(St. Martin's Press, 448 pages, $35)
By Emanuel Levy
It's disconcerting to realize that Vincente Minnelli, a giant of the MGM musical, chief innovator of the postwar Arthur Freed Unit, and one of the great directors of 1950s melodramas, hasn't warranted his own biography until Emanuel Levy's in-depth account.
The son of itinerant theatrical players, he was, as Levy notes, almost literally "born in a trunk." He had no appetite for performance, but the theater bug lead him to a heralded run as a costume and set designer for Broadway musicals, in collaboration with the greats of the era. Unlike many of the self-taught roughnecks who became Hollywood directors, Minnelli was a bisexual aesthete and stylist—who was literate, visually sophisticated and immersed in European culture. Yet initially he did not thirst after a Hollywood career.
That changed after he joined the Freed Unit. Quarantined from distracting studio politics, Minnelli made his early mark in 1943 with the groundbreaking all-black musical Cabin in the Sky. The following year, he met his future wife, Judy Garland, on the set of Meet Me in St. Louis, often considered his first masterpiece. Levy's harrowing account of their brief marriage dwells on Garland's tragic vortex of neurosis, self-hatred and addiction and Minnelli's inability to cure or even control her. It's surprising to see how much detail of their sex life Levy has unearthed. Divorced by 1949, Minnelli embarked on a decade of sustained creativity in two genres: the musical, with The Bandwagon, An American in Paris and Gigi; and his signature brand of Technicolor-expressionist melodramas, ranging from Lust for Life to the small-town classics Some Came Running and Home from the Hill.
Minnelli sadly did not flourish during the studio system's decline after 1960. Levy argues that without the comforting embrace of MGM, his apolitical nature left him ill-equipped to succeed in a new climate heavy with independent productions and self-starters. But for 15 years, his mark was indelible and his touch sure. Levy's welcome volume makes a convincing case for a revival of interest in this maestro's glorious body of work.
Review written by John Patterson.