Monday, September 12, 2011

Lust for Life

Kirk Douglas should have won Best Oscar in 1956 for his portrayal as Vincent van Gogh in “Lust for Life.” It’s a stunning performance, and arguably his best.

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.


Caftan Woman said...

It's very interesting to read of Kirk's reaction to the role. It is also almost too painful for the viewer in its truthfulness. Truly, a magnificent performance.

A very interesting article, and I appreciate the heads up on the TCM schedule. I must pay particular attention to Rosza's score, keeping in mind his goal.

The Lady Eve said...

Kevin - Your post has gotten me interested in reading Kirk Douglas's autobiography - and in seeing "Lust for Life" again, particularly to hear Rosza's musical interpretation of Van Gogh's style.

Lately the Don McLean song "Vincent" has been running through my mind from time to time. A beautiful, haunting reflection on Van Gogh. I can't imagine what Douglas must've gone through when he went into character - such a tortured man. Impossible to believe Van Gogh couldn't sell his work in his lifetime - but it's now valued in the millions, one painting valued at $150 million +. At least Picasso had the satisfaction of making money with his art in his lifetime...

I'll be watching or recording "Lust for Life" when it airs next week. Thanks, Kevin.

Kevin Deany said...

CW. and LE: The Rozsa score is a marvel, but what's even better is the suite he extracted from the score.

I'll have to hunt down the Don McLean song to give it a listen. Watching "Lust for Life" compelled me to go to the library to check out a book of his art.

And what art it is! Talk about an artist suffering for his art. But the movie doesn't whitewash his character, and you get the impression that, no matter what a great artist he was, he would have been next to impossible to live with.

R. D. Finch said...

Kevin, I entirely share your enthusiasm for this movie. Douglas certainly should have gotten the Oscar for best actor. (He did at least get the best actor award from the NY Film Critics group.) He looks so uncannily like Van Gogh that this is surely one of those instances where an actor was born to play a particular person. And I found his performance quite controlled for him. When Douglas chews the scenery, there is no mistaking it! The movie is built around his performance, but for me everything about it is perfect. I get the clear impression that for Minnelli this was a labor of love. The beginning parts of the movie that take place in Holland and northern Europe look and seem completely different in style from the rest of the movie, which takes place in Provence--in tone as distinct as "The Potato Eaters" is from the Provencal paintings. Not long after the last time I saw this movie, I read a review of a new biography of Van Gogh which started with a thumbnail review of his life. It could have been a synopsis of this movie. This is the first I've heard of a three-hour long version, and I can only dream that someone will find the complete version and restore it. Even with all those Oscars the picture lost, to me an equally great injustice is that the film was not even nominated for best color cinematography. Just the illustrations from your post prove it should have been recognized for its astounding visual achievements.

Kevin Deany said...

R.D., the movie does seem a real labor of love from Minnelli doesn't it? If memory serves M-G-M requested he direct "Kismet" as a condition for directing "Lust for Life". He was busy on pre-production for the van Gogh movie while directing "Kismet" (and with great disinterest on his part.)

And it shows. "Kismet" may be my least favorite M-G-M musical of all time. It's duller than dirt apart from a couple of sensational dance numbers.

I thought my reaction to the film would improve after finally seeing it wide screen but it didn't help. I still didn't like it. But if "Kismet" allowed for "Lust for Life" to be made, then I'm glad to have "Kismet". (Talk about damning with faint praise!)

It is a shame about the non-nomination for Color Cinematography wasn't it, and I thank you for pointing that out.

ClassicBecky said...

Excellent assessment of a favorite movie of mine, Kevin! Douglas was perfect, not only resembling Van Gogh,but bravely playing the role with the painful intensity which Van Gogh always did display. He had so much trouble with people because of his great neediness and openly displayed emptions. I loved Brynner in King and I, but as far as acting, to me it was between Olivier and Douglas. It would have been hard to pick between those two, which highlights the quality of Douglas' performance, since I believe Olivier also gave a tour de force performance in Richard III. I think your opinion of why Brynner won was spot on.

Anthony Quinn certainly made a specialty of winning Oscars for roles that had less than an actual 10 minutes or so of screen time. He also won for a similar, almost cameo-type role in Viva Zapata. But he deserved it -- his Gaugin was so powerful it was like being slapped in the face when he became angry or intense. I liked the way you picked up on his envy in that scene -- it was brilliant the way all those emotions washed across his face without words. I still have to laugh and shudder when Gaugin says in the brothel that he likes his women "fat, vicious and not too smart." Gaugin was not know for sticking with friends or family (he left his own family behind to pursue painting), so it was really no surprise that he did not stick by his mentally ill friend and just took off.

Rosza's score is everything you said. I have always thought that a good score can make or break a movie. This was a great movie anyway, and it was partly because of the score. Wonderful article, Kevin!

Kevin Deany said...

Thank you, Becky, for the nice words. I've never seen "Richard III" so I'll take your word about Olivier's performance.

I watched the movie a week ago and I still can't stop thinking about it. To me, that's one of the marks of a great movie.

ClassicBecky said...

Some movies do that to you, don't they Kevin? They just stay with you. I guess that's the difference between great and genius. Lust for Life needs more than one viewing just to take it all in. And the paintings -- I love the way at one point so many of his originals are shown with a very low,lyrical music. Did you notice at the end credits that among the list of museums and private collections given a thank-you for allowing their paintings to be shown, was the name Mr. and Ms. Edward G. Robinson. Eddie G., the great gangster, was a connoisseur of art.

Kevin Deany said...

I knew Robinson was a big art aficionado,and, if memory serves, he had to sell part of his collection to pay for a divorce.

Vincent Price, of course, was another art aficionado, as was George Macready. Together the two opened an art gallery in Los Angeles.