In Other wOrds

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

A Hun­dred or More Hid­den Things: The Life and Films of Vin­cente Min­nelli As a child, the fu­ture film di­rec­tor Vin­cente (born Lester) Min­nelli gazed into the mir­ror and said, “Here you are, nine years old, and what have you done? You’re noth­ing … noth­ing but a fail­ure” — hardly the stuff of child­hood fairy tales. Young Min­nelli used his twin mo­tors of per­fec­tion­ism and am­bi­tion to fuel an iconic ca­reer. He was blessed with artis­tic pre­coc­ity (“He’d go to the black­board and draw pic­tures. ... They were just per­fect,” re­mem­bers a school­mate), but it was his gifted eye rather than his hand that pro­pelled him from a small town in Delaware, Ohio, to a ca­reer in Chicago (first as a win­dow dresser for Mar­shall Field’s depart­ment store, and then as a so­ci­ety and celebrity por­trait pho­tog­ra­pher, and, fi­nally, as “Cre­ator of Cos­tumes” and scenic de­sign for a ma­jor theater chain, pro­duc­ing stage spec­tac­u­lars in tan­dem with movies). An ac­quain­tance at that time re­calls that Min­nelli was “in­sep­a­ra­ble from his work, and who is so will­ing to sac­ri­fice ev­ery­thing — amuse­ment, friends and self — to achieve his am­bi­tions.” Even when Min­nelli was un­clear about the di­rec­tion his ca­reer might take, he knew that the artis­tic so­phis­ti­ca­tion he craved would not be be­stowed on some­one with such a pro­saic name as Lester. Con­se­quently, he adopted his fa­ther’s first name, Vin­cent, and added an “e” — con­vinced that “‘Vin­cente Min­nelli’ said man of the world.” In his 1974 mem­oir, I Re­mem­ber It Well, Min­nelli wrote that he “yearned to be a par­tic­i­pant like [James McNeill] Whistler in­stead of a spec­ta­tor.” To that end, he left Chicago for a ca­reer in New York and, fi­nally, Hollywood, where he cre­ated some of the screen’s most strik­ing im­ages and mem­o­rable films — Meet Me in St. Louis, An Amer­i­can in Paris, The Band Wagon, The Bad and the Beau­ti­ful, and Gigi. It was while part of pro­ducer Arthur Freed’s au­ton­o­mous “Freed Unit” at MGM — along with Fred As­taire, Judy Gar­land, Roger Edens, and Gene Kelly, among oth­ers — that he di­rected his daz­zling mu­si­cals in the ’40s and ’50s.

The ti­tle of Mark Grif­fin’s bi­og­ra­phy springs from Min­nelli’s as­ser­tion that “a pic­ture that stays with you is made up of a hun­dred or more hid­den things.” In this new ex­am­i­na­tion of the film di­rec­tor, Grif­fin jug­gles twin themes — the un­der­ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Min­nelli’s cin­e­matic achieve­ments and the di­rec­tor’s al­leged ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity (he did make time for four mar­riages to re­mark­able and beau­ti­ful women, in­clud­ing Gar­land). Cit­ing Min­nelli (“My work, which, in the fi­nal anal­y­sis, is the story of my life”), Grif­fin con­tends that de­spite “the con­straints of the stu­dio sys­tem [Min­nelli] some­how man­aged to sneak au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal el­e­ments into his films ... buried-trea­sure style” and that just as “a Min­nelli [film] char­ac­ter is al­most al­ways a dweller on two plan­ets … not only dis­placed but split right down the mid­dle,” so, too was Min­nelli. Grif­fin’s de­sire to un­cover the “hid­den” Min­nelli, par­tic­u­larly in terms of the man’s sex­ual predilec­tions, is not as en­gag­ing as the bi­og­ra­pher’s ex­am­i­na­tion of Min­nelli’s films. It is fas­ci­nat­ing to learn of Min­nelli’s quandary over the stu­dios’ ten­dency to pi­geon­hole film­mak­ers: “There must be some way for the movies to use my small but ex­quis­ite tal­ent with­out la­bel­ing me as a de­signer or as a di­rec­tor.” Min­nelli’s films serve as a tes­ta­ment to his ex­tra­or­di­nary tal­ent. At Min­nelli’s fu­neral in 1986, Kirk Dou­glas con­ceded that “he was a man of mys­tery; the mys­tery un­folds in his work, in the vivid mem­o­ries he has given the world for gen­er­a­tions to come.”

— Natalie Mosco

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