Spring 2016

Larger Than Life

Early in his career, Richard Linklater was inspired by the sweeping style, conflicted characters, and unabashed emotion of Vincente Minnelli’s Some Came Running.

By Amy Dawes

Director Richard Linklater (Photo:
Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman)

The diversity of his passion for cinema is apparent as Richard Linklater gives a tour of his personal poster collection in the lobby of the Marchesa Theatre, home of the Austin Film Society, which he founded in 1985. The wall art includes six-sheet tributes to films as varied as John Cassavetes’ Faces, Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly, and Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan.

But Linklater has chosen Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 melodrama Some Came Running—given pride of place on a wall mounted with film-score album covers—to screen as a movie that left a mysterious, lasting impression on him. It seems a curious choice, given that Minnelli’s meticulously stylized approach and the film’s postwar, pre-countercultural milieu feel antithetical to Linklater’s own body of work, which includes such naturalistic, contemporary films as his recent college comedy Everybody Wants Some, Boyhood, Dazed and Confused, and the Before Sunrise trilogy. One reason, it becomes apparent, is the chance to re-experience the movie in all its widescreen, CinemaScope, Metrocolor glory, just as Minnelli and cinematographer William H. Daniels had intended.

Linklater recalls the first time he encountered Some Came Running: "I’d just moved to Austin, and the campus film program showed it in a crappy 16 Scope print, but it really got to me; it really moved me. Maybe it was the small-town thing; I grew up in a town like Parkman [Indiana]. Or how it shows these opposites, these archetypal characters, colliding." At that time, Linklater was consumed with questions about his path in life. "In Some Came Running," he observes, "Dave Hirsh [Frank Sinatra] is a writer with talent who hasn’t been writing. So many Minnelli films are about an artist who’s divided, conflicted, whether it’s Van Gogh in Lust for Life or Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon. There’s a conflict they have to resolve, but they really can’t."

The MGM lion roars, and is outdone by the growling bass tones of Elmer Bernstein’s hyper-dramatic score, as two sleeping passengers stir to life on a bus that rolls through the Indiana countryside and comes to a stop in the small town of Parkman. One is Dave, a moody, hung-over Army corporal in uniform; the other is Ginny (Shirley MacLaine, in one of her earliest film roles), a sweet, high-spirited floozy who has attached herself to him since the night before in Chicago.

Linklater points out that he began his first feature, Slacker, with a character (played by himself) rolling into Austin on a bus. As Dave and Ginny step off the vehicle, Minnelli frames them in a wide shot and lets the scene play out in a single take, ending with Sinatra’s blow-off of MacLaine as he gives her money and suggests she get herself back to the city. It’s a setup the director repeats throughout the film. "Minnelli is a master of CinemaScope; it was made for him," says Linklater, who similarly made use of a prolonged wide single take for a domestic squabble in a car in Before Midnight. "All the information in this scene is important, and leads right to the ending. Nothing is casual."

Blocked: Linklater admires the wide shot (top) that introduces Dave (Frank Sinatra), a lapsed writer, and Ginny (Shirley MacLaine), a floozy who has attached herself to him; (bottom) Dave is more interested in drinking and gambling with Bama (Dean Martin) than he is in Ginny. (Photos: (top) Screenpull: Warner Home Video; (bottom) Photofest)

Dave checks into a hotel and immediately starts drinking while tossing a disheveled manuscript he’s written into the trash, then hauls it back out on the chance there’s something to it. Everyone from the bellhop on up seems to know that he’s not only returned to what "used to be" his hometown, but he’s deposited his savings in a bank other than the one that employs his estranged brother, Frank (Arthur Kennedy). Attempting to reverse the slight, Frank insists Dave come to dinner at his palatial house, where he’s introduced to a family friend, English teacher Gwen French (Martha Hyer), who’s already a keen admirer of Dave’s all-but-abandoned writing. Dave brushes off her literary encouragement to focus on her good looks, but the icy blonde is more guarded than he bargains for. ("She’s a little like Kim Novak," says Linklater of Hyer, noting that Minnelli’s film came out the same year as Hitchcock’s Vertigo.) After Dave’s wolfish advances earn him the stiff-arm, he winds up at the lively local tavern with Ginny, who hasn’t left town after all, and Bama Dillert (Dean Martin), a local gambler with a disarming ease about him who’s got designs on Dave and his bankroll.

