The Bad and the Beautiful November 25, 2021
1 Hr., 58 Mins.
e don’t have to meet Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) to know he probably isn’t so good. At the beginning of The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), Vincente Minnelli’s trenchant show-business
melodrama, this at-one-time hugely influential Hollywood producer gives three former collaborators — a writer, a director, and an actress — a phone call. Each person is so disgusted at the
mere mention of his name that they won’t even indulge a “how are you?” (The writer, James Lee Bartlow, is a little showier about his distaste: he requests Shields’ associate put the producer on the line specifically so he can say “drop dead” straight into his ear before hanging up.)
What we’ll learn, after this trio is called into the office of movie producer-slash-Shields apologist Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon), is that Shields wants to tap these onetime allies for a comeback project of sorts. But as we’ll also learn — The Bad and the Beautiful almost entirely takes place in the whirlpools of flashbacks that give a wider look at the whole of Shields’ career — the producer so excessively burned his bridges with these people that it seems more than a little recklessly confident to mistake these piles of ashes for sturdy return routes.
None of what happens in the film’s three extended flashback segments — which give a comprehensive account of how, exactly, Shields betrayed the three people flashing back — is that surprising. They function as glossy mini-soap operas (Minnelli’s direction is visually and emotionally sumptuous) in which we watch Shields’ cruelty evolve and mutate, these vulnerable people unaware of how natural a back-stabber he is until it’s too late. The director, Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), came up around the same time as Shields and stuck by his side as the two worked their way up through Poverty Row. Then Shields, out of the blue, gave Amiel the cold shoulder when the former at long last got an opportunity to make something of merit with a bigger studio. Shields nurtured the actress, Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), into a confident and capable performer after struggling for years to break through, only to abruptly break contact once their first movie together — which turned her into a star — premiered. Bartlow, a professionally satisfied literature professor and author, was brought to Hollywood by Shields to adapt one of his books. When Bartlow finds out Shields effectively set up the writer’s high-maintenance wife (Gloria Grahame) with an actor (Gilbert Roland) so that she wouldn’t distract him while writing, Bartlow cuts his onetime champion off.
The segments are all baseline good, but the centerpiece is arguably Lorrison’s story — the most intense and the most emotionally devastating. Like studio head progeny Shields, Lorrison had an industry-famous father — he was an A-list actor whose screen presence didn’t translate at home — and for a long time felt enchained by his shadow. (At most, Lorrison got uncredited one-line appearances for several years; no casting directors took a chance on her.) She alleviated her feelings of ineptitude with alcohol; it’s implied that she supplemented her income through sex work, too. Shields took such a liking to Lorrison in part because he liked the challenge she presented. How could he fashion a beautiful nepotism baby with a wild-woman reputation into a box-office force? Thinking nothing else would work, he cruelly pretended to be in love with her to bolster her confidence as he developed a project around her.
It’s shattering when Lorrison learns of the ploy — it’s followed by a frankly stunning (and almost surreally shot) breakdown as she speeds down the freeway in lavish furs and glimmering jewels, her torrent of tears matched by the thunderstorm mounting outside. And it’s given an additional resonance given that, in the movies, producers and directors achieving great onscreen results sometimes emboldens them to deceive and emotionally and sometimes physically endanger. Comparatively, the Amiel and Bartlow segments feel small-potatoes and overwrought, respectively. Neither has the reverberative power of the Lorrison segment nor acting work as tremendous and transformative as Turner’s. (That Gloria Grahame — who, full disclosure, I love in mostly everything else she’s in — won an Oscar for what amounts to a 10-ish line role when Turner, a box-office stalwart doing her finest work up until that point, wasn’t even nominated is genuinely baffling.)
Few movies about Hollywood figure out how to have it both ways as well as The Bad and the Beautiful. Hollywood films either lay more stress on the “dark side” of the entertainment industry or celebrate the magic of moviemaking, the setbacks softened and romanticized. The Bad and the Beautiful finds a way to indulge both points of view smoothly; the very title of the film feels like a nod to that. As written by Charles Schnee, the movie gets to the core of how finding prosperity in the American film industry necessitates subjecting oneself to both its cruelties and the capacity to be cruel as a means for success. It’s mostly ambivalent about how these cruelties can help shape good art into something greater; but you sense that a small part of it seems to believe that that cruelty, in the end, may be worth it.
The Bad and the Beautiful also compellingly gets at how, in entertainment, the work for which you’re most known may also be something you personally most associate with something traumatic or hurtful. A breakthrough movie, for instance, can as easily be a curse as a boon. The ending of The Bad and the Beautiful is basically perfect — a darkly comedic testament to how being good at the Hollywood game means biting the bullet perhaps even more than totally focusing on the art form that took you to the city in the first place. Nobody wants to be the bigger person; no one wants to finish last. A