The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)
“Don't worry. Some of the best movies are made by people working together who hate each other's guts.”~ Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), The Bad and the Beautiful
There is a trend among successful public figures that I desperately wish would shrivel up and die, and that is thanking their bullies. They’re primarily run-of-the-mill jerks we all went to school with, but it could also be a teacher who called them stupid, or a boss who said that diddley-squat was too much for them to hope for, or an abusive parent who treated them like something that clings to an old toilet brush. It’s a speech all but programmed into public figures: “You only made me [insert ‘stronger/braver/ wiser/better’ here].” I think this is an utterly appalling practice, which doesn’t empower the put-upon youth you’re trying to reach out to, but in fact puffs up the hateful, swaggering monsters who make life nightmarish for others. I find bullies incredibly low on the totem pole of humanity, and I believe if you were ever a bully in your lifetime, unless you’ve already apologized and made amends, you deserve to feel crippling guilt for the misery you’ve inflicted, not pride just because your victim really made it in life. By thanking abusive people in speech or print, we are inflating egos that deserve instead to be punctured at best.
What was the point of my self-righteous little spiel? Because, as much as I’m loath to admit it, sometimes horrible people can drive us to be better. That’s what’s so frustrating about the whole situation: it’s somewhat true. Negative comments or actions can either break us or make us, depending on who we are and how we react. This maddening paradox is brilliantly shown in the 1952 MGM film The Bad and the Beautiful, directed by Vincente Minnelli. Minnelli was primarily known for his work in lavish musicals, but I personally find that Minnelli was better at making straight dramas and comedies. He had an exquisitely-honed gift at creating arresting visuals, be it in color or black and white, making a merely good story something compelling and memorable. For examples, check out the dream sequence in Father of the Bride, the ball in Madame Bovary, and pretty much every scene in Lust for Life. The Bad and the Beautiful is probably his most visually subdued film, but it’s easily one of his best. When I first saw The Bad and the Beautiful I was skeptical, because it felt like... oh, why mince words? It is a ripoff of All About Eve, which is one of my top five favorite films. All About Eve was one of the most popular and successful movies of its time, so it was only natural that its storyline was going to get lifted one way or another. But as I get older and more pragmatic, I realize that ripoffs are inevitable, but, as long as they’re good, forgivable. That certainly applies here.
Our story takes place in the movie world, not the theatre, and our protagonist/antagonist isn’t a two-faced, parasitic ingenue, but a ruthless, venom-souled producer named Jonathan Shields, played by Kirk Douglas in the role that made him KIRK DOUGLAS! That is, the intensely over-the-top (but no less brilliant), jaw-clenching, growly-voiced leading man and frequent target of impressionists and stand-up comics. The movie opens with fading movie producer Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) attempting to woo three of Jonathan’s former colleagues into working with him once again. It’s a project that will either revive or destroy Jonathan’s career, and he will only make it with these three people involved. Again, like All About Eve, each one recalls, via flashback, how Jonathan royally screwed them over. Early on in one flashback, Jonathan, with blithe arrogance, promises to “ram the name of Shields down their throats!”. Boy, does he ever.
The first fall guy is Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), a director and Jonathan’s former friend. Together, they rose through the ranks as producers, turning schlocky B-movies into smash hit films. Fred dreams of adapting and directing his screenplay of a famous novel into a film. Jonathan, the more ambitious and charismatic of the two, promises to make this happen. The project finally gets the green light, but Jonathan proceeds to crush Fred’s youthful idealism under his heel by getting someone else to direct the film, with a lousy credit under Jonathan’s name as Fred’s only consolation. When Fred angrily tells Jonathan “You gave me your word,” Jonathan’s simple retort is “I know,” his voice all but bellowing “f*** you”.
Jonathan’s second victim, actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), recalls how Jonathan, through emotional manipulation, molded her from a boozy bit player languishing in her movie star father’s shadow into a glamorous ingenue, only for Jonathan to viciously dump her when he tires of her, just when she has fallen in love with him in earnest. The cut still runs deep. “You may outgrow your first love,” she sadly muses, “but you never get over it”.
But the most horrifying act of callousness is saved for last, involving James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), a writer who is lured to Hollywood by Jonathan to write the screenplay for the movie adaptation of one of his books. In tow is James’s young, sweetly dithering Southern Belle wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame), who is a constant distraction to him. She’s such a distraction, in fact, that in order to get James on the ball, Jonathan, in a display of creepiness that will make you want to head for the shower, proceeds to pimp out a smarmy actor (Gilbert Roland) to wine and dine her, which indirectly leads to her death in a plane crash. James is devastated, but this sickening, avoidable tragedy fails to make even a dent in Jonathan’s conscience, as he snarls, “You’re better off without her!”
