"You know how it is. You hate your dentist while he's pulling your teeth. But the next day you're playing golf with him again."
—Billy Wilder, explaining why he was considering working again with Marilyn Monroe after she gave him hell during Some Like It Hot
The Siren pours herself a single-malt Scotch and settles in for Goatdog's Movies About Movies Blogathon. Now this is a good topic, one that has inspired great work from director after director. And here's the thing: these movies are always such fun. When it comes to narcissistic self-contemplation, nobody does it better than Hollywood. As Jack Carson said in Mildred Pierce, "There's something about the sound of my own voice that fascinates me."
The Bad and the Beautiful may be an obvious choice, but damn, the Siren loves this movie. Melodrama? Hell yes, this is full-throated, unapologetic melodrama, a movie about Hollywood and its sins that dares to use all sorts of Hollywood cliches to tell the story. Good Hollywood navel-gazing always has a roman à clef aspect and Vincente Minnelli's movie is no exception. The game of "guess who THIS is" is fun and all, but basically irrelevant, and writers Charles Schnee and George Bradshaw signal that in part by keeping the connections so flippin' obvious. Lana Turner's father-obsessed starlet stands in for Diana Barrymore, the Southern writer (Dick Powell) who hates Hollywood and wants to go home is a blatant take on Faulkner, the director (Barry Sullivan) plays Jacques Tourneur to Shields' Val Lewton on a movie called "Attack of the Cat Man"—with that last one you wonder why they even changed the names. Aside from the Lewton echo, the Shields character rings a bell, or more like a cathedral, for David O. Selznick, what with Shields producing a large epic with a big death scene (although set in Russia and not Georgia), then moving on to Dick Powell's sexy Southern epic, The Proud Land (Faulkner would have thrown up, but never mind). So in 1952 you would have guessed who everyone was right away (and if you're a nerd like the Siren, you still do) and then you could concentrate on the plot segments, the same way Hitchcock stuck his cameo in the first part of a movie so people wouldn't spend all their time looking for him instead of getting caught up in the story.
We all have our irrational cinema loves, and for some reason the Siren is obsessed with multi-story anthology films, which as an old Lewis Carroll fan she calls portmanteau movies. This is just about the slickest example ever made, three interlocking stories all centered on Kirk Douglas' as Jonathan Shields. Handsome, ruthless, possessed of unerring instincts and able to seduce men and women alike, Douglas is every big producer's self-image as magnified by the Hubble Telescope. Douglas shows his character's supreme selfishness while making you believe there is talent to match. As for the man's inner life, is it there? Or has Shields learned to feign emotions, even a hint of conscience, for those rare Hollywood occasions where being a sociopath is not an advantage? The genius of Douglas' performance is that not only can you never be sure, perhaps Shields himself can't be, either.
The structure is a thing of beauty, with an elegant framing device, one story prompting another, each with its own distinct tone and all leading to the same conclusion. But the arc of each segment is the same: Green, raw talent is discovered by Shields, inspired and/or dragged into a career-making success while simultaneously boosting the producer's relentless ambition, and then that now-flourishing talent is nastily betrayed.
One of the standard cinema-studies takes on Minnelli is to emphasize the role that transformation plays in his movies. Here we have a threefold transformation theme, three important characters utterly changed by the same catalyst, Jonathan Shields. And the betrayals, presumably as in Bradshaw's original theater-set story "Tribute to a Bad Man," become worse as the movie progresses and Shields' power grows.
He starts with the simple decision to take director Sullivan's latest picture away from him and give it to an established name. Shields follows up by seducing nervous, insecure actress Georgia (Turner) into giving a great performance, then sleeping with someone else on the night of the premiere. Georgia's acting debut finds her playing a scene of tearful repentance over some Russian uniform's deathbed scene. (The varying costumes and scenery prompted producer John Houseman to ask "What kind of a picture are they trying to make anyway?" Minnelli wrote, "Frankly, I think only Kirk Douglas knew.") In his memoirs, Minnelli described how he did his own variation on the celebrated boom shot in Citizen Kane, the one that pulls us up from Kane's mistress on the opera-house stage to a stagehand in the flies, holding his nose. Minnelli switched it around by having the technicians pay rapt attention, although it's hard to think the Shields picture is anything but high-toned kitsch.
