Tuesday, January 22, 2013
A True Movie Monster
We've had tales of the ugly side of Hollywood almost since the beginning of the film industry itself. The Bad and the Beautiful has one great structural flaw, but apart from that, with a strong story and excellent performances, it is one of the better chronicles of the ruthlessness of those at the top of Tinseltown's heap.
Movie mogul Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) gathers three people to his office one night. They are director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), movie star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and screenwriter James Lee Partlow (Dick Powell). Pebbel wants them to work together on a new project from Harry Shields, despite each already having turned Shields down flat.
Each of them hate Harry Shields (Kirk Douglas) for their own reasons, which in three flashbacks we learn why. Amiel met Shields and Shields' father's funeral. Shields, Sr. was brilliant but hated, so much so Harry had to hire mourners. Amiel, an up-and-coming director, joins Shields in starting to make B-films under the schlock cheapskate Pebbel. Pebbel isn't interested in prestige films, but Amiel years to turn a 'great novel', The Faraway Mountain, into the film he knows he can make it. Shields not only sells Pebbel on the idea of The Faraway Mountain, but manages to talk major star Victor "Gaucho" Ribera (Gilbert Roland) to star.
Only one thing: while Shields does produce, he gets European director Von Ellstein (Ivan Trielsault) rather than Amiel to direct. The first betrayal.
We then get to Lorrison. She is the daughter of a once-great star who fell into drink. Georgia has little desire to enter showbusiness, but Shields wishes to make her a star. Georgia is a bit unstable and insecure, but Shields has found a way: by convincing her he's in love with her. While that gets her through the shoot, at the night of the triumphant premiere Shields fails to show up at the party. When Georgia goes to his home, she discovers him with an extra, and finds he never loved her (or perhaps he does but does not want to love her back).
Finally, we go to Partlow. He was a successful historian and novelist whose new novel has been optioned by Shields. Partlow would rather not be part of the contemptible Hollywood scene, but his wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame) loves the idea. She loves being wined and dined and meeting famous people, and while Partlow does agree to write the screenplay it comes at a high price. Shields spirits Partlow to write in his cabin, but unbeknown to him Shields gets Gaucho to distract Rosemary. In a shocking twist, Gaucho's plane crashes, killing him and Rosemary. Already mourning, they continue production, with Shields' megalomania and need for control being so great he opts to direct the film. Despite his experiences as producer, the film is disastrous, and even worse, Shields lets slip that he knew Gaucho and Rosemary were together that night.
As we wrap up our twisted tale of Hollywood, Pebbel subtlety hints that each has been 'ruined' by their association with Shields: Amiel has gone on to win a few Oscars, Georgia is a major star, and Partlow has gone on to win a Pulitzer for his novel, a thinly veiled story of his Southern belle wife. Despite how they've succeeded with Shields, all three again flatly refuse to join him. However, The Bad and the Beautiful ends with each of them listening in on a phone conversation between Pebbel and Shields, intrigued by his newest project.
Minus this, The Bad and the Beautiful itself is a twisted tale of how people can be corrupted by the desire to be on top and the need for total perfection and control of the artistic product. Part of the fun in the film is to guess whom the characters are versions of real people. In Shields' mad need to control every aspect of film production, one can imagine Gone With the Wind producer David O. Selznick. I had no problem imagining Von Ellstein's grand European director being a version of Erich von Stroheim.
However, even if we know nothing of Hollywood, The Bad and the Beautiful is rich with brilliant performances. At the head of the performances is Kirk Douglas as Harry Shields. In turns powerful and selfish, enthusiastic and ruthless, Shields is unknowable, someone who is driven to succeed regardless of who gets in the way. While he obviously didn't intend Rosemary and Gaucho (one of the few people who seems to be something akin to Harry's friend) to be killed, but he certainly didn't shy away from using people to get what he needed. Douglas is angry, cold, determined: an intense performance and one of the hallmarks of his career.
As much as Turner is derided for being more beautiful than talented, I thought her performance was strong as the fragile movie star Georgia. Perhaps she was basically playing herself: a beautiful woman who knows she has more looks than talent, but I thought Turner gave a better performance than was the norm for her. You can tell she wasn't the best actress around, but when she comes to Shields with love to his home only to find him pushing her away Turner is heartbreaking.
Powell may not be as well-remembered today as he once was, but his role as the intellectual seduced by the lure of Hollywood who in turns was destroyed by it was cynical and sincere, a delicate balancing act that was worthy of at least an Oscar nomination (which he never received). Graham, in turns innocent and duplicitous, shallow and wily at the same time, did win a Best Supporting Actress for her performance, a remarkable thing given her role really is small.
Vincente Minnelli, better known for musicals, showed with The Bad and the Beautiful that he could direct drama of the highest caliber.
Minus the framing device of the flashback, The Bad and the Beautiful is a strong portrait of an ugly business where a good idea trumps such things as morality. Curiously enough, one can imagine the same scenario occurring today.