Movies work by building and releasing tension, a pattern demonstrated more nakedly in the musical than in nearly any other genre. Musical sequences are where the characters’ repressed desires and anxieties come out to play, and rarely do these numbers feel more needed than in the neurotic MGM extravaganzas of Vincente Minnelli; what are merely escape hatches into fantasy to the brasher, more down-to-earth hoofers of Stanley Donen or Charles Walters are rather like pressure valves to Minnelli’s high-strung dreamers. Gene Kelly’s forceful grin and Fred Astaire’s ghostly elegance still loom seductively, yet what lingers in the mind is how oddly melancholy An American in Paris and The Band Wagon are, how their numbers address the longing of the protagonists as much as they intensify their frustrations. Deprived of such flights, the tensions in Minnelli’s films seethe and simmer until frantic set pieces discharge them in bursts of color and camera movement. This mounting hysteria is inseparable from the director’s fondness for beauty and from his view of life as a continuous tussle between reality and reverie, a vision where eruptions of operatic expression take place regardless of whether or not you feel a song coming on. Passion erases the gap between Minnelli’s melodious classics and his nonmusical work; indeed, more than anything, his melodramas are reminders that “melo” means “music.”
The director’s fascinating, sinuous and often alarmingly dark dramas are the subject of an Anthology Film Archives retrospective. The Bad and the Beautiful: The Melodramas of Vincente Minnelli takes its title from the fabulous 1953 exposé of ruthless artistic temperament in Hollywood, though the most representative entry in the series might be 1955’s The Cobweb, where the very tenuous balance between sanity and madness at an expensive psychiatric clinic is shaken by nothing more than a dispute over the new drapery. Minnelli’s films are often marked by volatile claustrophobia, and the loony-bin dwellers in The Cobweb only need a small push to dissolve lyrically and tragically, whether they’re seasoned pros like Richard Widmark and Lauren Bacall or teenage ingénues like John Kerr and Susan Strasberg. It would be tempting to see the asylum’s hothouse theatrics as a metaphor for Tinseltown goings-on had Minnelli not already delivered his definitive love/hate letter to the studio system with The Bad and the Beautiful, a trenchant insider’s view out of which 8½ and The Player, among others, have flowed. The movie world here is a cruel one, perfectly attuned to Kirk Douglas’s megalomaniac producer, who will use and manipulate anybody in his search for greatness; Minnelli is too sensitive to not critique the character’s callousness, and too much of an aesthete to not admire the bastard’s dedication to his art, especially when it results in such exquisite frenzies as Lana Turner’s tearful breakdown in an out-of-control car.
Turner’s bravura auto trouble is virtually replicated in Two Weeks in Another Town, this time with Cyd Charisse caught between anguished artist Douglas and the madly spiraling camera. Scenes from The Bad and the Beautiful are screened in this Cinecittà-set, 1962 unofficial sequel, and the ailing filmmaker (played by Edward G. Robinson) looks at them and sighs at how good he used to be. Is that Minnelli talking? Supposedly in decline, the auteur had the movie taken away from him and extensively recut by the studio, a fate that appropriately mirrored the movie’s portrait of creative will darkening into despair (and which would be reprised in his final film, the underrated A Matter of Time). It’s no surprise that the struggles of the outsider artist are a recurring motif in Minnelli’s oeuvre, and it’s a shame that the retrospective doesn’t include Lust for Life, his splendid account of the life of Van Gogh. More than compensating for its absence is a screening of Some Came Running, the 1959 masterpiece which is in many ways an even more emblematic work. The plot (blocked writer Frank Sinatra returns to his hometown, gets involved with brother Arthur Kennedy, buddy Dean Martin and prostitute Shirley MacLaine) is from the James Jones novel, but the treatment is pure Minnelli—art and life clash, the neon glows, gestures are choreographed like dance moves. A movie where artificial studio beauty is made into emotion and even grace, Some Came Running climaxes with a virtuosic showdown in a Cinemascope carnival, a sublime sequence which, like the rest of Minnelli’s great melodramas, breaks through the narrative’s own glossiness via the director’s transfiguring intensity of feeling.