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Director, 83, Won Award for 'Gigi' : Oscar Winner Vincente Minnelli Dies

July 26, 1986|STEVE HARVEY | Times Staff Writer

Vincente Minnelli, a one-time department store window designer who directed such classic Hollywood musicals as "An American in Paris," "Gigi" and "Meet Me in St. Louis," died Friday after a long battle with emphysema, a family spokesman said. He was 83.

Minnelli was stricken at his Beverly Hills home with a respiratory problem at 6:30 p.m. and was taken to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead on arrival an hour later, according to a hospital spokesman.

Minnelli, who won an Oscar for "Gigi" in 1958, made his last film, "A Matter of Time," starring daughter Liza Minnelli, in 1976.

He directed Judy Garland--his first wife and Liza's mother--in three films, including "Meet Me in St. Louis," a project that neither Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer nor Garland was enthusiastic about at the outset. But the 1944 film, perhaps best remembered for Garland's singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" to her weeping younger sister, Margaret O'Brien, became a critical and commercial success.

Minnelli was praised by critics for his daring use of color, innovative camera work and skill at advancing a story through dance and song--including the audacious idea of ending "An American in Paris" with a 17-minute ballet performed by Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron.

"I've always been visual," he said, referring to his designer background. "I like to use cities as characters in my films."

While Minnelli's name was synonymous with sophisticated musicals (others included "Cabin in the Sky," "The Band Wagon" and "The Pirate"), he didn't limit himself to that genre.

His 37 credits ranged from comedy ("Father of the Bride") to drama ("The Bad and the Beautiful," "The Clock" and "Madame Bovary") to a biography of Vincent Van Gogh ("Lust for Life").

His personal favorite was "Lust for Life," starring Kirk Douglas as the haunted painter. Minnelli recalled several years ago how he had tried to "capture . . . how important light was to Van Gogh--the sun, the stars, a lantern in a cafe. . . ."

Times film critic Kevin Thomas noted that the director was far more than just a maker of escapist entertainment: "Long before Antonioni or Fellini made it fashionable, Vincente Minnelli explored with surreal bravura the interplay between fantasy and reality that occurs in response both to romantic yearnings and to the darker irrational forces of life . . . in such seemingly disparate films as 'The Clock,' 'Father of the Bride,' 'Lust for Life' and 'Some Came Running.' "

Born in Chicago, Minnelli toured through the Midwest as a child actor with his parents' company, Minnelli Bros. Dramatic and Tent Shows.

Of his debut at 3, he once recalled with amusement: "I played in 'East Lynne' as a corpse. My mother (the leading lady) was leaning over me sobbing, 'My child is dead! My child is dead!' I was so upset I sat up and cried, 'I'm not dead, Mama! I'm not dead! I was only acting!' "

Eventually, the tent show went out of business, partly due to the growing popularity of a new art form--motion pictures. And so Minnelli retired as an actor at the age of 8.

During summer vacations, he worked for a billboard painter and began to show a talent for drawing. It was while studying at the Chicago Art Institute that he became fourth apprentice to the head of window displays at the Marshall Field department store. A window display was a kind of stage--but not his kind.

Sketched Actors

To supplement his income, Minnelli sketched actors at the local theater and sold the drawings to them backstage. He also learned photography.

Young Minnelli then persuaded a Chicago vaudeville chain to form its own costume department, with him in charge. When the chain moved to New York, he moved, too. A big break came when producer Earl Carroll signed him to design a 300-foot curtain for the 1931 "Vanities" show.

Minnelli began to design costumes and stage productions at Radio City Musical Hall, where his reputation led to a chance at directing--on Broadway. He had three straight hits, including "Ziegfeld Follies," a sort of surrealist ballet.

Then Hollywood beckoned.

When Minnelli turned 80, critic Thomas recalled some of the highlights of the director's films, including:

"Ethel Waters telling us that happiness is a thing called Joe in 'Cabin in the Sky,' Maurice Chevalier thanking heaven for little girls in 'Gigi,' Jennifer Jones' 'Madame Bovary' waltzing out of control, Lana Turner hysterically driving out of control in 'The Bad and the Beautiful,' Fred Astaire's and Cyd Charisse's Mickey Spillane-inspired 'Girl Hunt' ballet in 'The Band Wagon,' and Astaire's and Lucille Bremer's 'Limehouse Blues' sequence amid all that Irene Sharaff chinoiserie in 'Ziegfeld Follies.' "

Minnelli's autobiography, "I Remember It Well," was published in 1974, the wry title taken from the lyric uttered by a forgetful Chevalier in "Gigi."

In the book, Minnelli forthrightly recounted his stormy five-year marriage to Garland, including her drug problem and suicide attempts, her "desire for constant approval which was pathological." But a critic called it a "benign, gentlemanly" book, which avoided the gossipy backbiting that is characteristic of more recent Hollywood memoirs. (Garland died of an overdose of sleeping pills in 1969 at the age of 47.)

Minnelli was married to his fourth wife, Lee, at the time of his death. He is survived by daughter Liza and another daughter, Christina Miro of Mexico City.

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