Alone Together

Love and loneliness in the films of Vincente Minnelli
by Aaron Cutler  posted September 27, 2011
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Vincente Minnelli was a great director of loneliness. He marshaled it not merely through script and actors, but through a subtly solitary mise-en-scène. BAM's full retrospective of the classical Hollywood filmmaker's career, currently under way and following tributes at the Locarno Film Festival and in São Paulo earlier this year, offers viewers a chance to see how, through framing and editing, Minnelli showed people alone even while with each other.

Take the ending of The Band Wagon (1953), starring an aging Fred Astaire as a former Hollywood icon attempting a Broadway career revival. Like many backstage musicals, the film follows two main, related plotlines: the development of the show and the development of a love affair. At film's end, Astaire's character considers quitting, and his co-star and crush (Cyd Charisse) pleads with him to stay. First she steps out from the group, everyone facing him, his back to the camera. Then, as she says that they have nothing to give him "except our gratitude, our admiration, and our love," the film cuts in from the group to a tighter shot of the two of them with blurs in the background. The closer focus on the speech, and on the actress delivering it, gives the sense of Charisse's character asking him not just to stay with the troupe, but with her—and Astaire's back, filling even more of the frame now, leaves his answer in doubt. Another cut-in leaves Charisse isolated, as she tells him, "We've come to love you, Tony. We belong together." Then, at last, we cut out to watch a glad Astaire grab and kiss her. The show can go on.

Minnelli mainly directed two kinds of films throughout his MGM career, musicals and melodramas. The need for a lover lives in both. In The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), a Hollywood producer demands to be alone with his alcoholic star. A frontal view of the two of them smiling at each other ends with him touching her cheek, but they don't caress; the film cuts to him walking away from her to pour a drink. As he works in the lower left corner, she watches longingly in the upper right; she walks closer to him, and he turns his back to her. For a brief instant, as he pours, the focus of the shot becomes her double need, for the alcohol and for him. Once he hands her a glass, and subsequently kisses her, both needs are, for an instant, fulfilled. (Clip here: 1:27-2:46)

Astaire and Charisse end The Band Wagon with a cheery group number—"The stage is a world, the world is a stage of entertainment!" By contrast, The Bad and the Beautiful's couple will work and love together while their movie's shooting, but after the premiere he'll throw her out of his house. He does so with his back to her; here, as in innumerable cases, Minnelli shifts the actors' eyes and torsos to suggest how close people can get to each other while still far away. Madame Bovary (1949) is practically a Fassbinder primer with the number of ways Minnelli shoots its heroine looking to the side of or directly past her weak, meek husband—unless she wants something from him, in which case she gazes at him straight and clear. "Mademoiselle" (1953, Minnelli's segment in the omnibus film The Story of Three Loves) summarizes its impossible love affair with a smooth pan up from a youth reading the French poetry he's been taught to his teacher gazing out from a balcony (her back to us), alongside a statue with its head similarly turned.

A boy plays a man here, while a young woman dreams of a storybook lover. They're both acting, and when they meet, they'll perform their roles opposite each other (eyes meeting). The leads in Minnelli films are constantly romancing two people at once—the other person as they see them, and the other person's own self-image. Joy arrives when, as in The Pirate (1948), the couple agrees to act together. But what happens if they're not reading the same script?

Minnelli gives the answer in Some Came Running (1958), a melodrama whose opening scene is a beautifully choreographed dance between two pairs of eyes. Former soldier Dave (Frank Sinatra) steps off a bus in his Indiana hometown, and former prostitute Ginnie (Shirley MacLaine) follows him, as she followed him all the way from Chicago. "Just these two?" the driver asks. He's referring to Sinatra's bags, but since Dave and Ginnie are the last two passengers, the film's also asking if they belong together. Over the course of one long take played in flat, frontal framing, these two engage and disengage—he looks away, then back, then away while remembering something; she turns away to put on makeup (her costume) in preparation for his family. Their faces meet at the moments of disjunction—she asks, "You don't want me here?"; he gives her money for the ride back; he tells her goodbye and walks away.

