Vincent Van Gogh is the archetypical tortured artistic genius. His obsession with painting, combined with mental illness, propels him through an unhappy life full of failures and unrewarding relationships. He fails at being a preacher to coal miners. He fails in his relationships with women. He earns some respect among his fellow painters, especially Paul Gauguin, but he does not get along with them. He only manages to sell one painting in his lifetime. The one constant good in his life is his brother Theo, who is unwavering in his moral and financial support. Written by
John Oswalt <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Lust for Life, Irving Stone's biographical novel about the life of Vincent Van Gogh, stands as the centerpiece of Kirk Douglas's acting career. After growing that beard which makes Douglas look hauntingly like the troubled Van Gogh, Douglas crafts a brilliant portrayal of this way too sensitive man.
Vincent Van Gogh was a man who felt things more than most of the world's population. When we're introduced to him in the film, he's been rejected as an evangelical preacher. Van Gogh's father was a minister and Vincent feels the calling, but doesn't have the talent for preaching. He's given a backwater assignment in a forgotten coal mining area basically just to get rid of him.
He tackles it in earnest, even going down into the mines and working along side the miners who are his parishioners. That doesn't please the hoity toity church officials who rebuke him. A more tactful man might have sold the officials on a social gospel idea which was what Van Gogh was trying to articulate. But instead he explodes on them and the church gets rid of him.
It's the same with personal relationships. His intensity frightens off everyone of the opposite sex. And most of the male species as well. Only his patient and loving brother Theo, played here by James Donald, can deal with him for any length of time.
But somewhere in the vast universal scheme of things, Van Gogh was given a talent to paint. It's only on the canvas that he can articulate what he feels around him. And of course when he died he was as obscure as one can get. Now the value of his paintings could retire the American national debt.
Director Vincente Minnelli had previously directed Kirk Douglas to his second Oscar nomination in The Bad and the Beautiful in 1952. Sad to say that Douglas lost again in this third and final outing in the Oscar Derby. Personally I think he should have taken home the big prize for this one. The winner that year was Yul Brynner for The King and I. No actor better expresses rage on the screen than Kirk Douglas and this was a rage accompanying a descent to madness.
But Minnelli did get Anthony Quinn his second Oscar in the Supporting Actor category as fellow painter Paul Gauguin. They become housemates for a while and it seems as though Van Gogh has developed a decent relationship with another human being. But they came from different backgrounds and Gauguin brought an entirely different perspective to his art than Van Gogh did. What in 98% of relationships would have been a friendly disagreement becomes a bitter quarrel and Gauguin's leaving Van Gogh helps spiral him further into a breakdown.
Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, and the ever dependable, but seldom given enough credit James Donald cop all the acting honors here. Like John Huston's Moulin Rouge about Toulouse-Lautrec, Lust for a Life is a film that is so articulate that one can be art idiot and still appreciate the performances of the players.
Today Vincent Van Gogh probably would be on some psychiatric medicines like lithium and be a normal individual when on them. But would the world have the fruits of his artistic genius. An interesting question to ponder while watching this wonderful film.
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