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Shy boy to show biz

EVEN recounted in the starkest terms, the life of Vincente Minnelli, the director of classic MGM musicals like "Meet Me in St Louis," "Gigi" and "An American in Paris," is as packed with color and incident as one of the dream ballets that became his trademark.

Born Lester Anthony Minnelli in 1903, he grew up the only child in a family of traveling performers in the American midwest. In young adulthood, the pathologically shy, stammering Lester, who had once had a penchant for trying on his mother's clothes, read a biography of the flamboyant painter James McNeill Whistler and decided to reinvent himself as a worldly aesthete, working as a shop window dresser in Chicago before making his name as a designer of lavish theatrical sets in New York. It was there that he became "Vincente."

Once he moved to Hollywood as a director in MGM's stable, Minnelli built a reputation as a fearsome perfectionist, despite his passive, retiring personality. A closeted gay man, Minnelli had been known to sport "light makeup" while frequenting places like the Gershwin brothers' New York salon in the 1930s. Nonetheless, he was married four times - first, and most famously, to MGM's troubled star Judy Garland - and fathered two daughters, the older of whom is Liza Minnelli.

In this book, Emanuel Levy, a film critic and a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, makes the case that Minnelli was largely responsible for elevating movie musicals from their early incarnation as filmed vaudeville into sophisticated middlebrow entertainment by integrating musical numbers into the plot. Levy has trawled through the archives, including many previously unseen papers left to Minnelli's fourth wife, Lee Anderson Minnelli, after his death in 1986, and returned laden with lore.

But the vigor Levy poured into amassing biographical data seems to have deserted him when it came time to shape those facts into an artist's life story. Reading "Vincente Minnelli" can feel like scaling a vast, slippery mountain of internal studio memos, news clippings and telegrams.

Similar details pop up throughout the book in sudden, impenetrable clumps. Yet elsewhere, information that would be crucial for comprehending the significance of a story is mysteriously absent. For instance, Levy mentions that Minnelli persuaded his longtime producer, Arthur Freed, to abandon the working title for "The Band Wagon" - without ever telling us what that working title was. The lack of a complete Minnelli filmography adds to the frustrating impression of wandering through a forest without a map.

Levy's prose does have its vivid moments, especially when he's lamenting some of the low points in Minnelli's oeuvre, like the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton howler "The Sandpiper." I laughed aloud at Levy's image of Taylor "parading about in lurid lavender ... while a wounded fowl nests in her raven tresses." (Unable to restrain his glee, Levy goes on to describe how Taylor "sports a violet-blue bra while she fends off a randy ex-lover by brandishing a dainty hatchet.")

Levy seems hard pressed to find a Minnelli film he actually likes.

"Kismet" is "heavy-handed, grim and listless," "Brigadoon" is "curiously flat and rambling, lacking in warmth or charm," while "The Long, Long Trailer" is "vulgar" and "banal." After these, it's puzzling to read on Page 308 that "Gigi" counts as "one of Minnelli's few movies that occasionally feels like an overly studied work."

The account of his brief, dreadful marriage to Garland exerts a ghoulish fascination, but so many details are left out that the portrait that emerges is maddeningly vague.

Among the strongest passages are the few where Levy reads the director's work inside the closet. When Minnelli turned "Tea and Sympathy" into a film in 1956, the censors forced MGM to sanitize the story: the hero, originally a sexually confused schoolboy bullied for his lack of interest in male pursuits, became a sensitive, straight lad mocked for his ill-defined "non-conformity."

It's the delicate, perhaps impossible task of the biographer to find a balance between thoroughness and trenchancy, between archivist and critic. Levy here errs on the side of thoroughness, with the paradoxical result that readers learn more than they wanted to know about Vincente Minnelli's life, but not nearly enough about Vincente Minnelli.


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