and HIS MOVIES
Director Vincente Minnelli chats with his daughter Liza, left, and Ingrid Bergman, who co-starred with Liza in Minnelli's final film as a director. "A Matter of Time."
Altogether, the three had won five Oscars--one each for the Minnelli's and three for Bergman.
In June of 1979, Jim Bawden arranged and conducted a private one-on-one interview with film director Vincente Minnelli. Bawden was at that time the TV columnist for The Toronto Star. He now
revisits that interview in a four-part series for us, giving us rare
insight into the thinking of the great director who died in 1986.
By JIM BAWDEN
After the six Oscars for "An American in Paris" (1951), which many critics proclaimed the greatest-ever American musical, and the showers of praise for his dramatic film "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952) and his grand musical "The Band Wagon" (1953), Vincente Minnelli had every reason to believe his touch as a director had turned golden.
So, from the outside, it may have seemed he was poised to strike gold once more with his next project, "Brigadoon," a musical fantasy about a mythical Scottish village that reappears every 100 years. Even better, his stars were the great Gene Kelly of "An American in Paris" and Cyd Charisse from "The Band Wagon."
The poster for MGM's
"Brigadoon," a film Minnelli
was deeply disappointed in
for a variety of reasons.
But, from the inside, Minnelli wasn't all that enthused about the new project. He was terribly disappointed that studio economies forced the movie to be filmed almost entirely on soundstages, giving the whole thing an artificial look.
Initially there was talk of shooting in Scotland, which would have made the picture something else," Minnelli recalled. "But MGM wasnt the same and everything had to be tightly budgeted. When I look at this picture today I merely see all those painted
Cycloramas and, yes, they are executed nicely, but theyre still stagey. With Cinemascope, everything was deliberately artificial whereas Gene thought of it as a big outdoor epic."
Gene Kelly also felt his high tenor voice wasn't appropriate for most of the songs he had to sing in "Brigadoon." Minnelli agreed, but Kelly refused to be dubbed by another singer.
"People remember the dances, which I thought were fine," said Minnelli, "But to me it was a disappointment...the last time I worked with Gene.
From the letdown of "Brigadoon," Minnelli turned to a trio of dramas: "The Cobweb" (1955), which takes place in a mental hospital; "Lust For Life" (1956), based on Irving Stone's biography of Vincent Van Gogh, and a screen version of Robert Anderson's controversial Broadway play "Tea and Sympathy" (1956).
Minnelli laughed nervously when I asked about "The Cobweb."
Its one of my favorite pictures," he said. "Should I admit that? When the script was first presented to me, I recognized it immediately as the old one about the inmates being sane and the personnel being the crazy ones. In fact, it was Charles Boyer who told me it was virtually the same story as a 1935 picture hed made called 'Private Worlds.' The whole MGM board of directors was against us on this one but Id had a nice streak and got my own way."
MInnelli conceded the first mistake with "The Cobweb" was filming it in color, which he felt "always prettifies-up a story." Casting was the next pitfall. Minnelli wanted Robert Taylor, Lana Turner and Grace Kelly for the three leading roles.
My dream cast melted right away," Minnelli said. "Bob said he couldnt understand it and went on to yet another western while Lana said she was used to taking men from other women, not the reverse. Grace was getting ready to marry and had to drop some of her projects. People didnt know quite what to make of it. I certainly didnt!"
Censors demanded lots of changes in the sex-drenched storyline and author William Gibson was forced to rewrite many scenes repeatedly. Meanwhile, Minnelli realized his ultimate cast choices were not names who would create long lines at the box office.
Dick Widmark was wonderful as the head (of the clinic) but audiences were used to seeing him as the heavy," Minnelli said. "Betty Bacall as the art therapist complained about the chaste nature of her romance. The confused boy played by John Kerr (in his film debut) was going to be Jimmy Dean, who wanted to do it until he became a very expensive star after 'Rebel Without A Cause.' (Dean also was killed in a highway accident that year,) Acting honors went to Lillian Gish and Charles Boyer, those two really went at it."
"The Cobweb" was not well-received by critics and didn't do much business, as Minnelli expected.
Before tackling the next drama, Minnelli then made "Kismet" (1955) rather too hurriedly, I admit. I thought it was just kitsch and refused the assignment. But Dore Shary said either I did it or Id miss the next assignment, 'Lust For Life.' which I truly ached to do. I now must apologize to the 'Kismet' cast. My heart wasnt in it and it shows in every scene. The numbers just dawdle on and in some cases the actors go overboard. My direction wasnt apparent."
