The Real Vincente Minnelli

Film biographers have long ignored the real Vincente Minnelli. But with his new book, Emanuel Levy delves into the complex personal life of the flamboyant Oscar-winning director ... also known as Liza's dad.

BY Harrison Pierce

May 15 2009 12:00 AM ET

VINCENTE MINNELLI LIZA A MATTER OF TIME XLRG (GETTY) | ADVOCATE.COM

Can you put that relationship in historical context in terms of tabloid presence? Well, you know, I interviewed Jane Fonda when her book came out and I asked her what the difference was between being a star back then compared to now. She said there was no scrutiny -- "We could do drugs and have orgies and there was no press." But Vincente was a director, and directors are behind the camera, so I don't think they're as interesting for the paparazzi. But someone like Cukor would have been three times as careful today as he was in the '30s and the '40s because of the Internet. As for Minnelli ... when he arrived in Hollywood, and I heard this from two people, he was wearing makeup because in New York it was accepted. It was bohemian. He had been surrounded by the Gershwins, by Dorothy Parker, and they could care less if he had a boyfriend. But I found a note that the studio was upset about [the makeup] and so I think he immediately changed his lifestyle. Instead, he channeled his homosexuality or his sexual phobias and tensions and anxieties directly into his work. You can read his movies for their sexual politics.

In which of his films do you think the channeling is most obvious? Of course the prime example is Tea and Sympathy. That's a personal film about masculinity. There's one scene in which the lead character's roommate instructs him in how to walk as a man. What's most fascinating is that Minnelli was very good with color schemes and he played with shades of blue in the film. The darker the blue, the more masculine the character. When Tom [John Kerr] goes to see a prostitute to prove his masculinity, he's wearing a dark blue suit. So light blue is for sissies, dark blue is for macho. I also get a kick out of analyzing An American in Paris -- the character played by Nina Foch is like a sugar daddy. Her character's name, "Milo," is even masculine. Gene Kelly's basically a gigolo -- a painter supported by a rich woman. Also interesting is Home From the Hill, in which there are three types of masculinity. There's Robert Mitchum, who is the ultimate macho patriarch, then there's the bastard son, George Peppard, and then George Hamilton, who's the mama's boy. The whole movie is about Hamilton detaching himself from his mother and standing on his own. The way in which the gun is used in the film is like a penis. It's Freudian melodrama. Even in Designing Woman, the comedy with Lauren Bacall, her best friend is a choreographer who's basically Minnelli, somebody who Gregory Peck puts down because he's too sensitive. Minnelli always suffered from being effeminate.

What was Vincente's relationship like with Liza? He was the best father. He really spoiled her because he had shared custody -- whatever Liza wanted, Liza got. Vincente would dress her up, bring her to MGM. He felt guilty because Judy was a troubled mother and woman and Liza suffered, so he was very devoted to her and she was very devoted to him. Plus the look of Liza in Cabaret comes directly from Minnelli -- I have the correspondence, you know -- because he recommended to Bob Fosse how she should look. He was very instrumental in her career early on.

What was Minnelli like as director? He was expensive and his movies took forever to make, but he's one of a few who've had two pictures win the best picture award -- An American in Paris and Gigi. Plus his movies made money. So he brought a lot of prestige to the studio. However, he was often described as passive-aggressive. Jack Nicholson said in interview that he could spend days shooting a vase of flowers from different angles [during production of On a Clear Day You Can See Forever ] but never give him an instruction about how to play his part. He was very particular, but he was also inarticulate, so he needed the help of people like Ed Gibbons, who was MGM's art director. His career declined as soon as the studio system declined. Unlike Orson Welles, he and Cukor were not producers and they were not writers -- they needed all the support the studio system would give them.

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