Lust for Life (1956)
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Screenplay: Norman Corwin
Kirk Douglas gives one of the screen’s great performances as Vincent van Gogh in this artist biopic, filmed in luscious Metrocolor with CinemaScope lenses. What Douglas accomplishes as Van Gogh is loads more impressive than the over-feted celeb-mimicry of recent biopics (i.e. Foxx as Ray; Hoffman as Capote; Streep as Child). Without video evidence of the artist’s living personality, mannerisms, vocal intonations (a luxury that more often than not turns acting into impersonating), Douglas is left instead with the task of re-vivifying, in flesh, the emotional expressiveness found in Van Gogh’s artistic legacy (his paintings, as well as his famous letters to his brother Theo). It’s a performance that draws equally on the physical and the psychological; Douglas’s muscular body—shown vigorously at work as a miner early in the film, and violently as a drawer and painter thereafter—seems constantly ravaged by Van Gogh’s creative hunger and inner agonies. (How the hell did Douglas lose the Oscar to Yul Brenner?*) As Paul Gauguin (in a role that won him the Supporting Oscar), Anthony Quinn threatens to devour the scenery every time he’s on screen, but his trademark volcanism and bluster are kept in balance with Douglas’s implosive, frayed-nerve sensitivity. Whenever the two share scenes, the body thrills. And if you leave aside the acting, the picture is still a beauty—narratively fluid and gloriously eye-filling. Minnelli’s use of Van Gogh’s psycho-colours as inspiration for his own palette yields a masterful symbiosis; the film’s visualization of Van Gogh’s The Night Café alone proves that, pace b&w devotees, colour belongs to the cinema.
*Jesus Christ, look who else Yul, the “King of Siam,” beat out that year: Sir Laurence Olivier (Richard III); James Dean and Rock Hudson (both Giant).