Minnelli said he went from his worst ever musical to his favorite film. It took but a few days after 'Kismet' was finished before Minnelli was in Europe beginning preproduction on the Vincent Van Gogh biography.
Minnelli's favorite of his films
was "Lust for Life," in which
Kirk Douglas played artist
Vincent Van Gogh.
It was one I asked to do," said Minnelli, "and it was the first time I was permitted to film on actual locations. And, yes, I did identify with the painter, his loneliness during working, his compulsiveness, his temperament. Did you know MGM had purchased Irving Stones book in 1946 and it went through a dozen treatments? Dalton Trumbo told me he did one and Arthur Freed joked he had a basketful of rejected scripts. The final one was by (the great writer from radio) Norman Corwin. He went back to original sources and dropped all the corny stuff Stone had added so the book would sell. So Van Gogh had no sweetheart, everything was as it really happened.
"Far more serious was Metros refusal to use Technicolor. Instead they used Ansco color, which looked muddy to me. My inspiration was John Hustons 'Moulin Rouge.' I wanted to shoot as much in original places and so we went to coal mines, to Dutch and Belgian countryside and to Provence and everywhere (cinematographer) Freddie Young got striking shots. Trouble was he couldnt do the backlot stuff because of union restrictions."
"Lust For Life" was a box office success and Anthony Quinn, who played Van Gogh's friend, artist Paul Gauguin, won the Oscar for best supporting actor of 1956. Kirk Douglas was nominated for Best Actor and nominations also went to screenwriter Norman Corwin and the art direction/set decoraton team led by Cedric Gibbons.
Minnelli felt he got too enthusiastic about 1956s "Tea And Sympathy" after seeing the Broadway play that was powerfully directed by Elia Kazan. The play was widely interpreted as being about a young man struggling with his belief that he might be homosexual--a subject American movies hadn't seriously addressed before.
But that was before the censors got to it," Minnelli explained. "They had page after page of objections. Bob Anderson (who adapted his own play) went slightly crazy trying to write around the subject. I felt they took very sensitive material and made it seem slightly dirty. Audiences literally left previews scratching heads; 'What was this all about anyway?' And there was the problem of aging. John Kerr could get away with looking 17 from a distance but not in movie close-ups. I thought the atmosphere of a college town well established on the backlot and to everybodys surprise it made some money. You see, the word had gotten out. Audiences thought they were going to see a very wicked story which it most definitely was not.
From "Tea and Sympathy," Minnelli went on to a comedy--"Designing Woman"--for 1957. He said the film originated as a suggestion by costume designer Helen Rose and we went from there.
"I never saw it as a remake of 'Woman of the Year,' but now I spot the similarities. It was set up for Grace Kelly. With her gone, Jimmy Stewart left. This was only one of two comedies made by Greg Peck and I think he was relaxed as can be. It was also the last picture personally produced by Dore Schary. Did you know he had set Cyd Charisse as the bad girl but she was tied up on 'Silk Stockings.'
From that unmemorable film, Minnelli went next to perhaps his most famous films--the original screen musical written by Broadway's hottest musical team, Lerner & Loewe--"Gigi," adapted from the novella by Colette about the careful grooming of a young French girl to be a courtesan.
The poster for "Gigi,"
the 1959 musical that earned
Minnelli his Oscar for direction
and a film now regarded as one
of Hollywood's all-time great
Minnelli sighed, I guess Gigi is my most famous picture and it remains one of my favorites. I'd seen the 1951 French film and bugged Arthur (Freed) to buy American rights. Then it became a wonderful Broadway play, rewritten by Anita Loos. In 1953, the stage production played Los Angeles with Audrey Hepburn in the lead and MGM became re-interested. By 1955, we had the rights and were making a musical of it.
"The Breen Office (censors) was horrified. The basic story had a grandmother training this child to be a courtesan--a prostitute to the Breen people. Audrey refused to do it because she thought she was too old. Maurice Chevalier was the first signed. He had actually known Colette (who wrote the original novella.) We shot key scenes at the real Maxim's--these were the first shots we made, in blazing heat in August when it was normally closed.''
Most of the outdoor scenes for "Gigi" were done in Paris.
"The ice skating was done in terrible heat,," Minnelli recalled. "With the traffic, crowds, noise, I still don't know how we did it.''
Cecil Beaton designed other sets back in Culver City. Minnelli says Louis Jourdan as Gaston, Gigi's mature lover, was a late addition.
