The first thing I noticed about ”The Bad and the Beautiful” was the cast. Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Dick Powell and Gloria Graham. Those names alone was enough to make me very interested. Each one has starred in excellent films and indeed made them excellent, so setting them up together can only be interesting… with a considerable chance of too many chefs…
The next thing I noticed was that this was an inside film on Hollywood. I cannot say that made me as excited. The theme du jour of the early fifties seems to have been inside Hollywood films. Although I am not complaining, the films so far have been outstanding, I do think this theme is starting to get a bit old on me. There was therefore a cause for concern here. Was this starting to be like the introspect musicals about setting up a musical from the early thirties?
No need to worry though. This may be an inside story and it may help if you know something of the background of notorious Hollywood celebrities, but even coming in blank this is a most entertaining movie carried not just by strong acting performances, but also by an interesting and in many respects novel story. The closest thing I can think of is “Citizen Kane”. If you do know a bit about the personalities in Hollywood you will recognize the types portrayed in this movie.
Like “Citizen Kane” The Bad and the Beautiful” is a portrait of a notorious person through the testimony of those who know him and like Kane they all detest him, but also respect him and if they had to be entirely honest with themselves they would probably have to admit that they also care for him.
The man is Johnathan Shields (Kirk Douglas). His trademarks is to burn with passion for his projects, to always get what he wants and a charming personality that moves people to do what he wants. He is manipulative and entirely without scruples, and if he has to sacrifice somebody on the way so be it. It is not money he wants, but something bigger, to create greatness on film. It is easy to name a number of Hollywood producers that fits the bill and David O. Selznick’s name keeps popping up the same way as William Hearst did for “Citizen Kane”. Certainly there are some bloated egos to choose from.
The story of Johnathan Shields is told by three characters he burned on the way. The have all been called in to a meeting with Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) who represents Johnathan and wants them to answer a long distance phone call from him. Each of the three in turn tell how they got backstabbed by Johnathan and why they would never ever consider working for him again.
First is Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), the director. He met Johnathan when he was entirely blank at Johnathan’s father’s funeral. The father was an extremely unpopular head of a film studio who managed to ruin it. Johnathan takes up the gauntlet and wows to create his own name as producer. Together Fred and Johnathan learn the trade making shorts and B-movies on non-existing budgets, but when time comes for the big break Johnathan take Fred’s screenplay and not only takes credit for it but also hand it over to another, established director. Fred is understandably bitter and leaves Johnathan to become an Oscar winning director in his own right.
Next is the actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner). She is the wrecked daughter of a dead movie star. Although she is dabbling herself in acting, her lack of confidence and considerable alcohol abuse is preventing her from taking it anywhere. The shadow of her father is simply too big. Johnathan changes that. He sees star quality in her and insist on making her his star. The angle he chooses is to seduce her. With his overwhelming charm he has no problem convincing her that they are in love and this carries her through and makes her deliver top performance. But on the eve of the premiere he burns her and tells her it was all a scam when she finds him with another (cheap) bimbo. Georgia wows to never work for him again but moves on to become one of the greatest of Hollywood’s stars.
Last is the screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). He started out as a college professor in Virginia where he was discovered by Johnathan. Johnathan lures him to Hollywood where he grudgingly accepts a job as screenwriter for Johnathan. James has a pigeon brained, but sweet wife, Rosemary (Gloria Graham) who keeps interrupting his work and Johnathan realizes that he has to get her out of James hair if he wants any work out of him. He charges his Latin lover star Ribera (Gilbert Roland) with the job to entertain her and this works brilliantly. Finally James Lee becomes the screenwriter Johnathan knew he would be. Unfortunately Ribera also outperformed himself and ran away with Rosemary only to crash in a plane on the way to Mexico. When James find out Johnathan is behind this he leaves him for good and becomes in turn one of the highest paid of Hollywood’s screenwriters and a Pulitzer Prize winner.
Each of the stories are told with a great deal of bitterness, but there is no denying that Johnathan created them. When Johnathan who crashed big time after trying his own hand at directing asks his three creations to help him start a new project the answer is an immediate no. Yet hardly are they out of the door before they eagerly have to hear Johnathan describe this new project.
The greatness of this movie is the complexity of the portrait of Johnathan Shields. It is both condemning and glorifying him and the amalgamation is a person of both black and white. Johnathan Shields is a devil and a hero, an genius and a self-obsessed bozo, but most of all a man with a burning passion for making film, what we in Danish call an “ildsjæl” (fire-soul). This movie could easily have landed on each site of the road and have created a monster or a saint, but it manages to stay on the road throughout, in fact better than “Citizen Kane” did, and gives us a whole, but exceptional person.
This is by far the best movie I have seen so far by Vincente Minnelli. In my mind he is synonymous with pretty, but ultimately mediocre musicals and this movie is so far from that comfort zone that I had to look twice. He did pretty well with this one and I should not write him off so early.
The cast as I mentioned in the opening is outstanding and I am especially pleased to see Dick Powell again. “Murder my Sweet” was a rebirth for him and I enjoy what he became in this part of his career. Because the story is told in three separate acts all these stars avoid being in each other’s way, but are allowed to shine in their own right.
I think this movie is more a character study than a portrait of an industry and that is why it should be seen. Johnathan Shields is an interesting character type. Insufferable yes, but interesting, and certainly big enough to warrant a movie.
Thumbs up from me.