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