Book Review: 'Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood's Dark Dreamer' by Emanuel Levy

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By Louis Bayard
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, April 21, 2009

VINCENTE MINNELLI

Hollywood's Dark Dreamer

By Emanuel Levy

St. Martin's. 448 pp. $37.95

His facial features, at least, live on: The large, staring brown eyes; the plump lower lip; the retreating chin . . . all can be seen very clearly in his daughter, Liza, even as she now concertizes her own survival.

As for Vincente Minnelli's feature films, they live on, too. A passel of classic musicals ("Meet Me in St. Louis," "An American in Paris," "The Band Wagon," "Gigi"), a chewy Hollywood exposé ("The Bad and the Beautiful"), a deeply felt life of van Gogh ("Lust for Life"), a much-imitated family comedy ("Father of the Bride"). And, even in his lesser pictures, moments that astonish: the famous waltz sequence in "Madame Bovary," for example, which conveys Emma's erotic fever entirely through music and movement and which climaxes to the sound of chairs, flung through windows as punctually as cymbals.

Baz Luhrmann has spent his whole career trying to make a sequence as good as that, and a YouTube browser could spend a whole day finding Minnelli moments equally rich. Why, then, are there still question marks around his legacy? Perhaps because his favored genres are the sort to draw scorn from aesthetes. Perhaps, too, because of the homophobia that sometimes infects movie criticism. Minnelli was heterosexual on paper -- four marriages, two children -- but his gay liaisons were equally, if not more, numerous, and few of his intimates doubted his true orientation. Which may explain why words like "decorative" and "flamboyant" creep into discussions of Minnelli's work and why a faint disapproval hovers over his memory. A man who worries so much about flower arrangements and the drape of a woman's dress can't belly up to the bar with Ford and Hawks. So Emanuel Levy's biography must immediately take the form of a counterargument. "Much more than a stylist," Levy argues, Vincente Minnelli was "a film artist of the first rank," "a genuine auteur" whose work "bridged the gap between high art and popular culture."

Don't hate him, in short, because his movies are beautiful -- or because his whole life was dedicated to beauty. This spiritual urgency extended to his own birth name, Lester, which he discarded for a Latinized version of his father's name. One of Vincente's first jobs, fittingly, was dressing windows at Marshall Field, and his road to eminence took him straight through the Deco splendor of Radio City Music Hall, where he served as art director. From there, he was promoted to producer and then director, and by 1937 he had three shows running on Broadway and a roster of pals that included Lillian Hellman and the Gershwins.

"Broadway's wunderkind" was closing in on 40 by the time he made it to Hollywood, and for a few years no one knew what to do with him. Minnelli's first real assignment was helming the all-black musical "Cabin in the Sky" (1943), featuring Ethel Waters and Lena Horne, where he acquitted himself so well that MGM gave him the combined gift of "Meet Me in St. Louis" and reigning singing star Judy Garland. Director and actress formed an improbable and ultimately doomed union, but they both survived its dissolution, and Minnelli remained a moviemaking force through the 1950s, eventually winning an Oscar for "Gigi." (He had a particular forte for melodrama -- forged, perhaps, in the caldron that was Judy.)

What he couldn't survive, in the end, was the collapse of the studio system, and we can see in retrospect how much he relied on MGM's corporate expertise for his effects. We can see, too, how specific those effects are to him. The swirling camera, the gorgeously orchestrated color, the teeming foregrounds and backgrounds: No one had a gift for imagery quite like Minnelli's.

Ideally, then, any biographer should have a comparable gift for language. This one, to put it charitably, does not. The prose is clammy and awkward ("Minnelli's elaborate mise-en-scène struggled hard but ultimately didn't succeed to elevate the form to new stylization.") when it's not downright ungrammatical. Time and again, Levy repeats his observations, sometimes word for word, and his almost dadaist sense of continuity produces choice non sequiturs: "Although they had their friends and the theater world to distract them, the Minnellis still found time to grow more intimate together. Minnelli would say that, like everyone else, they were awed by the dropping of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima."

There is still reason to be grateful for Levy's book. For one thing, it's the only full-length biography of Minnelli we're likely to get. Levy is a close observer of the films in question, and while his judgments rarely stray from the conventional ("It's useful to think about 'Lust for Life' as an intense melodramatic biopic"), he does afford some insight into the work's complexity. "Minnelli's richest and most complex narratives," he points out, "either defy or simply cannot contain the whole filmic system." The result is a series of "spectacles that go beyond the nominal stories."

Nominal indeed. Consider the extraordinary Halloween sequence from "Meet Me in St. Louis." Not much happens -- the youngest Smith daughter, Tootie, works up the courage to throw flour into a neighbor's face -- yet in Minnelli's hands it becomes a child's garden of horror. "I killed him!" shrieks little Margaret O'Brien. She hasn't, of course, but the terror of her act, of her self-understanding, is almost more than the movie can accommodate. And by now, who cares that the plot isn't being advanced? (There isn't any to begin with.) We have tasted something rich and strange, and it is precisely Minnelli's "weakness" as a storyteller -- his predilection for moments over narratives -- that brought us here. More than any other director, I think, Minnelli's deficiencies are impossible to disentangle from his strengths. He is a perpetually hung jury.

Bayard's most recent novel is "Black Tower."


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