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Kirk Douglas is Vincent Van Gogh in "Lust for Life," directed by
Vincent Minnelli and also starring Anthony Quinn as Gaugin (Oscar
winner for his performance), and James Donal as Van Gogh's brother
This film is actually based on the Irving Stone novel and while it leaves out parts of Van Gogh's life, it does seem to hit the high points. A sensitive man with a spiritual sense of life, Van Gogh seeks from the beginning to express God in some way and to give something to the world. He is unsuccessful as a minister and eventually takes up painting, supported by his loving brother Theo. Basically he lives somewhere until whomever he's living with gets sick of him and throws him out. He is a terribly lonely man, but he has an intensity that is almost frightening to people. At one point, he takes up with a sometime prostitute with a baby - she eventually leaves. In actual fact, when Van Gogh met this woman, named Sien, she was pregnant with a second child, who grew up believing Van Gogh was his father. Sien some 20+ years later commits suicide.
Van Gogh establishes a friendship with Gaugin and has dreams of an artist colony, but his relationship with Gaugin, as with everyone but his brother, ends terribly when he stalks Gaugin with an open straight razor, later cutting off part of his own ear. It is evident from the film that whatever Van Gogh's mental problem was (and there are many theories, from bipolar, to epilepsy, to schizophrenia), it worsened as time went on, as did his physical condition. He would often buy paints rather than eat and would work ceaselessly.
Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime - however, what the film does not show is that, had he chosen to live, he was on the brink of being recognized for his work. His paintings had started being exhibited and appreciated and began to sell shortly after his death. What also isn't in the film is that his brother died shortly after Van Gogh did. It was Theo's widow who carried on the work that would be involved with Van Gogh's vast collection.
The film reduced me to tears - indeed, the song that says "they should have told you, Vincent, the world was never meant for one as beautiful as you" was certainly true. The only person who ever "got" Vincent was his brother.
As for the performances, Kirk Douglas makes a brilliant Van Gogh. Michael Douglas once said his father isn't considered a great actor because the style back then in the types of roles he played has changed. It's true - seen today, Douglas' work seems too intense at times, too big, too over the top in these times of acting so naturally as to almost be boring. However, I believe that Van Gogh must have been like the Douglas characterization. He obviously drove people away in large masses, and Douglas captured that passion, drive, and overeagerness perfectly. As Theo, James Donal is perfect as the calm one in the family. Anthony Quinn has a short but memorable role as the flamboyant Gaugin. He's wonderful - arrogant, opinionated, temperamental, with a bad temper, and Quinn plays him as an artist without the soul of Van Gogh. But who, after all, had the soul of Van Gogh? Vincent Minnelli lovingly directed this film and it definitely has his wonderful attention to detail, flow, and artistic touch. And the paintings are breathtaking. A beautiful film that will stay with you for a long time, and you'll never see "Starry Night" in the same way again.
I have always liked this movie--despite not being a great fan of Van
Gogh's work. However, I recently came to absolutely love this film and
can really appreciate the artistry of the producers and director--they
OBVIOUSLY really cared about the story and did so much to replicate the
life of Van Gogh.
Let me explain. I teach a psychology class and part of the class involves discussing famous people with mental illnesses. Considering I teach at an arts school, it seemed natural to show and discuss Lust for Life. In addition, I picked up perhaps the definitive book on the paintings of Van Gogh. As we watched the film, I flipped through the massive book and was shocked how accurately everything was portrayed in the film. The locations, scenery and characters were absolutely dead on in every respect. In particular, all the little bit characters in the film looked almost like clones of the paintings of these actual people Van Gogh knew. For example, the sailor friend, his doctor in the mental hospital, the artist Pisarro and MANY others were just about carbon copies.
In addition, the myth of Van Gogh was avoided in the film. Unlike the common story, Van Gogh did NOT cut off his ear and give it to a prostitute. The exact nature of the event is a little confusing, but no reputable historian would tell the often repeated story about the prostitute! It was likely a suicide attempt and only a portion of the ear was torn off as he was slicing his throat--or, he did it as a histrionic reaction to a fight with his crazed friend, Gaughin.
The only MINOR short-coming is that in a couple places, Kirk Douglas' acting seems a little overboard. But, considering how his performance was OVERALL, this can easily be overlooked. Also, although Van Gogh cut off most of his ear as a result of a suicide attempt, the movie accidentally SWITCHES which ear was removed--look carefully and you'll see.
