THE BAD & THE BEAUTIFUL
The Bad & The Beautiful (1952) dir. Vincente Minnelli writ. Charles Schnee (from the story by George Bradshaw) cine. Robert Surtees music David Raskin star. Kirk Douglas (Jonathan Shields), Lana Turner (Georgia Lorrison), Barry Sullivan (Fred Ameil), Dick Powell (James Lee Bartlow), Gloria Grahame (Rosemary), Gilbert Roland (Gaucho), Walter Pidgeon (Harry Pebbel), Elaine Stewart (Lila), Paul Stewart (Syd), Ivan Triesault (von Ellstein)
Despite all the Oscars, The Bad & the Beautiful is an uneven, often over-acted piece of work whose dialogue more often fails than succeeds. As a film about the ruthlessness of the Hollywood industry, it's a mere simulacra of Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, the film it so obviously stalks like a horse coming late into the race. Yet there are moments that make it worthy of its acclaim and the legends it purportedly exploits.
Consider the scene where the actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) goes berserk, tries to kill herself in her coupe the night of her first screen triumph. Is this not one of the greatest sequences in the history of dramatic film? Spurned by her lover and mentor, the manipulative producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), she writhes in emotional agony as she drives recklessly into the night. Contained within the claustrophobic shell of the car, her body convulses with the nymphomania of death. She shrieks, she screams, she steps on the gas, hurtles at the oncoming traffic, a cacophony of horns and headlights. It's a chilling statement of raw human anguish, a voyeurism you have no business participating in, like the finale of a sex murder.
"I thought you were swell"
Yet this comes on the heels of a scene in which the histrionics are so misplaced you want to laugh. Shields has skipped the opening night party, so Georgia drives to his house with a bottle of champagne. After repeated rings, Shields finally descends from his bedroom, opens the door, admits her into the lobby but no further. She babbles, he evades. A woman appears at the top of the stairs, Lila, a sexy young starlet from the production. "I saw your picture," says Lila as she exits back to the bedroom. "I thought you were swell."
Compromised, Shields lashes out at Georgia in a fury: "You couldn't stay away... you couldn't enjoy what I made possible for you. You've got it all laid out so you can wallow in pity for yourself... the betrayed woman, the wounded doe... with all the drivel that goes with it running through your mind. Well maybe I like Lila. Maybe I like to be cheap once and a while -- maybe everybody does...!"
After this ugly encounter, Georgia runs from the house, jumps in her car and roars off in another futile attempt at suicide.
The film is structured as a frame narrative which encloses three stories: Shields and his director Fred Ameil (Barry Sullivan), Shields and his star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and Shields and his writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). It's unfortunate that the weakest story leads. While certain scenes have undeniable black humor, the screwing over of the director just doesn't have the dramatic punch to keep the viewer involved.
Ameil first encounters Shields at the funeral of old man Shields. When Ameil later asks him why he hired so many professional mourners, Shields shrugs, says, "He lived in a crowd and I couldn't let him be buried alone." This is typical of the man for whom the creative process is a sexual progression of seduction, consumation and post-orgasmic loneliness. As Ameil is later to find out, no friendship with this man includes loyalty or love if it inhibits his ambition.
Georgia's story is much better. Her character has history... and sex which always makes the tension more interesting. Fred is too ordinary, too beside the point to gain our interest or sympathy, whereas Georgia is damaged goods right from the start. The daughter of a screen legend, she lives in a haze of resentment like an Electra who travels with a portable shrine, angry that he's dead and drunkenly seeking his replacement. Shields, who admired her father, sees possibilities in this suicidal bit player, and pretends to love her in order to rehabilitate her and incubate a star. He uses her and, it must be admitted, she allows him to use her. Her character contains the fatalism of tragic genius and the loneliness of the abandoned child.
non sans droit
The third story is no less interesting, and like the other two, also involves the destruction of the self in order to create a career. Bartlow already has a career as a Prof and a novelist, but it's his seduction into the screen writing milieu in order to satisfy the curiosity of his beautiful southern belle, Rosemary (Gloria Grahame), that leads to his fatal wounding. When Rosemary dies in a plane crash with Gaucho -- the Latin lover screen star -- as a direct result of a machination by Shields, the sardonic Bartlow becomes yet another member of the Shields stable of the used and abused. While the crash is an accident and the extent of her involvement with Gaucho is left hypothetical, it nonetheless appears like murder. Utterly without sentiment, Shields urges Bartlow to keep working because "she's dead and you're alive." With friends like this, who needs love?
The portrait of Jonathan Shields as a very bad man is an uneven exercise of strained one-liners and occasional over-acting. That the script fails the character is obvious -- as a writer, Charles Schnee was out of his league in trying to match the stinging cynicism of the Wilder/Brackett Sunset Boulevard style. The problem is that the part is an icon rather than a person, a symbol rather than a character. What Hollywood brute was his template? X, Y, or Irving Thalberg? He's the generic industry villain, the Hollywood producer, he-who-screws-us-all. The role should've been easy for Kirk Douglas but it isn't. Sometimes he's goofy, sometimes he's psychotic, as if he's struggling with the director rather than his fate.
© LR 6/2000
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