February 28, 1903– Vincente Minnelli:
“I always have coffee without sugar, you know. Just cream.”
The life of Vincente Minnelli, the director of classic MGM musicals such as Meet Me In St. Louis (1944), Gigi (1958), and An American In Paris (1951) was as peculiar as the surreal dream ballets that became his film trademark.
Born Lester Anthony Minnelli, he grew up as the only child in a family of traveling performers in the Midwest. His mother, Mina Mary LaLouche LeBeau, played ingénue roles in stock melodramas, while his father, Vincent, conducted the Minnelli Brothers Tent Theater Orchestra.
As a teenager, shy, stammering Minnelli had a thing for trying on his mother’s clothes. He read a biography of the flamboyant painter James McNeill Whistler and decided to reinvent himself in the role of the worldly aesthete. He found work as a window dresser in Chicago before making his name as the designer of lavish theatrical sets and costumes for Broadway shows. It was in NYC that he became “Vincente”.
MGM’s Head of Musical Production, Arthur Freed, discovered Minnelli’s work on Broadway and brought him to Hollywood to design dance numbers for the studio’s popular musical films.
As much as it was possible in his era, Minnelli had lived as an openly gay man in NYC prior to his arrival in Hollywood. He hung out with the Algonquin Round Table Circle, and the Gershwin Brothers, and no one cared that he was queer. Yet, Hollywood was different, and Minnelli felt necessary to live his life in the closet in order to work in the film industry. He made a decision to deal with his homosexuality by living as a supposed bisexual.
Minnelli did design work and staged musical numbers in MGM films, including Strike Up The Band (1940) and Babes On Broadway (1941) starring Garland and Mickey Rooney, before being allowed to direct his own movies. His first film as director was the stylish, innovative All-Black musical Cabin In The Sky (1943).
His masterpiece is Meet Me in St. Louis. It is a musical tour de force and a milestone in American filmmaking. Meet Me In St. Louis is a textured, rich look at a turn-of-the-century America nostalgically longed for by a country in the middle of WW II. It is also a showcase for Minnelli’s flamboyant camera techniques and his powerful use of color. The film also gave Judy Garland her first real adult role. It also led to Garland’s marriage to her director and the birth of their daughter Liza with a Z.
While directing them in The Pirate (1948), Garland accused Minnelli of being in love with her co-star Gene Kelly, and favoring the best shots for him and his luscious ass over her. Garland threatened suicide when she finally caught him having an affair with a man. Although, during their marriage, Garland had assignations of her own. Monogamy was not the foundation of their union.
Minnelli’s gayness is best expressed by his female characters. I know; this is a cliche attached to male gay artists, but in Minnelli’s case it is true.
In Minnelli’s film version of Robert Anderson’s stage play about masculinity and homophobia, Tea And Sympathy (1956), he circumnavigated around the restrictions of the Motion Picture Association Of America production code to recreate the play’s coded ambiguities without ever using the word “homosexual”. It seems rather creaky today, but it’s the story of a sensitive 17-year-old boy with no real interest in sports or girls who is called a “sister-boy” at the college he is attending. The headmaster’s wife sees the student’s suffering because of the taunts and threats of his classmates and her own husband, so she attempts to “cure” him. John Kerr, the young actor who played the student in both the film and stage production, for which he won a Tony Award, also played the shirtless Lt. Cable in the film version of South Pacific (1958), which has nothing to do with this story, except that it was directed by Joshua Logan, also a closet case. Kerr also appears in Minnelli’s best melodrama, The Cobweb (1955).
Minnelli skirts around the issue with Jack Cole’s choreographer character in the comedy Designing Woman (1957) who, in one scene, displays an accordion of family wallet-pictures to prove his straightness to Gregory Peck. In real life, Cole was indeed gay; he choreographed one of the gayest sequences in film history, Ain’t There Anyone Here for Love? for Gentleman Prefer Blonds (1953), which should have been directed by Minnelli, but was instead done by super-butch Howard Hawks.
Minnelli received an Academy Award nomination as Best Director for An American In Paris and later won the Best Director Oscar for Gigi. The Minnelli family is rather unique, with father, mother and daughter all winning Academy Awards. Who else did that? The Huston family, Grandfather Walter, son John and daughter Anjelica, all have Oscars. Also, the Coppola family: grandfather Carmine, son Francis Ford, and daughter Sofia, all had Academy Award statues. Can you think of others?
Minnelli had a reputation as a fearsome perfectionist, despite his passive personality. His attention to artistic detail was acute, often including a specific shade of yellow on his sets that required special mixing; the MGM scenic painters nicknamed it “Minnelli Yellow”.
He had real range as a director: Musicals, Family Dramas, Melodramas, Film Noir, fanciful Comedies, he handled all sorts of stories with sensitivity and scope, directing an impressive number of classics. Among my favorites: The Bad And The Beautiful (1952), The Bandwagon (1953), Some Came Running (1958), Home From The Hill (1960), The Clock (1945), Father Of The Bride (1950) and the even better sequel Father’s Little Dividend (1951), Lust For Life (1956), Bells Are Ringing (1960), The Courtship Of Eddie’s Father (1963), and the supremely demented and suitably surreal On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), with Barbra Streisand, a project with a targeted gay audience. He directed seven actors to Oscar wins: including Spencer Tracy, Gloria Grahame, Kirk Douglas and Shirley MacLaine.
He was the ideal director for the traditional studio system, equally at ease with all kinds of genres, made with dependable expertise and a dash of stylish pretension. Minnelli made some of the most purely entertaining films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, along with a handful of real stinkers; A Matter Of Time (1976), Yolanda And The Thief (1945), and I Dood It (1943).
A gay guy, with a penchant for chorus boys and hustlers, Minnelli had been known to sport “light makeup” in public. Still, he married four times, most famously to Garland, who married gay men twice more, and he fathered two daughters, including the perpetually self-reinventing, always fabulous Liza, who also married a couple of gay men herself.
Minnelli’s final credits rolled in 1986, taken by Alzheimer’s at 83-years-old.