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A Light of Pure Gold: The Ideal of the Painter in Old Hollywood’s Waning Days

In seeking to capture the creative process, cinema has often been besotted with its own reflection. In Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” works like A Star Is Born (1937), Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Sunset Boulevard (1950) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) fixed the mythos of this most outré industry town. What these works assayed most clearly was the tension between an artist’s vision and the machinations of the system in which they strove to realise that vision. Hollywood’s growing self-awareness spoke to a malaise at its creative core; the ambivalence of the artist’s course through Hollywood’s often hostile terrain.

After all, this is the town which chewed up and spat out literary titans like Dylan Thomas and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s no coincidence that writers are frequently cinematic victims — be they found floating in pools, trapped in a cocoon of their own psychosis or bedridden and tortured by a deranged fan. The persecution complex of the unappreciated scribbler perhaps finds its fullest expression in Robert Altman’s adaptation of Michael Tolkin’s The Player (1992), a broadside against the “exec” in which the writer acts as avenging angel.

But the writer is faced with a problem when seeking to valorise their craft cinematically: the act of writing is too inert and inward-looking to have much dramatic potential, as most literary biopics demonstrate. The act of creation most conducive to the cinematic is painting, being concerned with tactility and motion. Visual art’s major figures are not introspective observers, but often outlandish, shamelessly self-promoting antagonists.

A romance pervades cinematic evocations of the painter. In the painter’s craft, the filmmaker sees a more elevated, fully realised version of themselves; mired as they are in a morass of quotidian mechanics, interpersonal expediencies and fiduciary imperatives. In contrast, the painter exists in a prelapsarian idyll, gambolling through Paul Gauguin’s untamed paradise without regard for the commercial implications of their choices. This is, of course, a gross simplification, but one which has proved enduringly appealing to filmmakers.

In this vicarious elevation of the painter, one can detect a note of self-recrimination — a tacit recognition that, in its subordination to a Fordist model of production, the medium has never fully taken creative flight. The camera became an instrument rather than an extension of artistic will, daring not to transgress imaginary lines. As an archetype, the painter became a repository for the loss of creative agency. This unease may have been felt most acutely during the era of the studio system. It’s hardly surprising that Moulin Rouge (1952), Lust for Life (1956) and The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) appealed to directors likes John Huston, Vincente Minnelli and Carol Reed; revered journeymen who lent the same verve and vigour to wildly divergent material over the course of their lengthy and varied careers.

It is almost as if the evocation of art pursued for its own sake acts as a sort of creative poultice, healing the psychic wounds of a career spent flitting between backlots. One can see parallels between the belated veneration of great artworks and the initial neglect which faced what are commonly regarded as cinema’s masterworks. For many filmmakers, to attain the level of art is also to court this degree of obscurity — it is why Vertigo (1958) towers over North by Northwest (1959) in the critical and creative imagination. This posture speaks to cinema’s inferiority complex, an upstart art form paying obeisance to its forbears.

These three works of the 50s and 60s chart the struggle of the artist to reconcile institutional obligation with honouring the muse. As such, they offer an interesting glimpse into the anxieties and aspirations of contemporary screenwriters and directors. Huston’s stagey and stilted recreation of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris betrays much of the forbearance of the era. For all its vaunt of delivering “wild, wicked, wonderful Paris,” the seamier side of Toulouse-Lautrec’s city life is choked in romantic treacle. Its gaudy Technicolor and picture-postcard contrivances run counter to the unblinking cynicism which underpins Toulouse-Lautrec’s, and Huston’s, outlook. But pierce the veneer and Moulin Rouge becomes a deceptively weighty treatise on the joys and tortures of independence.

José Ferrer’s Toulouse-Lautrec has more in common with the taciturn writer than the gregarious painter, his detached amusement masking a well of pain and longing. He sits sketching on the periphery of the social whirl, embodied in Zsa Zsa Gabor’s winsomely wooden turn as social climbing singer Jane Avril. In the flushed sybarites, he sees only contours to be captured, sublimating his pain into vividly rendered works which turn his subjects into stars who are elevated and jettisoned with equal rapidity. He traverses the “jungle” of Paris’s underbelly in pursuit of his lowly but vociferous muse, forever reliant on the patronage of wealthy philistines and struggling to upend technical convention.

