Gasoline on Fire: Kirk Douglas as Van Gogh


Vincent van Gogh has become as much of a biohistorical Rorschach blot as Joan of Arc—was he a tortured romantic, an art martyr, or an everyday psychotic? (Or was he, as Maurice Pialat suggests in his 1991 film Van Gogh, merely a dyspeptic yearning for death?) Answers abound, but here was the first official fictionalization, taken in 1956 from Irving Stone’s bestseller and turned by Vincente Minnelli into an oppressive Hollywood nut-crash, in which van Gogh is a terminal self-doubter standing permanently outside the realms of acceptable behavior and “normal” artistic ideas. It’s a rich, fearless film in terms of Minnelli’s widescreen approach (surely it’s a safer experience on a TV than on a ’50s movie screen), but the gasoline on fire here is Kirk Douglas in the lead, his normal boiling macho-ness subverted into a rippling, tone-deaf insecurity so guileless he takes on the desperate glare of an abandoned toddler. Douglas was always a human dynamo perpetually on the verge of a meltdown; here, he completely implodes, and it’s one of that Method-prone decade’s most expressionistic performances. Warner’s unleashing Minnelli’s film in an Oscar package (Anthony Quinn, as Gauguin, won a Supporting statuette) that also features dull winners of yesteryear like Cimarron (1931), The Good Earth (1937), Kitty Foyle (1940), and Johnny Belinda (1948). All of them except Lust for Life get accompanied by vintage shorts, cartoons, and radio programs.