one made in the socially content 1950’s, is the interesting streak of social comment in it; when Van Gogh, as an aspiring minister, gets sent to the poorest part of the Netherlands to preach to the coal miners and finds that nothing in the establishment Christianity he was taught to teach has anything to offer people living on the edge, he starts going down into the mines and ends up living in a hovel, which makes it seem like he’s going to become a self-consciously social artist doing paintings as political commentary (like Millet, whom in the course of their arguments Van Gogh idolizes and Gauguin excoriates) until his arrival in France in the middle of the Impressionist revolution turns his art into a very different direction. Charles told me he’s seen Van Gogh’s paintings in the Rijksmuseum and nothing you’ve seen of them in reproductions prepares you for the real thing — especially the almost three-dimensional effect created by his famous impasto style, the thicknesses of paint he applied to his canvases (and though Kirk Douglas looks relatively convincing in the scenes in which he’s actually shown painting, he’s not seen applying paint directly from the tube without a brush, one of the real Van Gogh’s trademarks) — and he seemed as impressed by the movie as I was!