Huston and writer Anthony Veiller evoke the twin artistic shibboleths: that a dauntless aesthetic spirit can overcome the sternest of creative obstacles, and the work will endure beyond the initial sting of opprobrium. Toulouse-Lautrec forfeits the security of his title, turns his back on his puritanical father — also played by Ferrer — and risks ruin in defence of his vision. When asked about the value of his work, Toulouse-Lautrec replies: “It is too soon to tell.” This is the film’s key message — that posterity’s blessing is the ultimate vindication. It is one which a talented but erratic craftsman like Huston would have felt keenly.

Minnelli’s visual elegance may be redolent of an age in which scale was in the ascendancy, but the raw humanity of Lust for Life manages to transcend the sunny artifice of its Cinemascope and Metrocolor presentation. This is a portrait of a social and artistic outsider, but one shot through with deep ambiguity about the solitary pursuit of the sublime in nature. On the one hand, Norman Corwin’s adaptation of Irving Stone’s novel celebrates what can be achieved in an environment of untrammelled artistic expression; while on the other, it concedes that this boundless creative vista has within it the seed of self-annihilation.

Lust for Life is a work which presages much of the tumult that would envelop the industry as its dominance was challenged on multiple fronts. There is a foreshadowing of the belief in the primacy of the director which would come to dominate the American New Wave, and reach its ugly terminus with Heaven’s Gate (1980). The arrival of the Impressionists — who scandalise Parisian society with a daring new vision which “condones anarchism in the arts” — could be said to portend the slow erosion of strict moral codes which had stifled the maturation of U.S. cinema in relation to its European equivalent. Change was afoot in the crumbling Hollywood edifice, a conflict pursued further in The Agony and the Ecstasy.

In Minnelli’s exploration of Vincent Van Gogh’s ceaseless quest for an expression of the divine, one can find a number of conflicts between the artist and figures of earthly authority. There is the seemingly ever-present paternal struggle, as Van Gogh’s priggish father balks at his son’s rejection of “the God of the clergyman”; a rejection stemming from Van Gogh’s interaction with ecclesiastical bean-counters during his time as the priest of a benighted mining community. In Van Gogh’s interaction with fellow artist Anton Mauve — a purveyor of bland but popular pastoral scenes who urges Van Gogh to “learn your business” — there is the clash of craft and emotion, the confluence of pragmatism and romanticism, with which Minnelli and his Classical Hollywood ilk would have been all too familiar.

Kirk Douglas gives an impassioned performance which stands alongside Ace in the Hole (1951), Paths of Glory (1957) and Lonely Are the Brave (1962) as among his best. He captures the condition of existing with a skin too few, of feeling the sting of pain too acutely, the torment of confronting “the iron wall between what I feel and what I can express.” Douglas’ Van Gogh is the ultimate avatar of the oppressed artist — the noble failure, chafing against the constraints of bourgeois acceptance, failing to fit into commercial moulds which throttle unique voices and unable to exist within the bounds of conventional life.

Anthony Quinn’s Gauguin is a guru-like figure expounding his theories of clarity and harmony — a man between epochs, an emissary from a new frontier of abstraction who avers that “friends, comfort, family must not interfere with the work.” In a performance of vigour and volatility, Quinn’s Gauguin is a figure who sees the storm clouds gathering on the horizon of the fin de siècle, asserting that “I don’t want to be loved” as he casts himself off from all cosy moorings; a hard-bitten materialist who scorns Van Gogh’s Romanticism, embracing the savagery and violence that erupted in the century before them.

Lust for Life is, at its core, a reflection on creative inner-conflict. Minnelli was a director who made such flawless products of the Hollywood machine as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and An American in Paris (1951), yet he was also the one to challenge it so strenuously in The Bad and the Beautiful. While never one to propound that one should become a penurious prophet observing the world from one’s own squalid redoubt, in Douglas he found a star who shared some of his misgivings, whose love for the business was tempered by a humanitarian streak which saw him reject the cant of McCarthyism at a time when such a stance was dangerous. For all the maladjustment that attends it, the act of creation is redeemed by that “light of pure gold” which drove Minnelli and Douglas just as it drove Van Gogh.

