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 likes 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 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 penchant 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 a 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 there that he became “Vincente.”
MGM’s Head of Musical production Arthur Freed discovered Minnelli on Broadway and brought him to Hollywood to design dance numbers for the studio’s 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 a homo. Hollywood was different, and Minnelli felt the necessity of a life in the closet to work in the movie industry. He made a decision to deal with his homosexuality by living as a supposed bisexual.
While directing The Pirate (1948), his wife, Judy Garland, accused Minnelli of being in love with her co-star Gene Kelly, and favoring the best shots for him over her. Garland threatened suicide when she caught him having affairs with men. Although during their marriage, Garland had assignations of her own. Monogamy was not a foundation of their union.
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 first film as director was the stylish, innovative All-Black musical Cabin In The Sky (1943).
Meet Me in St. Louis is a musical tour de force and a milestone in American filmmaking. It is a textured, rich look at turn-of-the-century America nostalgically longed for by a USA 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 Garland her first real adult role. It also led to the star’s marriage to her director from 1945-1951, and the birth of their daughter Liza.
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 ambiguities without ever using the word “homosexual”. A story of a sensitive 17 year old boy with disinterest in sports and girls who is called a “sister-boy” at the college he is attending. The head-master’s wife sees the student’s suffering at the hands of his classmates and her husband and attempts to “cure” him. John Kerr, the young actor who played the student in both the stage production, for which he won a Tony Award, and film version of this play, also played the shirtless Lt. Cable 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.
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 who 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, retiring 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, 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”. 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.