Dave is a divided man, the film's only character that can move smoothly between two worlds. In one he visits his brother's wealthy family and romances the town's creative writing teacher at a country club; in the other he plays cards at the local bar, Ginnie eating a hamburger nearby. She's much more blatantly a performer, vulgar in her ability to play only one role—herself. When she tries to play another, the results aren't pretty, as when one night, very drunk, she gets up and sings a song with a nightclub band badly off-key.

Off-key singers weren't new to Minnelli—in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), six-year-old Tootie (Margaret O'Brien) howls "I Was Drunk Last Night, Dear Mother" to a group of teenagers. Yet while in St. Louis Tootie is joined and guided by a far smoother performer (her older sister, played by Judy Garland) who sings along with her, in Some Came Running Ginnie's performance provokes a crisis, as the manager complains until Dave dances her offstage. He buries her head in his shoulder, and turns away from us.

The children in Minnelli films are often sources of embarrassment, whether Tootie talking about death in St. Louis or Eddie asking about sex in The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963). In Some Came Running, Ginnie—an adult people treat like a child—embarrasses Dave not just because of her class but because he can't get rid of her. The film moves her continually closer to him, both in visual and narrative terms (she appears in fewer than 20 minutes of the film's first half and almost all of its last quarter). Just as The Bad and the Beautiful makes Lana Turner's star the focus even while distant in the frame, this film calls attention to Ginnie by marginalizing her. As Dave seats Ginnie after the song debacle, his niece enters the club drunk, and the camera follows her, away from them. Dave, too, follows her into the center of the frame, leaving Ginnie a small mark in the upper left. Two stories unfold simultaneously—Dave confronts his niece while Ginnie, through ceaseless acts of little business tries to make herself invisible. Still, she can't help watching them. A cut-in to Dave and his niece blocks her out until Dave calls for her; a medium shot shows Ginnie's happiness; and it's only once he's summoned her that she enters the frame with the three of them.

She's fulfilled her wish of meeting his family, on his terms. The cruelest thing about this film is how she can only get close to him on his terms, and how (again, prefiguring Fassbinder) she's happy to. In a close-up late in the film, she runs to him, holds him, and cries, "Dave, be in love with me!" The shot's played tight, their cheeks close together, but for the most part Dave avoids looking at her. He finally asks, "Would you, uh, would you clean up the place for me?" and their eyes meet. She's delighted. "Oh, could I?"

Her eagerness to serve a man who doesn't love her recalls M. Bovary's devotion to his wife, just as a speech M. Bovary gives to Madame—"I wish I were clever. If I were clever I could understand you. If I could understand you then perhaps I could help you. I love you so much, Emma"—foreshadows Ginnie's words to Dave: "I don't understand you, neither, but that doesn't mean I don't like you. I love you! But I don't understand you. Now what's the matter with that?"

Minnelli shows people isolated in their own understandings. A scene in Lust for Life (1956) offers Vincent Van Gogh pleading with Paul Gauguin to stay with him, each man fixed in his own shot; no matter how far Van Gogh leans forward, he can't enter Gauguin's frame. Similarly, as Dave reads a story he's written to an uncomprehending Ginnie, the film cuts back and forth between them. But this couple is different, in that her words do reach him (literally, as "What's the matter with that?" plays over a shot of Sinatra registering it), and that he can and does choose to enter her space. Seeing that she can make him less lonely, he crosses from his frame to hers, bends down, and asks for her hand.

The marriage proposal, though, proves only a superficial remedy; like The Clock (1945), Some Came Running shows a couple marrying while asking how they can actually make a life together. Yet The Clock leaves audience members hopeful, as Judy Garland and Robert Walker's continual nervous glances at each other suggest a couple actually in love. In this marriage, the love is one-sided, and the analogue seems less the Clock couple's eagerness to do the thing and more like the marrieds in The Cobweb (1955), who spend long bedroom scenes together without touching. A cut-in of Dave and Ginnie after they marry lasts a full 15 seconds, and shows her leaning forward a little, then stopping, hoping Dave will kiss her. He won't.

It's a perfect, and perfectly awful, Minnelli moment of two people who can only ever have each other partly. But if you really can't choose who you love, then what's the matter with that? 


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Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine in Some Came Running, directed by Vincente Minnelli
Photo Gallery: Alone Together


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Vincente Minnelli  |  Retrospective  |  Hollywood  |  musicals  |  melodrama


Aaron Cutler is a writer in São Paulo. His film writings can be found at

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