It’s impossible to be a fan of classic movies and not count a Minnelli masterpiece among your favorites. Born in 1903 to an Italian father and French mother in Ohio, christened Lester Anthony, Minnelli would soon prove to be unlike other boys.
Mark Griffin, writer of A Hundred or More Hidden Things, chronicles the life of the director who would eventually exchange Lester for the more old-world Vincente.
As a boy Minnelli spent hours drawing, and staging elaborate productions in his family’s barn. His parents were both actors, who ran a vaudeville troupe. Minnelli—early on—designed costumes for his mother, and told male cast members how to apply make-up.
Minnelli’s father’s criticism of his juvenile works, and an, older, “slow” brother are just some of the 100 or more hidden things. Daughter Liza Minnelli for instance, didn’t know she ever had a paternal uncle. In his autobiography he does not mention his mother’s French accent was from Quebec.
Tired of small town life and unable to afford college, Minnelli took to Chicago in the early 1920s. Minnelli soon showed his sketchbook to the window dressing manager and was quickly hired by Marshall Field’s.
He left to become a photographer, and fell in love with the camera. He photographed actors of the 1920s and—perhaps—assisted capturing thinly veiled erotic male nudes for Chicago’s “fairies.”
Despite the fey nature of window dressing, Minnelli described his colleagues as being straight. This is as ridiculous as claiming that MGM’s Freed Unit, responsible for many great American musicals, was not ripe with gay men.
Minnelli’s sexuality has always been one of speculation. He married 4 times, but wife number 1, Judy Garland, supposedly caught him in bed with a man. Liza Minnelli was called, “The Immaculate Conception” as Minnelli’s use of makeup suggested androgyny, if not bisexuality or homosexuality.
Minnelli’s films often focus on people facing realities that they do not wish to accept. Perhaps he was drawn to these films as a mirror of his own life.
“Meet Me in St. Louis,” is about a family facing the sad possibility of a move. “Tea and Sympathy” chronicles an effete teenager. “Lust for Life,” captures the life of Vincent van Gogh.
The one running, constant experience viewers of Minnelli’s work are treated to is sheer perfection, and attention to detail. His work was so admired, so elegant that Billy Wilder said of Minnelli’s approach, “I don’t shoot elegant pictures, Mr. Vincente Minnelli he shot elegant pictures.”
Minnelli’s direction is one of those hidden things. There is no consensus as to whether he was an actor’s director or a designer who directed. Lauren Bacall laughingly recalled him paying more attention to a bowl of roses than she thought he did the actors. Ellen Burstyn was not a fan, “I was doing his performance of the character,” not, she implies, her own. Yet, Tony Curtis believed, “He was one of the better directors I ever worked with.”
This book is not a biography as much as it is about Minnelli and his films. Griffin invites you into the life of an artist of few words, who invited moviegoers into worlds that he wanted to bring to the silver screen. Shortly before his death he told Liza he had always lived “inside himself.” While several of his films were “botched” by editors toward the end of his career, he nonetheless left so many perfect films that we’re forever indebted to him. Griffin asks what would have happened were he to have directed more films—Gypsy and My Fair Lady as examples and suggests 3rd wife Denise was too demanding of the studios to get these plumb assignments. Yet, the unscathed canon is enough to not ponder the “ifs.”
The book could easily be called, “Standing up too close, or back too far,” a line that (Louis Jourdan) Gaston Lachaille sings about (Leslie Caron) Gigi Alvarez in the movie “Gigi.” In it, Gaston questions whether his proximity to Gigi has caused him to overlook something in plain view.
A Hundred or More Hidden Things, by Mark Griffin
DaCapopress.com, 348 pages $15.95