Lust for Life and The Bad and the Beautiful
Art in Melodrama
It is no coincidence that the author of the melodrama often finds his inspiration in the life of the artist, an individual stereotyped as struggling and misunderstood. The Hollywood melodrama prides itself as a heightened emotional representation of the struggle between one man and the rest of society. The life of an artist can easily be retold in this melodramatic fashion given the nature of art itself. Art, whether it takes the form of the masterpiece paintings of Vincent Van Gogh or the entertaining musicals of Vincente Minnelli, indicates a relationship between an individual and a group of people. An artist uses his work to communicate with an audience, expressing his worldview through his art. Conflict often arises from a miscommunication or misunderstanding and since art itself can be a relatively ambiguous form of communication it is reasonable to assume conflict exists in the relationship between the artist and his audience. One can also assume the existence of the artist’s emotional and psychological involvement in his work, which further complicates this relationship. The emotional conflict that is characteristic of both the stereotypical life of an artist and the Hollywood melodrama can be found in many of Vincente Minnelli’s films, in particular Lust for Life and The Bad and the Beautiful. In Lust for Life, Minnelli tells the story of the insecure Swedish painter Vincent Van Gogh while in The Bad and the Beautiful, the audience is given a glimpse into the life of a more confident yet just as troubled filmmaker, Jonathan Shields.
Conflict is at the heart of the melodrama. As stated above, this conflict occurs between an individual, in this case an artist, and the general population, and it is usually the result of a miscommunication or misunderstanding. As Bukatman quotes in his essay on Minnelli’s Lust for Life, “at the center of melodrama lies an abyss of inarticulateness, an insufficiency of language that [is linked] to the symptomology of hysteria (302).” It is easy to misinterpret a film or painting since every viewer has a different set of prior experiences that inform their individual interpretations. For example, when one first sees Van Gogh’s “Wheat Field with Crows,” one might interpret the dark sky as representative of night or a storm. Yet once one learns that this painting was the last piece painted by Van Gogh before he committed suicide, the ominous sky might take on a whole new meaning of frustration and despair. There are many different interpretations, all of which cannot be true to what Van Gogh originally intended.
In Minnelli’s Lust for Life, Van Gogh sees himself as a realist painter. Yet others do not interpret his work as realistic. Given his steadfast belief in realism, Van Gogh might be surprised to learn that he is now considered one of the major influences on the modern expressionist and avante garde movements of the 20th century. As Paul Gauguin says during a heated argument with Van Gogh in Lust for Life, “with all your talk of emotion, all I see when I look at your work is just that you paint too fast!” Van Gogh’s failure to convey his emotions clearly leads to conflict throughout the entire film. In one of the closing sequences of Lust for Life, in which Van Gogh attempts to paint an expansive field and ends up shooting himself out of desperation, Minnelli visually shows us the artist’s frustration at his inability to portray what he sees. As the crows fly around him, creating an imagined sense of urgency and chaos, Van Gogh loses his ability to paint what he sees and begins painting his pure emotions. He violently slaps dark, thick strokes of color across the top of the canvas in an act that physically affirms his broken mental state.
Despite Gauguin’s denial of the existence of emotion in Van Gogh’s work, art is itself a natural display of emotion. Art is, by definition, an expression of the artist and can, as Bukatman suggests, be seen as an extension of the artist since it communicates his view of the world (316). Melodrama is characterized by an overdramatic portrayal of emotion. This portrayal often goes so far as to transform melodrama into an “anti-realist” genre, since it usually sacrifices physical accuracy for an excessive and intensified mis-en-scene that is reflective of the heightened emotion of the characters and thus the audience (303). In The Bad and the Beautiful, this inherent existence of emotion in art is displayed in the relationship between Jonathan Shields and Georgia Lorrison. Georgia, a budding young actress with father issues and an interest in Shields, was in need of acting lessons and Shields took advantage of her feelings for him to turn her into the ideal actress for his film. As she falls more and more in love with Shields, Georgia translates the emotion into her acting making her a star.
