Director Vincente Minnelli, the onetime art designer whose stylish and sophisticated movie musicals included the balletic "An American in Paris," the archly elegant "Gigi" and the lushly romantic "Brigadoon," died late Friday at his home in Los Angeles. His age was variously reported as 76 and 83.
His wife Lee said Minnelli, who had been hospitalized several times in the past year for pneumonia and emphysema, went to sleep after supper and never woke up.
His daughter, entertainer Liza Minnelli, whose mother was the singer Judy Garland, spent Thursday and Friday with her father before leaving on a flight to Paris, Mrs. Minnelli said.
Born in Chicago into a theatrical family -- the Minnelli Brothers Dramatic and Tent Shows -- Minnelli made his acting debut at age three. According to his 1974 autobiography, "I Remember It Well" (a reference to "Gigi," for which he won an Academy Award), he was a natural ham. In the book, he recounts how after a particularly moving scene in "East Lynne," he sat up and reassured his actress mother, "I'm not dead. I was acting!"
His love of design became apparent almost as early. Still in his teens, he became a display designer for Marshall Field, turned to society photography, theatrical costume design and eventually moved to Broadway in 1931 as a set designer.
Soon after he became the art director of Radio City Music Hall, where he designed and produced a new show every week. He became a member of the innovative, jazzy Gershwin/Oscar Levant circle and produced extravaganza-style sets for Florenz Ziegfeld and Josephine Baker before moving to Hollywood and directing movie musical numbers for Lena Horne.
He directed his first full-length movie in 1942 -- the groundbreaking, all-black "Cabin in the Sky," starring Horne, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
One of his earliest films, the 1944 "Meet Me in St. Louis," was an extraordinary hit. It featured Judy Garland, Mary Astor and a very young Margaret O'Brien, who was supposed to cry in a scene about a snowman. Finally Minnelli had to resort to a rather cruel stratagem: He told O'Brien that her dog had just died, and then kept the cameras rolling with the tears.
In keeping with his early dabblings, a number of Minnelli's films played off other artistic media: "An American in Paris" was inspired by a Gershwin composition; "The Pirate" was about a actor who specializes in swashbuckler roles; "Gigi" features a promenade scene inspired by Renoir and a cafe scene reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec; and even "Lust for Life," the biography of painter Vincent Van Gogh.
He and Garland were divorced in 1951. His second and third marriages also ended in divorce.