Sunday, August 24, 2008

Movies About Movies Blogathon: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

"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.


goatdog said...

That settles it--I have to watch this again. I didn't dislike it, but I really didn't see what the big deal was. I liked discrete things about it, but the whole left me underwhelmed. I did love Gloria Grahame, though.

Have fun in Paris! Remember to go to L'As de Falafel in the Marais if you get a chance.

Bob Westal said...

You and Mr. C. are both correct about MOST of these movies, but, at the risk of pimping my own contribution to this blogathon, Blake Edwards' S.O.B. might just be an exception that adheres to the rule. It's kind of the opposite of self-congratulation, but perhaps so extreme (William Holden's charater even specifically endorses the wearing of hair shirts in the film) that it comes out the other end as something pretty close

And, I came to it late, for some reason, but you definitely count me as a fellow member of the "Bad and Beautiful" cult. It's slowly become a favorite of mine of just the last few years.

One thing: Everytime I see it, I'm completely taken in by Gloria Grahame's Southern Belle and am actually surprised when people complain about her. In fact, I silently yelled "hey, watch it!" when you called the character a "grasping harpy" Of course, her behavior bears you out, I guess, but, heck, she's married to a fake Faulkner, so there's got to be some tragedy in there and that's her job. Still, my reading of her character was always more tragic than "bad." I wonder if the difference in perception is male/female thing or a case of me being a particularly gullible male when it comes to Gloria Grahame and a southern accent. (Yes, I probably would have told her the accent was cute. It's actually beyond that and I probably would have been as taken in as Dick Powell was.)

Bon voyage.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Elaine Stewart is my all-time favorite movie tough-guy.

No discussion of The Bad and the Beautiful is complete without mentioning its sequel, Two Weeks in Another Town -- or as the late, great and very much-missed Stephen Harvey called it The Bad and the Beautiful's Little Dividend

Frank Conniff said...

Siren -- What a treat to read your take on "The Bad And The Beautiful," a movie I've always loved. I've heard some people compare it unfavorably to "All About Eve." Of course "Eve" is the better movie, but on the other hand Minnelli had filmmaking chops that Mankiewicz could never even come close to. There are similarities between "The Bad And The Beautiful" and "Eve" besides the show business settings: they both use multiple narrators to tell their stories, and in this sense I think both movies were influenced by "Citizen Kane." "Kane," of course, was written by Joe Mankiewicz's older brother Herman, and "The Bad And The Beautiful" was produced by John Houseman, who was Orson Wells' partner back in the day. So all three movies are linked together, at least inside my own head.

But one thing that I think distinguishes "The Bad And The Beautiful" from those other two movies is that the scheming, conniving, duplicitous characters at the center of "Kane," and "Eve" -- Charles Foster Kane and Eve Harrington -- are portrayed in a completely negative light by the end of those films. But ultimately "The Bad And The Beautiful" more or less comes down on the side of Jonathan Shields. Shields is presented as an artist who places his art above all else, including personal relationships, and the careers of all the characters that he stepped on and manipulated in the film have all benefited from having worked with him; the movie makes this very clear. The chance to be a part of something great, something that is more than just "a picture that ends with a kiss and black ink on the books" is the cherished dream of many who pursue careers in Hollywood, and even if you end up being betrayed by an evil genius like Jonathan Shields, it still might all be worth it if it results in a great film. This, I think, is the romantic notion that Minnelli is talking about.

Vanwall said...

Like I've always said, if you wanna win the Supporting Actress Oscar, ya gotta play a whore of some kind, or at least a pretty little round-heels, and Gloria Grahame milked that innocent, wide-eyed, southern-belle-slut part like a Holstein cow - and it's hardly apparent she's even breaking a sweat doing it. I can't say it's hammy, because she shaded it just enough, and she looked smashing, too - it was hard to take her seriously at first, but geez, she sold every line and movement and she stole every scene she was in. I like her more for other parts in other films, but she was so damn good here.

Lana did pretty well, too, but it's harder to believe her character's moments of weakness or failure - she was too polished and hard to pull it off for me. She, too, looked smashing, tho, and having two of my favorite blondes in one film was a bonus. Her voice isn't usually good for building sympathy, for my tastes, but when she's up in the loft of the old house talking to Shields, I was suddenly real interested in how they were gonna hook up, and just how Shields would screw her over - I also realized how much she sounded like Claire Trevor in "Key Largo" - hey, another golden whore award, too, see - HaH! Lana was too slick, and Gloria stole that option here, as well.

I felt sorry for Dick Powell and Barry Sullivan, they were like the crewmen in "Star Trek" with the red tunics - nothing they could do could prevent the Turner/Grahame/Douglas trio from vaporizing all their acting efforts. Not that Rex, Dick Powell couldn't pull off the avuncular, sad puppy effect quite well, it was just in the wrong movie. Sullivan sadly vanishes into the limbo of Gary Merrill/Hugh Marlowe-land, another "All about Eve" connection, BTW, of actors who were cannibalized by the actresses associated with them for one great film.

