Saturday, September 17, 2011

This Day in Film History (“Lust for Life” Gives Van Gogh Respect Elusive in Life)

September 17, 1956--It took nearly a decade to get it on screen, but when Lust for Life premiered in New York, critics hailed the adaptation of Irving Stone’s 1934 biographical novel about Vincent Van Gogh as one of the finest depictions of an artist ever created for film. Shamefully, Hollywood did not even nominate the film for Best Picture, preferring then-fashionable widescreen blockbusters such as Giant, The Ten Commandments and the winner, Around the World in 80 Days--but the critical consensus on the film’s value continues to hold.

To give audiences as strong a sense as possible of the painter’s works, producer John Houseman and director Vincente Minnelli drew on the resources of two dozen museums around the world, even one in the U.S.S.R. On-location filming in Europe, including in many areas where Van Gogh lived, worked and painted, gave the movie a great feeling of realism--and, even more important, Minnelli, a painter himself, implemented a color scheme for the film that mirrored that of the Dutch post-Impressionist artist.

More crucial than anything else about the film, however, was the casting of Kirk Douglas as the tortured artist. The Oscar winning names linked to the role over the prior decade had included Spencer Tracy, Van Heflin and Yul Brenner. The likelihood is good that any of these actors could have done a creditable job.

With his tough-guy image, good looks and raw physicality, Douglas was not the actor many would have thought of immediately for the part. One Hollywood veteran who certainly felt that way was John Wayne, who told Douglas: “Christ, Kirk! How can you play a part like that? There's so goddamn few of us left. We got to play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers."

But, no matter what his prior roles, Douglas had brought to each of them unparalleled intensity. Had the actor cared to debate the point with Wayne, he could have mentioned that Van Gogh, like Wayne’s role that same year, Ethan Edwards in John Ford’s The Searchers, was not just an intense or conflicted character, but an obsessive who ends up anti-social, isolated and marginalized.

Douglas was a painstaking actor who threw himself into every picture, not just going over his own lines but others'. He was not always easy to work with (Stanley Kubrick directed Spartacus on the condition that his six-film deal with the actor’s production company would then conclude), but at his best the results on the big screen revealed his characters’ raw hunger. During production of this film, his wife was concerned that he was taking too much psychologically back home with him each night.

Another bonus of using Douglas: when he grew his beard, he bore such a striking resemblance to the artist that several people who in childhood or young adulthood did a double-take.

Garnering his third Best Actor nomination, Douglas was favored to win this time. Unfortunately, he lost out to Brenner for The King and I. It took the actor awhile to swallow his disappointment. It remains the best performance of his long and honored career--and it ranks very highly, too, in the considerable filmography of Minnelli, who has garnered more attention over the years for his musicals, especially with his wife of the time, Judy Garland.

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