This film is a rarity, a biopic which is more accurate than the book it's
based on. Irving Stone's book was a major best-seller which did much to
Vincent Van Gogh one of the ten most famous artists in history but it did
have its inaccuracies, particularly when it depicted its protagonist in
Paris with other great painters of the time. In the book, Gauguin, Lautrec,
Cezanne and Rousseau come off as typical bohemians while Vincent was made
much more of a leader than he was. Minelli doesn't give us a detailed look
at any of the artists except Gauguin but he is more accurate about who
influenced Van Gogh and he does include his best friend, the now-forgotten
Emile Bernard, if only as an extra in Tanguy's shop.
When Lust for Life came out, several critics dismissed it as too lurid and melodramatic, but those adjectives are accurate in describing Van Gogh's life. Note that Kirk Douglas does not play his usual cool, fun-loving tough guy and actually uses his whole body in his acting. For once Hollywood outdid itself.
"Lust for Life", Vincente Minnelli's rich interpretation of Irving
Stone's Vincent Van Gogh bio-novel, is a film both compelling and
repelling; in delving into the psyche of the artist (unforgettably
portrayed by Kirk Douglas), one can see an untrained, unbridled genius
smashing convention to open viewers' eyes to a world defined by
passion; yet in doing so, we share in the growing nightmares and agony
of his creative mind, teetering toward the madness that would destroy
him, and it is an unsettling experience, to be sure!
This is a film so rich in visual imagery (with a Technicolor 'palette' that attempts to recreate Van Gogh's view of his world), that it demands repeated viewings, just to savor the details. From wheat fields 'aflame' in color, to night skies that nearly writhe in waves of darkness, the elemental nature of the artist's vision is spectacularly captured. And in experiencing the world through his eyes, the loving, yet uncomprehending concern of his brother (James Donald), and more hedonistic, shallow patronizing, and gradual disgust of fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn, in his Oscar-winning performance), become elemental 'barriers', as well. Van Gogh wants to 'speak', but no one can understand his 'language', not even the artist, himself!
Kirk Douglas never plunged as deeply into a portrayal as he did, in "Lust for Life", and the experience nearly crushed him, as he related in his autobiography, "Ragman's Son". His total immersion in the role SHOULD have won him an Oscar (Yul Brynner won, instead, for "The King and I"), and his bitterness and disappointment at the snub would haunt him, to this day. With the passage of time, his performance has only increased in luster and stature, and it certainly shows an actor at the top of his form!
"Lust for Life" is an unforgettable experience, not to be missed!
When I hear the name Vincente Minnelli certain scenes pop up on my inner
screeningroom: A tracking shot at the fair (Some came running), the low
tracking zoom towards Douglas and Turner at the pool (Bad and the
Beautiful), snowmen (Meet me in St Louis) and the agony in Douglas's face
"Lust for life"; in fact as soon as his redbearded agonized face pops up,
all the other movies fade away and "Lust for life" takes over my inner
But apart from being my favorite Minnelli movie, its a movie that more than any other shows his genius in use of colors; every scene is composed in breathtaking technicolor with the deepest respect for Van Gogh's own use of color, and Douglas's acting is filled with the same agony and passion as the strokes of Van Gogh's brush. As the other great movies who uses color to its fullest (Wizard of Oz, Black Narcissus, Ten Commandments), the simularities between the director and the painter is obvious. Hence, Minnelli's struggle for "painting" the scenes with the richness of technicolor becomes an echo of Van Gogh. It also reads as a textbook in composition from Steinberg's Dead Space to Eisenstein's juxtapositions. In all, Minnelli is of great skill and uses it to the fullest.
The story, which focuses on the struggle for a new way of expression, is tame at times and the acting (apart from Douglas) seems static most of the times, but the tortured face and body of Douglas and the use of color makes this one of the greatest achievements in MGM's history and one of the best movies Minnelli ever made.
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Kirk Douglas - with a powerful portrayal of Vincent Van Gogh (1853-90)
the greatest Dutch painter after Rembrandt, lost the Oscar to Yul
Brynner ("The King and I") in 1956..
The film captured the artist's agony and everything in Van Gogh's pictures seems to be pulsating with life..Yet of the more than 800 oil paintings and 700 drawings which constitute his life's work, he sold only one in his lifetime..
"Lust for Life" begins in Brussels in 1878 where Van Gogh intent to do missionary work among the impoverished population of the Borinage, a coal-mining region in southwest Belgium.
There, he experienced the first great spiritual crisis of his life..He was sharing the life of the poor completely but in an impassioned moment gave away all his worldly goods and was thereupon dismissed by his 'superiors' for a too literal 'interpretation' of Christian teaching..
Penniless and with his faith destroyed, he sank into despair..
When his brother Theo (James Donald) arrives in Le Borinage, he finds him living in a little shack.. sleeping in the dirt and straw..Theo persuades him to return to Holland..
At home..he cut himself off from everyone, and began seriously to draw, thereby discovering his true vocation..Van Gogh decided that 'his mission' from then on would be to 'bring consolation' to humanity through 'art', and this realization of his creative powers restored his self-confidence..