"This came to be thought of as the first Rat Pack movie," says Linklater of the casting. "Later in his life, Sinatra had a print of this movie, and he’d have people come over to his house, where he’d show it in the screening room. He’d always say, ‘Look how good Shirley is,’ but really I think it was him [that he wanted them to see]. This is the character that is closest to him as an artist—the conflicted antihero, the Wee Small Hours Frank, the forlorn guy with the cigarette, leaning on the lamppost. When people think of Sinatra’s film career, this movie is usually not at the top, but it’s interesting that he himself would watch it over and over.”

The action takes a swing to the dramatic after Raymond (Steven Peck), a jealous tough from Chicago who’s stalking Ginny, shows up at the bar, leading to a fight scene in an alley, with Dave menacing him with a broken bottle. As Bernstein’s score pounds out some heartstopping notes, Minnelli stays wide and photographs the brief action, choreographed like a rumble scene in West Side Story, as if it were on a Broadway stage. "I’ve always called this a musical without the musical numbers because of the way it’s staged and lit," says Linklater.

By the next day, Dave’s interest in Gwen has increased, and he pays her a call, but she’s cooled to him even more, having heard all about his sordid exploits of the night before. "That’s the downside of small-town life—everybody knows everything you’re doing," says Linklater. "I made a movie, Bernie, that was very much about that." (The 2011 release co-starred MacLaine opposite Jack Black.)

But Gwen is still pushing for an intellectual relationship with Dave, and remains keenly interested in his discarded manuscript. As she reads it and Dave paces in the garden, Minnelli inserts a shot of a rabbit quivering in the grass, which Linklater greets with joy. "I put an homage to that rabbit in Before Sunrise. Julie [Delpy] and Ethan [Hawke] are walking around at the cemetery [before they become lovers] and there’s a rabbit in the grass."

Gwen’s reaction to Dave’s story is beyond encouraging, and she offers some advice on how it should end. During their passionate discussion, Dave keeps pressing her to let him get close, and at last she does. "Look!" says Linklater excitedly. "She walks into the shadows—they both do." Gwen even loosens her pinned-up hair. "Whoa! Whoa!" cries Linklater as Bernstein’s score swells, rich and tumescent. "This being the ’50s and all, this scene is over."

The film cuts directly from romance to its opposite— a bitter, complaining exchange between miserable brother Frank and his unhappy wife who’s terrified that Dave’s run-in with the cops will cost them their social status.

Emotional Coloring: (top) Ginny defers to her rival Gwen (Martha Hyer); (middle) A lovesick Ginny belts out a song off-key; (bottom) Dave finally falls for Ginny through a closed window. (Photos: Screenpulls: Warner Home Video; (bottom) Photofest

This, Linklater points out, is one of the defining techniques of Minnelli’s approach to melodrama—the juxtaposition of extreme contrasts, which lends pace and dynamic tension to the work. He cites the performances of the two brothers as an example of how the director accomplishes this. "Sinatra is so natural, and understated, this is his Brando performance," while Kennedy couldn’t be more overbearing and artificial. "He’s so amped up, he really hits the notes of what’s required of him in a melodrama where everything is heightened."

Later, Linklater admires how Minnelli stages a scene set in a high school classroom that brings together both of Dave’s women: the uneducated, utterly available Ginny and the frustrating, ivory tower Gwen. Ginny has worked up the nerve to lay her cards on the table: She loves Dave but doesn’t want to impede his happiness, so she’ll clear out of the picture if Gwen plans to marry him. Gwen assures her grateful rival she has nothing to fear. "You see how Shirley sits at a little desk, like she’s a student," says Linklater, while the crisply dressed Gwen, hair upswept, holds her position of authority behind the teacher’s desk. Again, Minnelli puts them both in his wide shot. "What are these two opposite archetypes even doing in the same frame is the question," Linklater muses. "It’s so awkward. It’s the most brilliant and unnerving scene in the movie."

Subsequently, Dave angrily returns to his loose-living pals after being rebuffed yet again by Gwen. Ginny is so eager to be close to Dave that she repeatedly follows him in and out of a small closet, as he packs for a gambling trip with Bama. Again, everything is in the staging. "Look at the way this is choreographed," marvels Linklater. "It tells you so much."

