LUST FOR LIFE
"Christ, Kirk! How can
you play a part like that? There's so goddamn few of us left. We got to
play strong, tough characters. Not those weak queers."
---- John Wayne to Kirk Douglas.
"The actor never gets lost in the
character he's playing; the audience does. When you're playing the role,
you try to think of the thoughts of that character.When it's over, you
become yourself. You must control it, but I was close to getting lost in
the character of Van Gogh. I felt myself going over the line, into the
skin of Van Gogh."
---- Kirk Douglas
his astonishing likeness to Van Gogh (he is depicted in various scenes
with some of Vincent's many self-portraits), Kirk Douglas achieved a
moving and memorable portrait of the artist - a man of massive creative
power, triggered by severe emotional stress, the fear and horror of
madness. In my opinion, Kirk should have won the Academy Award for which
he was nominated."
---- Vincente Minnelli
One thing becomes immediately clear when viewing Warner's smashing dvd release of MGM's LUST FOR LIFE (1956): It is without question the finest studio film about a tortured artist ever made, and while the performances of Kirk Douglas and especially Anthony Quinn (his Oscar-winning Gauguin) are fine indeed, one has to conclude that it is the brilliant craftsman behind the scenes who should reap the (MGM) lions share of praise which they so richly deserve. (The single -minded passion with which they strived for authenticity is put across with great detail in an excellent studio promotional film which regrettably is not included as a special feature on this disc.)
Certainly Norman Corwin's blunt yet seemingly uncompromised script never falls into the romanticized traps so prevalent in Hollywood films of the era, but one has to admire the visual care that producer John Houseman and director Vincente Minnelli have conjured up to galvanize that screenplay. (Minnelli and his production team tracked down many of the actual locations in France and Holland in which Van Gogh lived and worked, and reconstructed them when necessary (as was the case with the famous yellow house Van Gogh shared with Gauguin.) At one point Minnelli had part of a field spray-painted yellow in order that it more closely resemble the colors of Van Gogh's palette.
But pardon me while I wax enthusiastic about the one element in this film that delves so deeply and intrusively into the anguished psyche of our central character that it becomes possibly the most important contribution this LUST FOR LIFE possesses: the absolutely fantastic score (available on cd from Film Score Monthly) provided by the composer clearly most appropriate for the job: Miklos Rozsa. His work here is of such emphatic and electrifying power that it becomes impossible to calculate how this film and Douglas' sometimes over-emphatic (especially in the early scenes) histrionics would fare without it. And the way in which Rozsa is able to duplicate with musical notes the brushstrokes of Van Gogh in a montage of the artist's works provides LUST FOR LIFE's most deliriously joyful scene.
While I can't help wishing that this astonishing film had been photographed in 3 Strip Technicolor, it must be said that the Warner anamorphic (2.35:1) transfer squeezes every inch of luster out of the EastmanColor original, and the Dolby 5.1 Surround Stereo is very voice-centric and compellingly delivers Rozsa's sensational score to scathingly accurate effect.