As the 60s progressed, it became increasingly apparent that Hollywood was no longer speaking to its audience. Faced with the mounting complexity of the decade, a torpor set in among the industry’s ageing and conservative moguls, who rested on their laurels with a slate of turgid biblical epics, overblown sword-and-sandal farragoes and lightweight musicals. Hollywood seemed content to position itself as a purveyor of lavish escapism, but like the artisans who find themselves walking into the middle of the opening battle in The Agony and the Ecstasy, they could not prevent reality from intruding upon their fantasy.

In the wake of the financially ruinous Cleopatra (1963), 20th Century Fox was producing fewer and fewer pictures. The Agony and the Ecstasy was made in collaboration with legendary independent producer Dino de Laurentiis. In the climate of stars breaking away from the studios to become producers in their own right, The Agony and the Ecstasy has a valedictory quality, lamenting the passing of an order in which strict control was exerted over every aspect of the product. The film’s central message is that Michelangelo was a reluctant painter. He regarded himself chiefly as a sculptor who had been commissioned by Pope Julius II to provide the fresco for the roof of the Sistine Chapel. Yet, like a studio player assigned a project, what he did with such compunction came to be his defining statement.

Carol Reed had recently endured his own clash with this newly emancipated stripe of star, having walked away from Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) after Marlon Brando staged a mutiny of his own and commandeered control of the production. With this is mind, it is not hard to see what attracted Reed to Philip Dunne’s adaptation of Irving Stone’s novel. One can certainly see Reed in the figure of Bramante, the pontiff’s architect; an intermediary of power trapped in the battle of wills between the temperamental artist and his patron, who demands that “he will paint it or he will hang.” As the story progresses, one feels a growing sympathy for Bramante’s efforts to accommodate the artist and mollify the pontiff.

Charlton Heston is an oddly reticent Michelangelo, perhaps as a result of a squeamish script which skirts around anything which may complicate its characterisation of Michelangelo as an airily detached figure with “no room in me for love,” and whose veins flow with paint. There are a few subtle hints to Michelangelo’s sexuality, but the film is primarily concerned with pursuing the ramifications of Michelangelo’s assertion that “princes and tyrants shouldn’t order the lives of artists.” Yet, the story begs for conflict, getting lost in prolonged exhibitions of process; its central schism degenerates into a series of exchanges in which the patron demands: “When will you make an end?.” with the artist retorting: “When I am finished.”

Rex Harrison is every inch the faded mogul as Pope Julius II. In 1962, Daryl Zanuck returned as president of Fox, presiding over his tarnished fiefdom. In an early scene in which the pontiff rides into Rome, one of his courtiers enquires with alarm: “Where are all the people?” Julius II is a figure enfolded in defeat and decay; Harrison’s final speech acknowledges the pontiff’s failure as he confronts Michelangelo’s rendering of The Creation of Adam. Harrison succeeds in eliciting a degree of sympathy for the pontiff, though this may be due to his implicit likeability, and Michelangelo’s increasingly demanding behaviour in the face of his patron’s downfall. Like the construct of Hollywood, Julius II is an ailing potentate presiding over a shrinking sphere of influence, the invaders at the gates of the citadel.

As much as the film is about the loss of control, it also makes manifest the extent to which art functions as an organ of power, whether by celebration or omission. Whatever the medium, the artist must become reconciled to this reality. Michelangelo’s pliable young rival, Raphael, sums up this condition when he asks Michelangelo: “What is an artist but a servant, a lackey for the rich and powerful?” To Raphael, artists are “harlots peddling beauty at the doorsteps of the mighty.” Throughout The Agony and the Ecstasy, there is a budding radicalism held in check by an ingrained conservatism; it mocks the cardinals’ cries of “obscenity!” when they witness Michelangelo’s “twisted masses of flesh,” yet it remains tied to a heroic model which forbids its protagonist from impinging on the rugged integrity of its star.

In this regard, The Agony and the Ecstasy is a classic transitional text between the Golden Age and the New Hollywood that would announce itself two years later with the seismic success of The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde. In the confusion of corporate takeovers that characterised this period, the filmic artist would enjoy a brief moment of creative freedom. But by the mid-70s, a new formula had asserted itself — Roger Corman writ large — and once again, the filmmaker was subject to the diktats of an authority, this time with transnational might behind it. Alternative avenues have opened up to challenge the absorption of studios by multinational entities, but these are skirmishes in an asymmetric conflict. The filmmaker continues to dream of the painter’s Arcadia, however illusory it may be.

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.

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