• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:March 8, 2022

Lust for Life: Van Gogh’s Torment


Kirk Douglas. Photo: MGM

Over the years, Kirk Douglas wrote several books about his rich life. ”The Ragman’s Son”, published in 1988, told a story about John Wayne that was less than flattering. After attending a screening of Lust for Life, the severely conservative star was appalled and told Douglas that men like them had to play strong, tough characters. ”Not those weak queers”, as Wayne labeled Vincent van Gogh. Douglas had to point out to Wayne the nature of the filmmaking business. ”It’s all make-believe, John. It isn’t real. You’re not John Wayne, you know”.

This seemed like too much for Wayne to fathom. One has to pity him. Lust for Life is worth another look. 

Choosing to live in poverty like a miner
When we first meet Vincent van Gogh (Douglas), the year is 1879 and he’s sent to a coal-mining district in Belgium where he will serve as a pastor. He’s 26 and hasn’t achieved much in life, but the time he spends among the coal miners has a tremendous effect on him. To the horror of his church, he chooses to live just like a miner, in poverty, and does whatever he can to support these poor people. Eventually, he goes too far and loses himself in the community, rejected by the church, unable to help anyone. After returning to his father’s home, Vincent falls in love with his cousin, but faces rejection once again. His life begins to change when his talent for drawing is encouraged…

Novel was based on letters
The Irving Stone novel was published two decades before Vincente Minnelli turned it into a movie. Van Gogh never achieved widespread fame in his lifetime, but by then, in 1934, he had been one of the world’s most famous artists (at least in Europe) for a couple of decades. Stone based his novel on letters between van Gogh and his brother Theo, and he also visited sites where the artist spent time. ”Lust for Life” is recognized as a valuable source of information regarding van Gogh’s life, explaining where the inspiration for some of his greatest works of art came from.

Much like the novel, the structure of this film is divided into seamless chapters that take us to different places that were significant in van Gogh’s life, Belgium, France, the Netherlands. An obvious theme throughout the film is the artist’s mental instability that has a tendency to explode at dramatic points. It’s a passion in trying to capture the world as he sees it in paintings, but those emotions constantly suffer from a dark side. This state of mind is obvious when he’s trying to be a pastor in Belgium, in his foolish attempts to seduce his cousin, and in his hopeless despair whenever his close relationship with Paul Gaugin is threatened by yet another quarrel. The last part is apparently what was behind van Gogh’s infamous mutilation of his left ear in 1888, the beginning of his road to suicide two years later. The events depicted in the film may seem melodramatic at times, but they are close to the truth.

A touching aspect of the film is the strong bond between the van Gogh brothers, challenged at times but still firm throughout Vincent’s life. Perhaps a more attention-grabbing ingredient in the film is the friendship between him and Gaugin, compadres in psychological misery. Anthony Quinn provides fireworks, but Douglas gives the best performance of the film, a role he worked so hard for that you could make comparisons with van Gogh’s passion for his art.

Technically speaking, this is another example of the kind of visually striking, beautiful pictures that Minnelli made in the 1950s, turning van Gogh’s art into one with the places where he lived, boosted by Miklós Rósza’s vivid music score.

Lust for Life 1956-U.S. 122 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by John Houseman. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Screenplay: Norman Corwin. Novel: Irving Stone. Cinematography: Russell Harlan, Freddie Young. Music: Miklós Rósza. Art Direction: Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons, Hans Peters. Cast: Kirk Douglas (Vincent van Gogh), Anthony Quinn (Paul Gauguin), James Donald (Theo van Gogh), Pamela Brown, Everett Sloane, Niall MacGinniss… Henry Daniell.

Oscar: Best Supporting Actor (Quinn). Golden Globe: Best Actor (Douglas). 

Last word: “I prepare as much as possible. I allow an area for improvisation because the chemical things actors bring to stories make it not work. So it has to be worked upon. ‘Lust for Life’ (1956) was completely done over while in Europe. Fortunately, John Houseman is a marvelous writer and he sat in on so many story conferences. He worked with Welles, you know, and he’s a marvelous man.” (Minnelli, interview with Henry Sheehan)



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