Each of Jonathan’s victims suffered, but still became successful in their own right, which Pebbel, the sanctimonious old coot, delights in reminding them (little caring that Jonathan is the reason that one of them is a widower). Jonathan’s wretched treatment made them what they are today, why shouldn’t they bury the hatchet and give him another chance? It didn’t kill them (just someone they knew), it only made them stronger! They owe him, darn it! The film ends ambiguously, with our sadder but wiser trio listening in on Pebbel’s phone conversation with Jonathan (anyone remember extension lines?), gradually wondering if they should, well, you know, maybe...?
The film is wonderfully cast, save for Barry Sullivan, who is horribly bland and unmemorable as Fred. Seriously, I’ve seen this movie three times and he never leaves any impression on me. I’ll admit that the appeal Lana Turner eludes me, since she’s never wowed me as an actress, and certainly not as a screen beauty. To use the catty description, she’s attractive, but in an obvious way. Still, she does give a solid performance here, perhaps because she’s given more to do than to look good in white. Fans of 1930s Warner Brothers musicals such as 42nd Street may be shocked to see formerly boyish tenor Dick Powell (who I always thought bore a startling resemblance to Will Ferrell) older, craggier, and wiser as a deadpan, world-weary author. Walter Pidgeon is in fine form as Harry Pebbel, whose oppressively avuncular and conservative personality feels like a jab at legendary producer Samuel Goldwyn. Just as Goldwyn famously said, “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union,” Pebbel’s catchphrase is “I don't want to win awards. Give me pictures that end with a kiss and black ink on the books.”
All right, enough beating around the bush, the long and short of it is that Kirk Douglas owns this movie. He wasn’t the most accessibly handsome of leading men, with his his piercing eyes, bottomless hole of a chin dimple, and voice like a metal file, but Douglas always had talent and magnetism to burn. Like an iceberg, he has a strange, rugged allure, but you know better than to get too close. After paying his dues in forgettable supporting roles for years, he doesn’t just sink his teeth into this role, he devours it and demands seconds. Like Bette Davis, Douglas makes most of his co-stars seem dull by comparison. In fact, you can almost see some of them working to catch up.
Douglas was nominated for the Best Actor Academy Award, but lost to Gary Cooper for High Noon. I’ll reserve my complaints since I happen to love that movie and Cooper’s performance in it, but what’s puzzling is that Gloria Grahame won for Best Supporting Actress as James’s ill-fated wife. Now, I agree she’s fun, watchable, and, ultimately, sympathetic (in spite of her silly Southern accent) but Oscar-worthy? Sorry, but hardly, and considering that she was up against Jean Hagen in Singin’ in the Rain, this win feels especially egregious. If it were up to me, Grahame would have won the following year for The Big Heat, tied with Leslie Caron for Lili. Then again, if it were up to me, 12 Years a Slave would have won all of its nominations. A lovely dream, but, alas, it’s only that.
It’s hard to believe that a comparatively white bread studio like MGM released such a vitriolic film about the nasty goings-on behind the scenes in the movie world. And, unlike All About Eve, where the characters (and the audience) rightfully despise Eve for what she did, The Bad and the Beautiful paints a morally grayer picture. Jonathan’s a despicable reptile in a nice suit, but should the characters hate him, or be thankful to him? Would they have gotten where they are without him? They are successful, yes, but are they happy? Fred will never get to direct his dream film, and Georgia and James are still alone. It’s definitely one of the more grimly complex films to come from MGM during its Golden Age.
So what do I think of the ending of The Bad and the Beautiful? Well, I endorse forgiveness for one’s own well-being, not for the tormentor’s, but I think forgetting is asking a bit much. I like to imagine our three leads slamming down the phone in disgust after the fade-out, going back to their lives and finding peace and happiness at last, while Jonathan becomes the male equivalent of Norma Desmond, but who knows? It is easier to let go of a grudge when your enemy is also responsible for putting a little money in your pocket. Nowadays, free passes in the guise of forgiveness are handed out like promotional ballpoint pens to celebrities everywhere. Considering that today we have people staunchly standing behind child molester Roman Polanski and lining up to work with him, chart success and piles of fan sites defending unrepentant abuser Chris Brown, and R. Kelly dodging karma for his repugnant actions for the past two decades, The Bad and the Beautiful is frightening in its relevance and prescience.