A passionate man by nature, he needed 'love' and he wanted a 'home' and 'children'..He impulsively proposes it to his cousin Kay (Jeanette Sterke) - a widow with a son - who violently rejects him ( 'No..Never! Never!')
Late, in The Hague, he settled in after meeting with Christine (Pamela Brown) a prostitute who becomes his model and his housekeeper..He acquires technical proficiency confining himself almost entirely to drawings..
He visits his cousin Anton Mauve (Noel Purcell) - a Dutch landscape painter - who offered to teach him how to work with color and oil..
Van Gogh extended his technical knowledge and experimented oil paint in "In the Field", in "The Potato Eaters", in "The Loom", in a "Peasant Woman in a Red Bonnet"...
At Nuenen, after the death of his father and a discussion with his sister Willemien (Jill Bennett) he decided to leave to Paris..where he was introduced to the world of Impressionists like Cezanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Monet..He joins his brother Theo and met Pissarro, Seurat and Gauguin..
Paul Gauguin (Anthony Quinn) opened his eyes to the latest developments in French painting..
In Paris, Van Gogh hoped to form a separate Impressionist group with Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec and others whom he supposed to have similar aims..
He rented and decorated ' a yellow house ' in Arles and invited Gauguin with the intention of persuading him and found a working community of Impressionists..They worked together..each influenced the other to some extent but their relations rapidly deteriorated because they had opposing ideas and were temperamentally incompatible..
One night, after Gauguin leaves, Van Gogh broke under the strain and cut off part of his left ear..He was taken by Theo to a mental institution at Saint-Rémy-de-Provence in order to be under medical supervision..
At Saint-Rémy he muted the violent colors and tried to make his painting calmer : "Self-Portrait with Pipe and Bandaged Ear", "La Berceuce", "Garden of the Asylum", "Cypresses", "Olive Trees"..etc...
Oppressed by homesickness - he painted souvenirs of Holland - and loneliness, he longed to see his brother Theo in Paris who invited him to see a pleasant homeopathic doctor-artist Gachet (Everett Sloanne) with a passion for arts..But this phase was short : Feeling dependence on Theo (now married and with a son) and his inability to succeed and in despair of ever overcoming his loneliness or of being cured, he shot himself after finishing his last painting : "The Wheatfield and the Crows" dying July 29, 1890 in 'a bright daylight..the sun flooding everything..in a light of pure gold'..
Anthony Quinn received his second Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor - after "Viva Zapata", 1952 - for his 'splendid' performance as Paul Gauguin.. The film presented him as slow and careful.. pipe smoking and unfeeling.. face to face with the 'nervous' Van Gogh.. ('If there's one thing I despise, that's emotion in painting..')
Vincente Minnelli mounted beautifully a faithful account of the life of a great painter and manages to convey his 'genius' and his personal 'agony'..
Kurt Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh is absolutely amazing. He captures the
frenetic passion with which Van Gogh painted. The movie has all the main
influencing factors of his life and all of the master's difficulties, trials
The film shows Van Gogh's love of painting. He once wrote to his brother that it was impossible to see the world and not want to paint it. He saw the goodness of the simple people and showed his sympathy for them. Van Gogh's style showed the energy of nature and the toil of the poor. Van Gogh comes through as a man desperately trying to paint enough of the beauty he saw, at one moment bristling with positive energy and at the next unsure of himself and afraid of being always alone.
I was touched by Lust for Life and could not help finding sympathy with Van Gogh despite hs arguing with other painters and and falling in love with an ill prostitute and his societal awkwardness and so on. He came through not as a misfit really, but as one who was not meant for society, and a man to whom society wore upon.
The movie is excellent and moving and the end is truly beautiful in its tragedy. It is impossible to mention all the aspects of the movie I liked but this movie can be seen based on Douglas's performance alone.
The best part of this film was to see so many of Vincent Van Gogh's
paintings. There must have been at least a hundred of them shown in
It's a biography of a tragic life, one of the most famous artists of all time, and a tortured soul, but the film isn't as interesting as one would hope for such a figure.
It just doesn't have the emotion and the charisma of "Moulin Rouge" (1952) in which we see the bio of another famous French painter of that era: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Kirk Douglas is okay as Van Gogh, perhaps not up to Jose Frerrer's high standards with Toulouse-Lautrec, but still convincing in showing the artist's desperate fight against loneliness and his passion for his artwork.
I am probably being too harsh constantly comparing this to Moulin Rouge but I also noticed a big difference in the cinematography, too. This just wasn't as visually striking as it should be, especially since Van Gogh loved to paint in the beautiful French countryside.