"Minnelli was just a master designer," he goes on. "Every frame is composed, every color is important. Billy Wilder tried to put him down once, saying ‘Minnelli is a decorator.’ Yes, he was [he had gotten his start on stage as a set designer and costumer], but also a great artist, and a great director."

Ginny accompanies Dave and Bama on their gambling trip to Terre Haute and, in one of the film’s most beautifully staged sequences, drinks too much and engages in some raucous caterwauling alongside a trio of nightclub singers. "This movie’s so funny," says Linklater. "It’s a melodrama, but Minnelli had such a gift for comedy, too."

Linklater pauses to indulge in some wistful speculation about the ease and diversity enjoyed by directors like Minnelli, who was then under contract to MGM. "You look at all the great careers of that era—Minnelli, Hawks, Ford, Wilder, Huston. If you had a studio deal you could make a lot of movies, two or three a year. Now it’s all freelance. Every film is like you’re starting over."

Back to the film, Linklater observes Minnelli’s sure hand with an emotional scene in which a frustrated Dave bullies Ginny about her inability to read or comprehend his newly published story, of which she’s nonetheless very proud. "That don’t mean I don’t like it," she insists. "I don’t understand you neither, but that don’t mean I don’t like you. I love you! Now what’s the matter with that?" It’s a breakthrough for the tormented Dave, who suddenly sees Ginny’s pure-heartedness as everything he’s been looking for. "Minnelli really makes you feel for everybody," Linklater notes, as Ginny sobs in Dave’s arms. "I think it’s because he’s so good with musicals. He could milk everything for believable drama." Linklater also keys in on the framing, which earlier in the scene while the two were estranged had placed Ginny on the porch outside the house, seated facing away but seen through a window while Dave is inside. "What a great composition. He’s a stylistic master," says Linklater. But their impulsive decision to get married draws scathing contempt from Bama.

Regardless, the lovers hastily get hitched by a city official. News of their vows reaches Raymond, Ginny’s stalker, who shows up in a frenzy, waving a gun. Now comes Minnelli’s greatest flourish, as a gaudy carnival linked to the town’s centennial celebration blossoms on the screen. Against a wall lit with a blood-red wash, the dark silhouette of Raymond staggers through what is clearly a set. Then the carnival tableau fills the frame as Minnelli pans to a seething crowd at a shooting gallery beneath swirling amusement park lights. "That’s truly radical; all in one shot we pan from that soundstage configuration to this location shoot," explains Linklater. Bernstein’s score grows shrill and bombastic, promising doom as Raymond races through the chaos in search of the unsuspecting lovers. "The tracking shots, the fluidity of the camera, he’s like Max Ophüls, practically. All the light and movement, and the score going nuts. All the emotions just in a swirl. It’s the perfect ending to a melodrama."

Raymond spies his prey and shoots. Dave is hit and falls against a pile of rubbish, but Ginny, who had sworn she’d do anything for him, flings herself across his body to save him, preserving his life but losing hers as Raymond keeps firing.

The final scene is a funeral for Ginny on a sylvan hillside, famous for the touching moment when Bama finally removes his hat in her honor. "The heart of the movie lies with her," says Linklater. "She’s the only one who’s honest about what she feels, who’s not putting on airs and striving."

Beyond the obvious melodrama, Linklater sees the film as "a huge cultural indictment" of small-town hypocrisy, which to his mind makes it genre filmmaking at its best. "It’s embracing the form, where you could really deal with those heightened emotions, but with just enough distance to make it a critique. You’ve got to be doing your own version."

Minnelli would make another well-regarded melodrama, Home From the Hill, two years later, but the end of an era was nigh. "There’s a theory that the ascent of the TV soap opera in the ’50s and ’60s killed melodrama," says Linklater. "You couldn’t get away with that style anymore. Same with the musical; it had to be reinvented to be believable. So while Minnelli was really a master, the culture was leaving these two strengths of his [behind].

"I wouldn’t know how to emulate this," says Linklater, but he has a theory on why he finds the film so satisfying. "I think a director’s job is to let a film become what it’s meant to be, based on the story you’re trying to tell. And this is a perfect combination of the skills of everyone involved. This film is so beautifully itself."

Screening Room

In this popular feature, a director talks about a film particularly close to their heart, why the creative choices are inspired, how it influenced their own work, and why the movie continues to resonate for them personally.

More from this issue