"As the aunt I desperately wanted Irene Dunne, but she thought the material distasteful. Then she asked for first billing, which was impossible. Isabel Jeans replaced her.''
Leslie Caron was still under MGM contract, so she was an automatic choice to play young Gigi. But, said Minnelli, "she balked at first. She was 27 by then and didn't want to be 15 again.''
The preview was disastrous. Freed ordered a quarter of the picture reshot to speed up dialogue.
"It was completely redubbed," said Minnelli. "I felt it lacked necessary warmth.''
What Minnelli did not mention was MGM director Charles Walters had come in and redone key sequences, printing as many as 30 takes in a day.
Meanwhile, the original Lerner and Loewe score turned out to be extraordinary, producing many enduring songs, including "Thank Heaven For Little Girls," "The Night They Invented Champagne," "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore," "I Remember It Well" and the title tune. The film was a colossal hit.
"Gigi" won nine Oscars, including best picture of 1958, best director, cinematography (Joseph Ruttenberg), costume design, writing, scoring (Andre Previn) and best song (the title tune). Minnelli had directed his second best picture winner and at last had his own Academy Award.
"It was the most wonderful night for us," Minnelli recalled. "But it was the end. We knew no new musicals were being planned. We were a hit everywhere but in France, where they hated it.''
Said Minnelli: ``It was the last great MGM musical. It grossed over $13 million but Metro lost interest in musicals, except (for ones starring) Elvis Presley. They never did that well in foreign markets. MGM never even made a bid on 'My Fair Lady.' An era was over.''
Where do you go after an avalanche of awards like that? Well, for Minnelli, it was right into "Some Came Running," a melodrama based on the best-selling novel by James Jones, whose "From Here To Eternity" had become the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1953.
Frank Sinatra with
in "Some Came Running."
Minnelli felt "Some Came Running" (1958) was the best realized of his melodramas.
It was about small town life in Indiana," he said. "Id grown up in small cities like this one. At first there was tension between (leading man) Frank Sinatra and me,. He hated rehearsing and blew his stack the night we (filmed) the country fair scenes with the climactic shooting. Producer Sol Siegel had to be brought in and I showed Frank the scenes Id already shot. He was impressed and I rehearsed a scene with the other players. Hed look at it, study it and then come in. He even let me reshoot some bits. You see I was stretching him as an actor and he started to enjoy it.
"Shirley MacLaine I had to fight for. Shed been a pleasant ingenue up to then. I worked with her, prodded her, got a performance that was star-making. In the book its Franks character who gets shot. He insisted thered be more pathos if Shirley was killed and was right.
The following year brought another Minnelli comedy, "The Reluctant Debutante," based on a British stage hit with Rex Harrison and Kay Kendall, real life husband and wife.
But it was tinged with tragedy," Minnelli recalled. "Kay had leukemia and her fashion model thinness came with a deadly price. Some afternoons she was too weak to leave her dressing room. She thought it was anemia. Rex kept the truth from her or did he? I think she must have known and tried keeping the truth from him. It was a Noel Coward kind of thing, lots of witty lines and we had the hottest teen on the block, 14-year-old Sandra Dee, so precious and sweet right then."
Winning the 1958 Oscar as best director ought to have energized Minnelli. But the next decade would prove to be his weakest so far. He started out strongly with "Home From the Hill" (1959) and had high hopes for the project, provided Clark Gable took the lead.
Hed be perfect as Wade Hunnicutt or so I felt. A meeting was arranged very late at night in producer Edmund Graingers office. It was the first and only time Clark returned to MGM after being sacked in 1953. And he loved the part but in a delightfully egotistical way felt he was simply too young to play the father of both George Hamilton and George Peppard. You see, thats why wed already hired Ellie (Eleanor) Parker as the wife. She had worked with Gable. They had a history. Instead Gable chose (to do) a very weak comedy ("But Not For Me") and I had to get Bob Mitchum onboard. Bob was only 42 then, really too young as Wade but he certainly gave it a try. I loved doing the location scenes. We virtually choreographed the boar hunt. It has a rhythm to it.
In 1960 Minnelli made what would prove to be his last Metro musical, "Bells Are Ringing."
It was sort of a rest period for me," he said. "Everything was filmed on MGM soundstages after some pretty rough location work on 'Home From the Hill' I was tired out. I never assumed it was anything more than a Judy Holliday vehicle. She was among the most talented actresses Ive met, could do anything. And she had enjoyed Broadway success with it. We brought in Jean Stapleton (the future Edith Bunker of TV's "All in the Family") from the play, added Dean Martin and watched as it sank like a stone outside New York. Am I allowed to say (Holliday) was too urban to fit into middle America?"
