Vincente Minnelli, Master of Style and Substance


“Minnelli wanted to show that real men could wear Capezios,” Emanuel Levy writes in his 2009 biography of the brilliant director, referring to some of the more delicate protagonists in the oeuvre of Vincente Minnelli (1903–86): heroes such as sensitive prep-schooler Tom Lee in Tea and Sympathy (1956), ridiculed as “sister boy” by his classmates. Although dismissed by detractors as a mere “stylist,” Minnelli—who trained as a window dresser at Marshall Field’s and as a costume and set designer in hometown Chicago before advancing to stage directing in New York in the 1930s—was a masterful, wide-ranging helmer of musicals, melodramas, and comedies. He made his mark with tales of tortured geniuses, tragic 19th-century heroines, and cracked show-business types—all on display at BAM’s complete retrospective.

He was also, of course, attracted to one of the most calamitous figures in cinema, Judy Garland, whom he first directed in the transcendent musical Meet Me in St. Louis (1944); they fell in love on set. No more melancholic film about the notion of “home” exists, nor has a story ever been served as well by its color palette—Minnelli felt the movie “should have the look of a Thomas Eakins painting,” per Levy. Director and star wed the following year. (Garland was the first of Minnelli’s four wives; he discreetly carried on same-sex liaisons.) Their union yielded three more films and daughter Liza (who starred in his last project, 1976’s weirdly enthralling fantasia botch-up A Matter of Time).

Minnelli’s assiduous attention to detail when setting up a shot drove some of his actors nuts: Dean Martin, co-starring with Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine in the sensational returning-army-vet drama Some Came Running (1958), referred to the director as “the artsy-fartsy.” But Minnelli’s obsession with décor made him the perfect choice to helm The Cobweb (1955), whose major plot point concerns . . . drapes. Set in a psychiatric clinic in Nebraska, the film centers on mental patients only slightly more unbalanced than the professionals caring for them, squabbling over the price and design of new curtains for the facility’s library. Throughout, Minnelli maintains his signature compassion for the fragile, namely suicidal aspiring artist Stevie (John Kerr, also tormented in Tea and Sympathy).

The director’s empathy for the desperately deluded reaches its apex in his adaptation of Madame Bovary (1949), starring Jennifer Jones as the hopeless striver of the title. To appease censors, Minnelli framed his film within Flaubert’s own obscenity trial, the author (played by James Mason) offering pungent explanations for his heroine’s scandalous adultery. “We had taught her—what? To believe in Cinderella,” the writer says on the witness stand, a declaration later dramatized in the film’s magnificent ball scene: Emma Bovary twirls and swirls into near-delirium, enraptured with the aristocracy that she will destroy herself to become part of.

Another kind of lunacy marks The Band Wagon (1953), one of the giddiest backstage musicals ever made. Washed-up song-and-dance man Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) hopes for a comeback in a bombastic production of Faust; when a tryout in New Haven lays an egg, the actor takes charge, turning it into a showcase for one of the craziest numbers in the MGM catalog: the “Triplets” song, with Astaire, Nanette Fabray, and Jack Buchanan performing as bonneted infants.

Yet not all of Minnelli’s showbiz chronicles were so gleeful. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) portrays the destruction wrought by monomaniacal movie producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas, a frequent collaborator)—a man who, much like Minnelli, would always insist on perfection.