The shot also plays up an ever-present contrast between the low end of the business and the glamourous high end, moving from gleaming Lana to the slightly grubby technicians. There's another marvelous bit earlier, when Shields and the director are stuck making a B picture and the down-market props man is trying to sell them on the rattiest cat costumes you ever saw. Sullivan and Douglas stare in disbelief as the man twitches the fake fur this way and that, all the while chomping on a cigar that is no doubt enhancing whatever odors already cling to the items. It's their determination not to use the costumes that has Shields hitting on the inspired idea never to show the "cat people." The whole sequence does a lovely job of showing the creativity that could go into B features, despite the tendency to view them as a purgatory to be shed as soon as possible.
In the second section the grit comes also from Elaine Stewart, absolutely superb as starlet-on-the-make Lila, providing the low-end contrast to Lana's pedigreed (if nervous and alcoholic) star-on-the-rise. Oh how the Siren loves Stewart slinking down the staircase on the night of the big premiere, shattering Georgia's romantic ideas about Shields with a nasal hiss: "Picture's finished, Georgia. You're business. I'm company...I forgot to tell you, Georgia. I saw the picture. Thought you were swell."
If the Siren has a problem with The Bad and the Beautiful it's the way the grimy side of the business disappears entirely by the final sequence. That's the one about Dick Powell's writer, married to a fluttery belle who destroys his concentration and is dead certain to cheat on him sooner or later. Gloria Grahame's performance, which won an Oscar, irritates some people, but the Siren thinks it's an accurate take on a certain type of phony Southern charm, a grasping harpy concealed by more sugar frosting than a 10-tier wedding cake. Grahame's accent is overdone, but even that works for the character, as such women often emphasize the accent after years of hearing besotted men tell them how cute it is. Shields recognizes that the wife is a millstone and sets her up for an affair with Latin sex symbol Gilbert Roland (wonderful in one of his late-career character parts). She runs away with her loverboy, and they're killed in a plane accident, capping the producer's worst-yet act of manipulation.
"Send the commie bastard to me. I'll hire him."
—John Ford's oft-quoted remark when hearing of a blacklisted talent
When the Siren told Mr. C about this latest blogathon he made a moue and she demanded to know why, loving the genre as she does. "It's like the Oscars," he said shortly. Pressed to explain, he said, "It's all about how great they are, isn't it? A lot of self-congratulation. I mean, you love movies so of course you love movies about movies." Told which movie the Siren had picked he did say, "Oh, that was a good one." But the Siren must admit that her better half has a point. Ultimately, The Bad and the Beautiful shows how a desire for excellence often finds creative people working with those they detest on a personal level, but that's hardly something that only those in Hollywood find themselves doing. What Minnelli's film, and even much harsher movies about movies, emphasize is that at least these people are producing things that give great pleasure, perhaps even attain the status of art. Ultimately, this genre isn't skewering, it's apologetics.
The ending of The Bad and the Beautiful has the three characters that Shields used and abused gathered in producer Walter Pidgeon's office to hear Shields, on the telephone from Paris, make one more pitch. They are about to get up and walk away—the wounds are too deep, it seems.
But wait, here's Turner outside in the waiting room, lifting the receiver to listen on the extension, and Powell and Sullivan joining her. It's an "open" ending, but the Siren always thought it was quite obvious they were going to make another Shields picture. After all, the whole theme is the primacy of talent, that it overrides even the worst betrayals. "It was a harsh and cynical story, yet strangely romantic," said Minnelli, one that illuminated "the philosophy of 'get me a talented son-of-a-bitch.'" Whether in 1952 or the present, the idea that talent always reigns supreme is indeed a romantic fantasy. But the Siren still finds it irresistible.