The Bad And The Beautiful
The Bad And The Beautiful (1952). By the time 1952 rolled along, Hollywood had more than its fair share of insider anecdotes, yarns, gossip and hearsay to fill the annals of the Library of Congress. Of the men and women who sat perched top-shelf at each of the major studios, tittle-tattle was commonplace: everyone talked about everyone, and without a doubt that remains the case. Still, to the hordes of starry-eyed celebrity worshipers and busybodies, truth remained in the shadow of proxy rags like Confidential Magazine and other such lurid scandal-sheets, and it would take decades before the tell-all memoirs of the 70’s and 80’s would reveal the first-hand ignominy of all the directors, producers, and stars that lit up the marquees in Hollywood’s Golden Age. But absolute truth can only tarnish the glittering gold, and while the Hollywood-insider extravaganza The Bad And The Beautiful aimed to take thinly-veiled potshots at the biggest and the boldest in that particular era, most of the jabs were softened by the earnestness of its own production: no one would get away at disparaging (even in jest) some of the most powerful men in the business unless the delivery was executed in the most solemnly prestigious manner. The film itself would have to stand shoulder-to shoulder with the work of the men and women it set out to send up. And with a pedigree that included director Vincente Minelli (Meet Me In St. Louis, An American In Paris), screenwriter Charles Schnee (Red River), cinematographer Robert Surtees (Ben-Hur, The Sting), and a cast that boasted Lana Turner (The Postman Always Rings Twice), Kirk Douglas (The Champion, Ace In The Hole), Walter Pigeon (The Last Time I Saw Paris), and Dick Powell (Murder, My Sweet), The Bad And The Beautiful had every right to toot its own gutsy horn, have some fun along the way, and carve a mammoth place in cinematic history for its very own. Pictures just aren’t made like this anymore.
Having recently directed the vivid and lavish An American In Paris and the tender and hilarious Father Of the Bride, Vincente Minelli was made-to-order as the man to tell the story of the meteoric rise of producer Jonathan Shields (Douglas), with all the humor and drama and love and fury that goes with such a tale. The immediate thrill is watching Shields work his way into the hands of film producer Harry Pebble (Pigeon) by losing over six grand to him at poker, avariciously taking any job alongside aspiring director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), making B-grade horror schlock featuring Cat-Men (more than a nod to Val Lewton, the man who produced the fright-fest Cat People, and later on shilled for Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick, ultimately cementing a place of his own for RKO Pictures). The tale spun of Shields’ pluck is a gripping and rousing salvo for the First Act, and by the time Shields has earned enough leverage to best Pebble at his own game, Jonathan has all but stepped over his parter-in-crime to produce Amiel’s prestige passion project, and thus Minelli has his leading man and his villain all wrapped in one dynamite package: Kirk Douglas is a blitzkrieg as per usual, his vivacious moxie is the nucleus of the entire picture, which makes the character of Jonathan Shields all the more fascinating, because the character himself only appears in flashbacks. The sharp and incisive screenplay by Charles Schnee (working from a story by George Bradshaw) calls for director Amiel, starlet Georgia Lorrison (Turner), and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Powell) to remember their own experiences with the producer, at once fondly and horrifically recalled. Shields is a force to be reckoned with, the Hollywood system at its finest and ugliest, given chiseled form.
The riveting drive of the entire film is Shields quest for power: his manipulations of everyone around him, at times blunt (getting a stuffy English director and his wife – who totally aren’t supposed to be Alfred Hitchcock and his wife Alma – to dominate over Pebble to get what they want), subtle (convincing Ameil to take his prized screenplay to Pebble who would leave it at the mercy of Shields) and brutal (cleaning up the suicidal daughter of a grand actor, Georgia Lorrison, and turning her into a star). Minelli’s direction takes a great (yet lurid) story and makes it magnificent, giving serious pathos to ultimately humorous satire. For instance: a beautiful, sanguine shot of Shields holding Lorrison aloft turns into one of the friskiest moments in cinema as Minelli’s camera pulls back to reveal Shields standing over a swimming pool, into which he promptly dumps the drunken starlet. Georgia Lorrison’s character strongly recalls Diana Barrymore (whose tell-all memoir of her legendary father, John Barrymore, entitled Too Much, Too Soon would be made into a feature film featuring Errol Flynn as the troubled actor), and Lana Turner takes the role on with a kindly yet impassioned bravado that is respectful and amazing. Turner is the heartbeat of the film, and Minelli certainly knows how to frame her: the actress would never appear more glamorous and potent. “Jonathan is more than a man. He’s an experience, and he’s habit-forming. If they could ever bottle him, he’d out-sell Ginger Ale,” Amiel warns Bartlow as Lorrison looks on, with a glint in her eye that may indicate more than just experience, more than just hate, but passion for a man that ripped and pulled and destroyed everything that made her and everyone he ever met weak, and turned them into stars. The attractive lure of men and women like Jonathan Shields in spite of their vile dealings is what makes The Bad And The Beautiful impossible to deny. The film tempts the audience with a fly-on-the-wall look at how pictures are really made, and slays them all with a powerhouse KO. Essential viewing.