The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lust for Life

Certain movies can also single-handedly be carried by one performance, Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler and Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood are just two recent examples. Add Kirk Douglas as artist Vincent Van Gogh to that list for his performance in 1956's Lust for Life. It was an Oscar-nominated performance, he lost to Yul Brynner in The King and I (I really don't understand that decision), with great supporting performances from Anthony Quinn, who won a supporting Oscar for his part as Paul Gauguin, and James Donald as Theo, Vincent's older brother.

The movie starts out with a positive before a word is spoken. With red hair and sporting a beard, Douglas looks like the Dutch painter. The actual performance is one of the actor's best and was one of three Oscar-nominated roles. Douglas portrays both sides of Van Gogh. At his best, Vincent just wants to create art and paintings that will brighten people's days. Even beyond the art, he wants people to be happy. At his worst, he is like a caged animal prone to outbursts and violent attacks who late in his life developed mental illnesses that have not even now been diagnosed. An incredibly physical actor but also one who could handle the emotional scenes, Douglas makes both aspects of the character believable.

Quinn doesn't have a huge part, but it's a goodie. As Gauguin, he is both Van Gogh's best friend and worst enemy. There's a friendship between them that comes from similar experiences, as this scene shows. They have deep, intellectual conversations about art and what inspires them, but sometimes these talks devolve into screaming matches, one of them leading to Van Gogh slicing off part of his ear. Quinn was always able to pull off fiery roles, and this one doesn't disappoint. The scenes of conflict between the two actors are scary in their reality. I thought one or the other was going to throw a punch.
James Donald as Theo gets the less meaty role, but it's a part that drives the film and keeps it moving. Much of his part is reading Vincent's letters to his brother so we get a picture of what Vincent is going through but also how his brother reacts. All his life, Theo looked out for his brother, encouraging him to become the best painter he could be. Donald made a career out of key supporting roles, and this is one of his better parts.

Obviously with a bio-film of a famous artist, the paintings and sketches are on display throughout. In some of the movie's most effective scenes, Van Gogh's letters to Theo are read while his paintings are shown on screen. I've never been an art afficionado in any sense of the word other than "Hey, I like that one," but seeing the struggles Van Gogh went through during his life make me appreciate his art more. I still might not completely understand what he's going for with his paintings and their meanings, but I have some idea now, or at least I like to think so.

Don't miss this film though, it's worth watching just to see the fire and emotion Douglas brings to the role. Here's the trailer, and I agree again with the post. Douglas should have won the Oscar...

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