Posted by Susan Doll on June 27, 2016
Director Vincente Minnelli was experiencing a career peak in 1959 when he chose the melodrama Home from the Hill as his next project. His musical Gigi had just swept the Oscars, and his previous film, the melodrama Some Came Running, had earned critical acclaim. However, Home from the Hill, which airs on TCM tomorrow, June 28, would prove to be the last Minnelli film to turn a reasonable profit, earning almost $6 million at the box office. After this film, his creativity seemed to decline as he turned to pedestrian if still enjoyable fare.
Much speculation exists regarding Minnelli’s sexual orientation, which scholars use to explain his interest in stories about male identity and masculinity. I am always leery of making simple, cause-and-effect connections between a director’s personal life and his themes, but I concede that this topic recurs in his films. Those issues are obvious in Home from the Hill, which is the story of the Hunnicutt family. Patriarch Wade Hunnicutt owns a successful business, a large home, and many acres of land in a small Texas town, but he is a failure as a husband and father. Wade is estranged from his wife Hannah, who maintains separate bedrooms because of his flagrant infidelity. She has raised their son, Theron, to be gentle, cultured, and sensitive, which is the opposite of Wade’s uber-masculine persona. Meanwhile Wade respects and admires his illegitimate son Rafe Copley, employing him for various services, but he refuses to acknowledge the young man as his offspring.
The three main male characters represent different models of masculinity. Sensitive and emotional, Theron is torn between the cultured, gentle world of his mother and the ferociously macho personality of his father. While young Libby Halstead is attracted to his sincerity and sensitivity, he is immature and confused about his identity, making him a weak model of manhood. Wade is the polar opposite of Theron. Though he is strong, fearless, and authoritarian—all admirable qualities in a man—he thrives on savagery, adultery, and power. He feels entitled to hunt on another man’s land and to take another man’s wife. His insensitive and self-centered ways have alienated his wife and his two sons, making his version of masculinity a threat to family. Protecting and sustaining the family is what the genre of melodrama is all about.
Between Wade and Theron is Rafe, who is a balance of characteristics from both sides of the spectrum. Rafe is traditionally masculine in that he hunts, uses tools, and takes command of situations, but his full name is Raphael, suggesting a cultured soul beneath the masculine surface. In the course of the narrative, he will step up to ensure that Libby and her unborn child have a husband and father, creating a family rather than dismantling one. Rafe’s qualities of morality and responsibility repeatedly resolve conflict and create stability, suggesting that these traits are the true hallmarks of masculinity.
Throughout Home from the Hill, the hunt is the most potent symbol of masculinity. The men hunt wild boars, which are dangerous creatures that can gore a man to death. Who hunts, who can’t hunt, who hunts badly, and who learns to hunt are important clues to a character’s masculinity. As Wade notes, “What every man hunts out there is himself.”
I have always preferred Minnelli’s melodramas to Douglas Sirk’s, partly because of the casting. The director worked well with movie stars who were outwardly rugged, assertive, virile, or masculine: Kirk Douglas in The Bad and Beautiful; Gene Kelly in The Pirate; Sinatra in Some Came Running. The producers originally wanted Clark Gable for the role of Wade Hunnicutt, but he was not available. Minnelli was relieved, partly because Gable was too old and tired to play Wade and partly because he wanted Robert Mitchum. Of course, he wanted Robert Mitchum! Who else could play a hard-drinking, hard-headed womanizer with such depth and experience? Who else could make this wrong-headed character not only worthy of our respect but just plain cool?
Mitchum, who had worked with Minnelli on the crime drama Undercurrent in 1946, liked to claim he took the role because it was shot in Oxford, Mississippi, where the fishing was so good. But, it is likely he realized how well the role fit his star image as an ultra-masculine figure who thrived on breaking the rules. Mitchum’s Wade Hunnicutt was the center of the film, and Minnelli designed the rest of the narrative around him. George Hamilton, who played Theron, recalled in his autobiography: “He loved the force of Mitchum. It was a power for which other things could vibrate. You can’t create that. . . Mitchum was Mitchum. And Minnelli loved that about him.”
Hamilton and George Peppard, who played Rafe, were in awe of Mitchum, but at the same time, they tiptoed around the legendary malcontent, because he could be prickly. According to Hamilton, when he wasn’t on set, he was drinking, smoking pot, or sleeping with some townie. Peppard, who had just completed training at the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg, actually asked Mitchum if he had ever studied the Stanislavsky Method! Mitchum replied, “No, but I’ve studied the Smirnoff method.”
Peppard’s Method training resulted with several clashes with Minnelli over the interpretation of his character. Minnelli wanted Peppard to play the character as written, but the actor wanted to talk mood and motivation. He went to Mitchum, telling the star he planned to walk out if Minnelli didn’t see things his way. He expected Mitchum—the ultimate Hollywood rebel—to be on his side. But, the veteran star gave Peppard a dose of reality, predicting if he did walk, it would likely be his last film. He added that he should do it Minnelli’s way, even if he thinks it’s wrong.
All three actors were less than sympathetic regarding Minnelli’s fussiness over mise-en-scene. Mitchum would crack jokes about it, while Hamilton simply didn’t understand the director’s insistence on controlling set design, lighting, and other visual details. He recalled that Minnelli once pointed to a patch of leafy underbrush and asked a production assistant to find more of it to dress the set. The p.a. informed him that it was poison ivy, but Minnelli made him get more anyway.
However, it’s hard to believe that Hamilton would not make the connection between setting and character. Wade’s den is filled with the heads, skins, and trophies of ferocious animals, equating the patriarch with the brutality of beasts. In one scene, Theron is framed by these animals while visiting his father’s den, suggesting he is his father’s prey. In contrast, Theron’s room features butterflies on the wall and a microscope on his desk—suggesting his gentle refinement and formal education.
Minnelli’s place in cinema history books rests with his musicals, which have overshadowed his melodramas: Some Came Running, Tea and Sympathy, Home from the Hill, Two Weeks in Another Town, and The Sandpiper. Much has been made of Sirk’s films as the epitome of the larger-than-life, Technicolor, Cinemascope melodramas of the 1950s, but I have always preferred Minnelli’s. In his autobiography, he talked about his affinity for the genre: “There’s no denying there’s a lot of melodrama in my life, it’s heightened drama, taking things to histrionic extreme. Audiences can relate to it because, at one time or another in their lives, they experienced extreme crises and emotions.”
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