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Simply the Worst: Vincente Minnelli”s “The Sandpiper”

Simply the Worst: Vincente Minnelli''s "The Sandpiper"

Yes, that’s Charles Bronson carving a nude driftwood Elizabeth Taylor.

A favorite story of film buffs and scholars is the Hollywood studio breakdown and the brief flowering of radical, daring cinema in its wake. The long and short of it goes that, by the mid 1960s, with the fully integrated studio system largely obsolete, movie executives were finding themselves at ropes’ end thanks to expensive flops and an overall decline in theater attendance. They were so jarred in fact that they went against their conservative instincts and turned to a younger generation of rebel directors, film-school brats who stuck their nose up at the establishment, finding true inspiration for their low-budget endeavors from foreign cinematic new waves and taking advantage of the loosening of strict regulations and censorship. While it’s true that this did lead to the careers of more than a few icons, like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, it also created an atmosphere where well-practiced industry workhorses could ply their trade in ways that brought out their idiosyncratic best—think longtime TV guy Robert Altman with M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller or John Huston with Fat City. In the simplest, most storied terms: directors, nay, auteurs, throwing off their studio shackles and assuming their rightful place as arbiters of a form once held in artistic bondage. The problem with this appealing apocrypha is that it adheres blindly to a philosophical auteurist purity that fails to take into consideration the realities of the system that made both these filmmakers’ careers and films possible. And if we view “great” directors’ films from a simplistic before and after perspective, what about those filmmakers who kept making movies, but whose careers never quite adapted after the change-up, the Cukors and the Kazans, the Joshua Logans and the George Stevenses?

A good test case would be Vincente Minnelli, one of those few dyed-in-the-wool studio filmmakers viewed with zeal as an auteur, thanks to an appealingly artisanal back-story (he was a window dresser and theater costume and set designer before a director) and the allegedly easily identifiable split between musicals (with their famously voluminous color palettes) and melodramas (more muted affairs than those of Sirk but still played to the hilt) that has seemed to largely define his career. Yet what about the noirish thrillers (1947’s Undercurrent; 1955’s The Cobweb), the family heartwarmers (1950’s Father of the Bride and its sequel, Father’s Little Dividend; 1963’s The Courtship of Eddie Father), the straight-faced period pieces (like 1956’s Lust for Life), and romantic comedies (1957’s Designing Woman)? There’s even a Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz vehicle in the bunch, 1953’s The Long, Long Trailer. Which is all to say that Minnelli cannot easily be stylistically or thematically pinned down. Once some dismissed him as middlebrow studio stooge and today he is generally regarded as an important Hollywood artist who managed to put his personal stamp on numerous for-hire projects. The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere in the middle—a truth that in no way detracts from the fluid, painterly brilliance of his best films, especially Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, Gigi, and Some Came Running; that the majority of them are freer-formed musicals points to the possibility that in some later era, in which the director was regarded as having more artistic clout, Minnelli might have been given greater carte blanche to make more visually unbridled, albeit darker-toned films.

But Minnelli was never able to emerge from the studio wreckage of the 1960s with anything resembling a clear auteurist (stylistic or ideological) point of view. That Minnelli’s early sixties films seem largely overly preoccupied with the shortcomings and burdens of the male animal (the brawny melodramas Home from the Hill and Two Weeks in Another Town, and the Father Knows Best–ish Courtship of Eddie’s Father) probably had more to do with the era itself, reacting to the often female-centered domestic comedies and teen flicks of the fifties, than Minnelli’s own desires. Scholarly reading into his films excavates heaps of buzzwords like class, consumerism, Freudianism, nonconformity, and masculinity, all of which you’d be hard-pressed to not find applicable to random handfuls of Hollywood golden-era titles. So what can we do with a film like 1965’s The Sandpiper? This Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton sudser was made right in that not-so-sweet spot in the middle of the decade, when audiences refused to see anything that didn’t feature Julie Andrews spinning on a mountaintop and when producers were trying to find things to appeal to younger, more progressive audiences without giving up on their waning stars and once tried-and-true formulas. Read all of Michael Koresky’s entry in Reverse Shot’s “Simply the Worst” symposium.

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