Looking at his competition, I’m sure Douglas thought he would win. James Dean and Rock Hudson would likely split the vote for “Giant”, and two actors reprising their stage triumphs, Laurence Olivier for “Richard III” and Yul Brynner for “The King and I”, were the remaining contenders.
According to Kirk Douglas’ wonderful biography “The Ragman’s Son” (Simon & Schuster, 1988), everyone told him he was a shoo-in and the third time would be the charm, after losing Best Actor Oscar bids for “Champion” (1949) and “The Bad and the Beautiful” (1952).
But Douglas was in Germany shooting “Paths of Glory” (1957) when he learned that he lost to Yul Brynner. Sure, Brynner is great fun to watch, and it’s probably the ultimate Yul Brynner performance, but I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that it didn’t hurt that he starred in the biggest hit of the year, “The Ten Commandments.”
Always one of the most physical of actors, Douglas brings his trademark intensity to the role while still expressing van Gogh’s inner pain. His body appears to shrink before our eyes as he faces one crushing disappointment after another, and his encroaching mental illness becomes too much for him to bear.
Some accuse Douglas of overacting in this film, but I don’t think so. Van Gogh was hardly the shrinking violet type. Just look at his paintings and see how alive and vibrant they are. Whether he was a preacher valiantly struggling to bring the Word of God to a poverty-stricken coal mining village, or falling in love with his first cousin Kay, and later a prostitute, van Gogh did nothing in half measures.
An intense, brilliant and haunting soul, van Gogh felt his emotions much deeper than anyone around him. Douglas is splendid in showing the inner torment and expressing the joy of creation, but not sugarcoating the character. Like many artists, van Gogh seemed to operate on a different plane.
In his autobiography, Douglas writes, “Playing Vincent van Gogh shook up my theory about what acting is all about. To me, acting is all about creating an illusion, showing tremendous discipline, not losing yourself in the character that you’re portraying…but I was close to getting lost in the character of van Gogh… I fled myself going over the line, into the skin of van Gogh. It was a frightening experience. The memory makes me wince. I could never play that part again. For a long time after I finished the movie, I didn’t see the picture.”
Douglas did some of his best work under the direction of Vincente Minnelli and “Lust for Life” and “The Bad and the Beautiful” are two of the best films in the actor’s (and director’s) careers.
In a recent post on “Brigadoon” (1954), I wrote of Minnelli’s initial disappointment at not being able to shoot on location in Scotland, instead re-creating the Scottish village on the M-G-M soundstages.
No disappointments on “Lust for Life”, as Minnelli and Company were able to film not only in Europe, but in the actual locations where van Gogh lived and painted.
Of course with Minnelli directing, I don’t have to mention how gorgeous the film looks. I especially liked watching the re-creations of country life and still portraits, with van Gogh in the foreground recreating them on canvas. This is followed by a slow fade until we see the final product, backed by the dramatic music of Miklos Rozsa.
“Lust for Life” was nominated in the Color Art Direction category but lost to “The King and I.” No doubt, Oscar voters thought Minnelli just used the locations that were already there.
An Adapted Screenplay nomination was awarded to Norman Corwin for his adaptation of Irving Stone’s best-selling (and immensely readable) 1934 novel. Corwin lost to the screenwriting team, which included S.J. Perelman, who adapted Jules Verne’s “Around the World in 80 Days.”
“Lust for Life” wasn’t left totally bereft at that year’s Oscar ceremony. Anthony Quinn won his second Best Supporting Actor Oscar as van Gogh’s friend Paul Gauguin. He’s not in the film that much, but when he’s there he’s brilliant. Quinn was also a magnificent physical actor and uses his body well.
For example, there’s a scene Quinn plays with no dialogue, when Gauguin is looking at van Gogh’s paintings and we see across his face equal parts admiration, envy and awe at what he’s seeing. It’s a marvelous scene and beautifully played by Quinn.
Quinn’s competition that year was Mickey Rooney in “The Bold and the Brave”, Don Murray in “Bus Stop”, Anthony Perkins in “Friendly Persuasion” and Robert Stack in “Written on the Wind.”
I think the Academy made the right choice. Quinn may not be on-screen as much as the other nominees, but he makes every scene count when he is there. The final argument scene between Gauguin and van Gogh is unbearably painful to watch. Douglas is equally magnificent in these scenes as he sees his friendship with Gauguin dissipate due to his own fierce stubbornness and encroaching mental illness.
I remember reading an interview with Robert Stack years later and he was still bemoaning losing to Anthony Quinn. No doubt rubbing salt in his wound was that his “Written on the Wind” co-star, Dorothy Malone, took the Best Supporting Actress Oscar that year for her work in that film.
Helping the movie immeasurably is the beautiful score by Miklos Rozsa. Rozsa has great fondness for the movie and writes in his autobiography “A Double Life” (Hippocrene Books, 1982) about the immense pleasure he had in writing the score.
Arguably the most cultured of the Golden Age composers, Rozsa describes how impressed he was with the film, the first cut of which was three hours. M-G-M knew they couldn’t sell a three hour film about a suicidal painter and cut it down to a more manageable two hours. Rozsa said that three hour cut was a thing of beauty and he responded with one of his best scores. He took special care with this assignment.
Rozsa writes about his approach to musically illustrating van Gogh’s life: “He was a post-impressionist, but post-impressionism in music comes much later than van Gogh’s death at the end of the nineteenth century: pictoral trends are always between 25 and 40 years ahead. The music he himself knew would have been that of the 1880s – Wagner, Liszt, Cesar Franck – but I felt that mid-19th century romanticism has little in common with his work. Somehow I had to evolve a suitable style in terms of my own music. It had to be somewhat impressionistic, somewhat pointillistic, somewhat post-romantic and brightly, even startlingly colorful, much like the tenor of his paintings.”
We see many of van Gogh’s paintings throughout the movie but in the final scene the camera pulls back and we see a wall filled with those magnificent van Gogh canvases. Art museums and private collectors from around the world, including Edward G. Robinson and director Charles Vidor, donated their paintings to use in the film, and that final scene with all those paintings on display is literally breathtaking.
Kirk Douglas is this month’s Star of the Month on TCM. They will be airing “Lust for Life” on Tuesday, September 20 at 8:00 EST.