Douglas chews the scenery until it was as short as his teeth were long, leaving little for other scenery-chewers who might have needed seconds - except for Gloria, who got thru the serving line twice and way faster than Kirk. Douglas gets away with ham here, just because he's so intensely magnetic - the camera loved that guy, regardless of what he was doing. I think only good old Walter Pidgeon came away unscathed as a supporting character - he was incapable of giving an un-intelligent performance, and as the Greek chorus here, he only stoops to pandering, selling the latest Harry Shields used car, unlike the other characters, who while sympathetic, seemed incapable of pushing away the kool-aid, where I have my only problem.

As much as I love the perverse Hollywood I-love-me-jacket view of itself, and a shark-like mogul of dubious morals and ethics isn't the best thing to hang your coat on, its almost too obtuse to believe they weren't secretly, or, hell, openly slavering over the ending - a chance to show how venal the rest of the hired help was, and at least on the moguls level if not worse. Let's face it, Shields killed the things they loved, not just scripts and parts, and screwed them, too - in Georgia's case, quite literally - and they STILL listen in on the phone at the end. And we don't question their interest! That's good writing, directing, and acting, plain and simple. That also makes this the ultimate film about Hollywood's view of itself from the inside for me - everybody can be bought, even if it means a deal with the devil.

Joel Bocko said...

You're correct in sensing some self-congratulation amongst all the self-flagellation. These anti-Hollywood films are usually more interested in cutting their arrogant figures down to size than in destroying them. That way we can better appreciate the things they get right.

Since bob westal paved the way, let me pimp my own blog for a moment: I reviewed "Singin' in the Rain" as a last-minute entry in the blog-a-thon but also the initiation of my Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood series, about that sudden flush of Hollywood-on-Hollywood films in the early 50s. The Bad and the Beautiful is another example - from the same year no less. I'd argue that both films share the ultimate goal of celebrating the creativity and ingenuity of the industry, and that its self-criticism is ultimately meant to pave the way for a cleaner, more honest appreciation.

Not sure if that applies to all these types of films, but it does apply to many.

gmoke said...

If "The Bad and the Beautiful" is a Gilbert Roland late career part, what was his turn in "Barbarossa" 30 years later? He was quite good in that too.

Belvoir said...

A very fine post about a very enjoyable and engrossing movie. Thanks!

I'll just mention my favorite scene; the night of the premiere, when Turner flees Douglas's house, distraught. As she drives, speeding through a blinding, torrential rainstorm, as oncoming headlights flood the car and screaming horns of other drivers blare, the tension rises to become harrowing- she's going to crash!
But then you notice how fabulous she looks, in mink and diamonds, weeping and emoting, and you realize she's not even TRYING to pretend to drive the car, and it's hard not to burst out laughing, which I always do when I see it! Something in the melodrama and heightened menace and absurd artifice of her "driving" is extremely campy, and really fun!

Joel Bocko said...


You just described my favorite shot in this movie. I'm not sure why, but it always makes me think of Godard - I believe he was a huge Minnelli fan.

surly hack said...

I love Minnelli melodramas, and Bad is one of his best. In this and Two Weeks and Some Came Running, Minnelli's style is set at perfect pitch. This isn't camp--it's perfect pop art. Turner's drive in the rain in Bad is matched by the delirious 360 spin in Two weeks. And because Minnelli's style trumps Mank's wit, I'll take Bad over Eve any day.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Elaine Stewart's triumph

Juanita's Journal said...

I have always had slightly mixed feelings about "THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL". On one hand, I must admit that it is pretty good. Yet, when watching it, I always get this hollow feeling within me that it could have been something more or better than it actually was. Or that it might be slightly overrated.

camorrista said...

Wonderful piece, Campaspe (no surprise that) and very astute about what Minelli was up to (particularly you remarks about transformation).

I would emphasize even more than you how shrewd (and therefore accurate) TBATB is about the making of studio movies. Minelli worked mostly at Metro, which was known as the producer's studio, and usually his bosses were Arthur Freed or Pandro Berman, men less creepily manipulative than Shields but just as domineering and never in doubt over the authorship of their pictures. (It wasn't the director.)

Unlike some of your posters, I don't find TBATB especially self-congratulatory, at least no more than any other movie about movies--after all, are there more self-loving (& preening) pictures than THE PLAYER, or EIGHT-AND-A-HALF, or ADAPTATION, or STATE AND MAIN?

Unlike both the makers (and the central characters) of those movies, Minelli never pretends he (or his characters) are too good for their own pictures.

Minelli, who started his career as a designer/director at Radio City, often used show business as a milieu and I'd match ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, THE PIRATE, AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, THE BANDWAGON and TBATB against any pictures about theater or movies.

Gerard Jones said...

I love this movie! While the TCM festival was going on in Hollywood I was supposed to be in London, but when the volcano smothered my flight I almost drove to LA just to see The Bad and the Beautiful on the big screen and in Tinseltown. (Was hoping it played at the Egyptian but never actually found out.)

In the end I decided to stay home and get some work done, but I've been yearning a bit for it ever since. Your post is the perfect tonic for that yearning!

Gerard Jones said...

(Obviously I'm writing years after you posted this. Continuing my goal to read the Complete Siren.)