Monday, June 15, 2020

This Day in Film History (Garland Weds Director Vincente Minnelli)

June 15, 1945—With love having bloomed on the set of their first collaboration, the hit musical Meet Me in St. Louis, Judy Garland married director Vincente Minnelli, who had not only guided her towards mature roles but used his camera to make the insecure young star experience something she had never felt since signing with MGM: the sense of her own beauty.

It was the most unlikely of professional and personal partnerships. Minnelli was nearly twice the age of his star and wife, visually rather than orally inclined, painfully shy where she was often explosively funny, and self-disciplined where she was chronically late in showing up on the set.

The age difference between the two—and Minnelli’s genuine thoughtfulness and concern for her—may have reminded Garland of her own beloved father, a vaudevillian and theater owner who had died when she was only 13. But Minnelli resembled Frank Gumm in another important respect: homosexual liaisons that shadowed and complicated his marriage.

At this time, though, the two were as happy as they ever would be. Each had had their entire careers riding on the success of Meet Me in St. Louis, and each had achieved a principal objective: for Garland, an adult role and a performance so incandescent that it enabled MGM to overlook her increasing tardiness in arriving on set; and for Minnelli, his greatest opportunity to that point in a high-profile project. 

Their professional relationship did not start out well during the early days of shooting Meet Me in St. Louis. Already addicted for several years to a studio-compelled pill regimen to clamp down on her weight, Garland continued to annoy studio executives and fellow cast and crew members with tardiness that drove up the costs of filming. Moreover, Minnelli couldn’t communicate how he wanted her to act.

But as time went on, Garland realized what the rest of the crew understood: that Minnelli, a former costumer, set designer and art director who had apprenticed for a year at the studio, had knowledge of virtually every department at MGM, a painter’s eye for color and atmosphere—and more important, a keen sense of how makeup could provide Garland with grown-up sophistication. 

Moreover, this homeliest of men understood how the camera could minimize the flaws and enhance the advantages (notably, highly expressive eyes) of this sensitive young star who had resented studio bosses’ disparagement of her looks.

For his part, as indicated in this YouTube clip of an interview with the director in later years, Minnelli saw a little-noticed asset of Garland’s: a photographic memory that enabled her to absorb direction despite inevitable on-set distractions. Altogether, he believed her potential was so great that she could have been “as great as Duse, or Bernhardt, or Garbo.” 

His sense of her possibilities—and her eager responsiveness—transformed Meet Me in St. Louis from a problematic, plot-free property into a masterpiece of rich visual textures and charm to go with a rich score.

In Hollywood, it has never been unusual for male directors to sleep with female stars. But the growing, open affection between Garland and Minnelli was greeted with astonishment by cast and crew. 

Minnelli’s use of more mascara, eye shadow, lipstick, and a covering base than MGM’s actresses wore would have been enough to spark talk about his sexual preferences. But rumors of his intimate relationships with several men only fanned the gossip.

Besotted with the director who had awakened her sense of her attractiveness, Garland dismissed these rumors as “just his artistic flair!” It would be two more years before, during production of The Pirate, she happened on her husband with another man. 

According to Gerald Clarke’s biography of Garland, Get Happy, her furious description of this encounter quickly spread until it reached the ears of would-be actress Jacqueline Susann, who incorporated the incident into her 1960s bestselling potboiler, Valley of the Dolls

(Ironically enough, Garland was set to play a character modeled on Broadway star Ethel Merman in the film version of the roman a clef, until Garland's problems with pills led to her termination early in the project.)

After Meet Me in St. Louis, Garland and Minnelli worked together on two full-length features, The Clock (1945) and The Pirate (1948), and one segment of another, Ziegfeld Follies (1945).  They also had an off-screen production: a daughter, the future singer-actress Liza Minnelli. (Her proud father let her sit in his laps even while he was directing the lavish musicals that became his trademark.)

But four years after their wedding, their marriage was coming under relentless pressure, with the couple unable to cope with the daily stress of studio  suspensions, Garland’s indebtedness, her intensifying pill addiction—and the couple’s growing physical estrangement and mutual resentments (Garland identified Minnelli with the MGM regime, while he, worn down by her constant storms, saw the last straw as her constant lying to her psychiatrists). Though the marriage officially ended in divorce in 1951, it was, for all intents and purposes, over two years earlier.

Fired by MGM in 1950, Garland appeared onscreen only occasionally in the last two decades of her life (though one of those was her Oscar-nominated performance in A Star is Born). In contrast, Minnelli continued to work frequently and well for the studio throughout much of the rest of the 1950s in musicals, comedies and melodramas that demonstrated his great versatility, even lasting at the studio for 26 years--the longest-lasting director of anyone at MGM.

Of all the movies Minnelli made in this period, I think that, oddly enough, his Vincent Van Gogh biopic, Lust for Life, might have best reflected his relationship with Garland. While one artist worked with paint and another with popular song, each was bursting with expressive feeling that few others could match—and, sadly, exhibited an emotional instability that those closest to them, like Minnelli, felt powerless to control in the end.

No comments: