Minnelli was more than just Mr. Judy Garland

By Saul Austerlitz
Globe Correspondent / March 11, 2010

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‘There must be some way for the movies to use my small but exquisite talent without labeling me as a designer or a director.’’ One of Broadway’s rising young stars of the mid-1930s, Vincente Minnelli (writing here to future “Wizard of Oz’’ lyricist E.Y. Harburg) hoped to remake Hollywood in his own image, serving as auteur and couturier for a new kind of gossamer-winged fantasy — one in which the designer would become the director, the magnificently ornate style of the theatrical extravaganza serving as both star and leading lady.

Minnelli succeeded in his unlikely ambition, finding a home with producer Arthur Freed and directing two musicals that won Oscars for best picture, “An American in Paris’’ and “Gigi.’’ In some ways, though, his success has overshadowed the tantalizing ambiguities of his own career. “A Hundred or More Hidden Things,’’ Mark Griffin’s new biography of the director, devotes as much time to Minnelli’s marriage to Judy Garland as his work, and documents the turmoil of Minnelli’s first wife and “Meet Me in St. Louis’’ star so thoroughly that he almost loses sight of his subject.

But Minnelli was more — far more — than Mr. Judy Garland. Born to a peripatetic theatrical family in the Midwest, young Lester (Vincente came later, borrowed from his father) Minnelli’s childhood served as a practice run for his career, offering a careful study of everything from makeup to the staging of a musical number.

Like Alfred Hitchcock, another filmmaker with an exceedingly precise sense of his own style, Minnelli was not much of an actor’s director. Working with him on 1964’s “Goodbye Charlie,’’ Ellen Burstyn was shocked to discover that Minnelli was intent on repeating her dialogue with her, over and over, until she had perfectly imitated his own speaking rhythms. At times, the sets took precedence over the actors; one wag dismissed his 1955 psychiatric drama “The Cobweb’’ as “The Drapes of Wrath.’’

And yet, Minnelli was hardly a mere hanger of drapes. “I feel that a picture that stays with you is made up of a hundred or more hidden things,’’ Minnelli once said of his work, and his best movies scatter brilliant touches and flashes of wonder like so many Easter eggs hidden in plain sight. More than that, though, Minnelli was the quintessential director of the neurotic 1950s, his movies haunted by the worry that happiness — personal, familial, national — only ran skin deep.

Griffin speculates that Minnelli’s own neuroses revolved around his unacknowledged homosexuality, but fails, or chooses not, to resolve such seemingly basic factual questions as whether or not Minnelli wore makeup and eyeliner when out in public. In life as in art, a certain ambiguity reigned supreme; Minnelli and Garland’s union was an “elaborate Hollywood production,’’ and yet the director married three more times.

Griffin is quite good on Minnelli’s brilliant 1958 drama “Some Came Running,’’ and its haunting carnival sequence, which is like a musical number with all the music — all the liveliness — excised: “From Spencer Tracy’s nightmare in ‘Father of the Bride’ to John Kerr’s bonfire initiation rite in ‘Tea and Sympathy,’ Minnelli’s movies throughout the 1950s had been building up to this moment of almost operatic hysteria.’’

“Operatic hysteria’’ is precisely what Minnelli had been offering audiences, turning their anxieties into a kind of poetry of disquiet. For the most part, however, Griffin pays short shrift to Minnelli’s dramatic work, devoting more attention to half-forgotten spectacles like “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever’’ than gems like “Father of the Bride.’’

“A Hundred or More Hidden Things’’ intends to provide a kaleidoscopic perspective on its subject, but instead offers a portrait that never entirely comes into focus.

Saul Austerlitz’s “Another Fine Mess: The History of American Film Comedy’’ will be published in September.

A HUNDRED OR MORE HIDDEN THINGS: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli By Mark Griffin

Da Capo, 386 pp., paperback, $15.95