Along with an inherent emotional expression, artists are also predisposed to identity issues when it comes to gender and family roles. Artists are often gendered as feminine whether they are actually female or not. In Hollywood films, female characters are always the passive objects while males are the active subjects. Art can be used to objectify not only a scene but also the artist himself. Since art can be seen as an extension of the artist as well as an object to be gazed upon, the artist can be gendered as a passive female character.
Hysteria is another feminine action that can be seen in Van Gogh’s personality throughout Lust for Life. Most films would use a female character to portray hysteria or excess emotion. For example, in Minnelli’s film Two Weeks in Another Town, also starring Kirk Douglas, there is a scene in which Douglas’ character, in an alcohol-fuelled rage, gets behind the wheel and races through the winding streets of Rome. Cyd Charisse’s character jumps in the car as it takes off despite the fact that there is no narrative reason for her to be in the scene. Yet Minnelli needed a display of hysteria to reinforce the over exaggerated emotion Douglas’ character felt. The male character cannot be expected to scream hysterically in order to heighten the drama, so Cyd Charisse is added to the scene for the sole purpose of playing the vulnerable female. When hysteria is examined in Lust for Life, it is found to exist in a male character rather than an expected female character. Vincent Van Gogh regularly suffers from fits of emotional hysteria throughout the film, giving him feminine qualities. Yet this reversed gender role in not completely unexpected given the artist’s role as a passive object through his art.
Van Gogh also finds himself playing the role of female in other situations as well. For example, when considered in the context of the “broken family” that consists of himself and Gauguin, he decorates rooms and cooks dinner instead of playing an active role as an enforcer of order and control. Also, it becomes clear that being an artist is not a stable occupation that can support a family. This can be seen in the fact that Van Gogh only sells one painting during his lifetime, not enough to support a family. An artist like Van Gogh is forced to rely on the subjective and unpredictable opinion of society. This inability to provide for a family can be traumatic and also cause a minor identity crisis when it comes to gender. If one cannot be the dominant male in a family, then does he take on the role of the female instead?
Yet Minnelli’s films do not always portray art in the context of conflict and confusion. In fact, while the life of the artist is considered difficult because of the nature of art, Minnelli’s melodramas portray the physical act of art-making as an escape from melodrama. In The Bad and the Beautiful, we see Shields in his most unstable state when he is not making films. After the premiere of the film that makes Georgia a star, Shields refuses to attend the party. When Georgia tries to convince him to come and discovers him with another woman, his composure collapses and he displays some of the hysteria that is so characteristic of Van Gogh. In a hysterical manner only attainable by Kirk Douglas, Shields admits he is a mess and the audience sees what the artist is without his art. This display of hysteria is easily overlooked, given its juxtaposition to Georgia’s much more memorable presentation after she leaves Shields house, but must not be forgotten. In Lust for Life, we also get a glimpse of how art is a cure for the artist’s conflict and resulting hysteria. Near the end of the film, Van Gogh admits himself to a mental hospital. He seems to make little progress until his painting supplies are moved in with him. During a voice over narration the doctor states that Van Gogh’s painting seems to be the only thing that can calm him and keep him in a manageable temperament.
Although the artist is an easy target for the subject of the melodrama given the instability and insecurity that can accompany the occupation, art itself can be a remedy for the artist. As stated above, conflict usually stems from the inability to communicate clearly. For an artist, his work is the one way in which he can articulate himself. While physically painting, Van Gogh temporarily transformed himself into an active player in his life story rather than a passive object of the world’s gaze. It does not matter whether the artwork is ultimately effective or not, it only matters that in the moment of creation, the artist is not a passive figure. His work is a temporary respite from the alienation of miscommunication and the resulting hysteria.
The Bad and the Beautiful. Dir. Vincente Minnelli. Perf. Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner. MGM, 1952.
Lust for Life. Dir. Vincente Minnelli. Perf. Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn. MGM, 1956.
McElhaney, Joe ed. Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2009.
Two Weeks in Another Town. Dir. Vincente Minnelli. Perf. Kirk Douglas and Cyd Charisse. MGM, 1962.