The film still has its merits and thankfully didn't get depressing dwelling on Van Gogh's mental problems. It also had good supporting roles turned in by James Donald and Anthony Quinn.
I was still anxious to see this on a widescreen DVD when it was issued in recent months but every report I read said the DVD transfer was poor, a big disappointment.
Irving Stone wrote his book 'Lust for Life' in 1934 and MGM obtained
the film rights to it in 1946, long before there was any intention to
create this film. Biographical films about the lives of artists were
not regarded as likely to be financially viable, and at the time Van
Gogh, who had only sold one painting in his lifetime, was not really
well known to the public or regarded as the most promising subject for
such a film. This changed following a very successful exhibition of his
works in 1955 and MGM decided to commission Minnelli to direct the film
for them, but they had little time left to create it as their film
rights to the book expired at the end of 1955. This greatly complicated
the production. For example, rights to create still reproductions of
almost 200 of Van Gogh's works for this film had to be negotiated with
all the museums, galleries and private collectors world-wide who owned
them, the pictures then had to be copied by special still cameras
requiring only low illumination levels, and printed as large
transparencies that could be back-lit for filming in any scenes where
they were visible. Minnelli was a good choice as Director - previously
a stage designer he was known for artistic sensibilities and an eye for
colour. In his memoirs Minnelli reports two major battles with the
studio moguls, one he won - the other he lost. Minnelli knew the
Metrocolor process used at MGM generated saturated colours which would
be too garish for this film. He had recently finished filming Brigadoon
using Anscocolor stock and insisted this was what was needed, but
Anscocolor cine stock had just been discontinued. MGM eventually agreed
to buy up the last 300,000 feet of unused Anscocolor stock available,
and to set up a laboratory in which it could be processed. Minnelli
also bitterly opposed working in CinemaScope format, claiming the large
aspect ratio was incompatible with most paintings, and would also spoil
the intimacy of many of the scenes to be filmed; but he was over-ruled
Half a century later we are in a position to appreciate how right he was over both these issues. Like most viewers my first reactions to a film I am watching usually relate to the quality of the film-script, the direction and the acting. If these are acceptable I know I am likely to feel that I have seen a very good film. But film stock remains very important - as a still photographer myself I am well aware of the need to evaluate whether a particular shot should be made on, for example, Fuji's Sensia, Astia or Velvia emulsions - the wrong choice usually destroys the effect the photographer is striving for. It is the same with movies - I can recall just four films ('The Riddle of the Sands',' Laura, les Ombres de l'Ete', 'Black Narcissus' and 'Lust for Life') where one of my first reactions has been admiration for the atmospheric qualities and colour rendering of the photography. There may have been others but such films are certainly not very numerous. Although the opening credits of L4L still attribute the colour to Metrocolor, this film could not have succeeded as it did if MGM had been unable to obtain the Ansco stock that was actually used. As for aspect ratio, we have only to compare the VHS version with the new widescreen DVD to confirm that Minnelli's vision was correct (and this is of course after he did everything possible to utilise sequences which take maximum advantage of the widescreen presentation that he was forced to adopt.)
The film-script has been criticised for inaccuracies in Van Gogh's life as shown (unfairly as it is based on Irving Stone's book, which is normally classed as a novel rather than a biography. MGM might have done better to write an independent film-script and present their film as a biography- not as a film of a novel. What probably prevented this was recognition that they would then be responsible for any errors.) As written it is a very powerful depiction of the gradually increasing intensity of Van Gogh's commitment to his art, which increasingly became the only significant driving force in everything he did. The two hour overall running time is just about right - the emotional impact of watching the gradual disintegration of Van Gogh's personality might have become quite distressing for some viewers if the film has been a great deal longer.
The acting is exceptional. Kirk Douglas, a remarkable look-alike to extant pictures of Van Gogh, put everything into his effort to create a believable picture of a man with an increasingly fanatical drive which eventually overwhelmed him. It earned him an Oscar nomination, but not an award. This, I feel, was not his fault - Van Gogh was too insecure to interact normally with others and this would have showed in his whole bearing, something an individual as secure and stable as Kirk could not easily emulate. An actor is by nature an extreme extrovert and trying to take the part of an introvert is very difficult - when the introvert is both fanatical and unbalanced it probably becomes impossible. This makes it hard to become involved with Kirk's portrayal of the role in the same way that one would have done with Van Gogh himself. Anthony Quinn's Best Supporting Actor Oscar award for his role as Paul Gauguin was well deserved. There were also memorable performances by James Donald as Theo and Pamela Brown as Christine. Theo's anguish in the deathbed sequence came over very effectively. The direction and camera work, although not faultless, were both of an extremely high standard. All in all, anyone interested either in modern painting or in the lives of modern painters will find this a most rewarding film to watch.
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