Minnelli said he didnt know what to make of his next assignment, "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" (1961), a remake of the famous Rudolph Valentino silent film.
Metro was gripped by remake fever and they dragged this one out," said Minnelli. "Initially, I was enthusiastic. I proposed using young Horst Buccholtz and really examining this family from the inside. The studio insisted on Glenn Ford as box office backup. Excuse me, but Glenn is an all American actor. He was bewildered by this updated tale. I used every trick to get people interested, from surging crowds to battle scenes, but it was no go.
Just as disappointing was "Two Weeks In Another Town" (1962), another Hollywood story, based on an Irwin Shaw novel, that reunited many cast members from Minnelli's "The Bad and the Beautiful."
Minnelli said, I saw it as a study of European co-productions, so very popular right then. In a way it and 'The Bad and the Beautiful' were bookends. And we had some interesting characters. Kirk Douglas really wanted to play the broken down leading man who takes over production of a Rome-based film from an old, sick producer played to the hilt by Eddie (Edward G. ) Robinson. In fact, I got so interested in Eddie and his screaming scenes with Claire Trevor as his wife I think I neglected the main plot."
Minnelli saw "The Courtship of Eddies Father "(1963) and "Goodbye Charlie" (1964) as two light comedies he could quickly tackle and move on. And both made a bit of change," he said.
With "The Sandpiper" (1966), Minnellis said, "I was roped into this one because Liz Taylor begged me to do it. I saw through the script right away, It owed a lot to 'Night of the Iguana.' And there was the filming problem. Because of their tax situation, the Burtons (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) only had enough time to film the outdoor scenes at Malibu. The rest was done on French interiors. Audiences flocked to it because it, after all, was the Burtons.
About this time Minnelli should have moved on to "My Fair Lady" (1964).
Initial discussions with Jack Warner were very positive," he explained. "He was thinking out loud about the cast and was into using Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn and Jimmy Cagney. I wanted to really open it up but my manager stupidly demanded I get a percentage of the gross. So Jack went with (director) George Cukor, who did a lovely job.
Minnelli chuckled when his next musical, "On A Clear Day You Can See Forever" (1970), was mentioned.
Willie Wyler warned me about the ruckus Barbra Streisand would turn up. Well, she did ask a million and one questions but most of them were reasonable. She took direction nicely even if shed add her own interpretations. It was so wonderful working again with Cecil Beaton and Alan Jay Lerner. Most of Beatons Brighton Pier interiors went poof as I was ordered to cut almost an hour. Paramount didnt want all that looking back which was the whole purpose of the story. Some wonderful songs had to be cut including a duet with Jack Nicholson and Barbra that was a honey."
Minnellis last movie, "A Matter of Time" (1973), finally united him with daughter Liza.
I loved doing it," he said. "Liza sings beautifully. Ingrid Bergman was wonderful, Charles Boyer just as great as ever. It was made for American-International, which makes biker movies. They cut it back to 69 minutes and I disowned it. But some day all the pieces may be put back. Theres a good movie in there.
The afternoon and evening I spent with Minnelli included breaks for exquisite little sandwiches and coffee and a tour of his small but crammed studio, all decorated (of course) in white and yellow. He proudly showed off a silver coffee service from Streisand with the inscription, Youre the cream in my coffee. Opening one drawer he produced shelves of autographed photos and drawings for a proposed movie on Zelda Fitzgerald to star Liza. It never materialized.
Around 9 p.m. I hailed a taxi and was taken back to the Century City hotel, where I was staying. The phone was ringing as I entered my room. It was Minnelli's wife, Lee.
Vincente is still talking, she laughed. Hes sending over a present tomorrow morning."
It turned out to be rare behind the scenes stills from his own collection. And I did try to keep in touch with him through phone calls, but after a few years I finally realized he no longer remembered me.
Vincente Minnelli died in 1986 of heart problems without ever getting back to work. I feel hed be delighted his best work has stood the test of time and his reputation continues to increase. "Ziegfeld Follies," "Meet Me In St. Louis," "An American in Paris," "The Bad and the Beautiful" and "Gigi" are considered among the finest movies ever to come from the MGM glamour factory--and they remain a testament to him that should last forever.
©2009 by Jim Bawden. The photos are courtesy of MGM, except for "A Matter of Time," which is courtesy of American-International. This column first posted April 20, 2009.
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