The Bad and the Beautiful: Hollywood Bare

“Is Citizen Kane Hearst? Yes, it is Hearst, but also Pulitzer and a lot of other legendary people. So, it was Selznick, Zanuck, and all others. Just as the foreign director could be Stroheim or Fritz Lang. When you start to work in a legendary world, you get legendary figures." That was producer John Houseman’s response to inquiries about his 1952 film, The Bad and the Beautiful. Directed by veteran of the musical genre, MGM’s Vincente Minnelli, this melodrama with an all-star cast stirred many conspiracy theories as to the source and basis of its fictional characters, most importantly the tyrannical producer that Kirk Douglas plays in the film; but the realities of the story and its details matter very little in comparison with the fact that it is a film achieving dramatic excellence and insightful portrayal of the seemingly magical world of Hollywood.

Kirk Douglas plays Jonathan Shields, the son of a big Hollywood producer so hated that his son paid people to come to his funeral, who is a stubborn producer himself determined to make a name for himself in the business, despite his father’s bad reputation. He starts at the bottom, making B-Pictures with his friend Fred Amiel, an aspiring director played by Barry Sullivan, and when they rise enough through the ranks enough to be able to make a dream project, a million-dollar picture, Shields betrays his friend and hires another more established director. With a name to himself now and the ability to choose any star for his pictures, Shields instead opts to pick up an alcoholic, played by Lana Turner, out of her slums and models her to be his next star; what sounds like a charitable action is in fact months of evil manipulation that knows no limits, he is determined to get the performance he wants out of her no matter what it takes. His next victim is a college professor with a best-selling novel and a distaste for anything Hollywood, played by Dick Powell, but even him is lured in and it costs him plenty.

The film has a very interesting story structure, one that keeps the debate whether it can be called noir or not alive; the film opens with Jonathan Shields, now bankrupt and completely out of the business, calling the director, actress and writer to suggest a film, and after they reject him, he calls an old producer friend of his and they get together in his desk, and as he tries to convince the three to give Shields one more chance, flashbacks reveal each of the three characters’ separate downfalls with him. What is interesting is that from the get-go, you know it doesn’t end well; what is even more interesting is that it doesn’t stop you from hoping. The Bad and the Beautiful is essentially an episodic tale of three lives getting ruined by one man’s incredible drive, but a story this grim gains an exceptional ecstasy under Minnelli’s direction: the stories are separated to show that the three characters not only survived Shields’ reign and evils, but even prospered in life, something that the character of the sympathetic producer comments on sarcastically very often, “Yes Jonathan sure destroyed you, you came out of it with nothing, nothing but a Pulitzer-winning novel and the highest salary of any writer in Hollywood”; the vileness of the story comes primarily from its characters, the setting that is Hollywood still holds plenty of magic, and here, it is beautifully portrayed, from simple strolls into an empty set or big parties, every part of Hollywood is glamourized to its full extent; but what perhaps stops The Bad and the Beautiful from becoming too much of a tragedy and not one bit of a romance is the fact that even Shields’ character is flawed and not without a weakness, he is just as hard on himself as he is on others, perhaps even more so, his perfectionism is both his tyranny and his demise.

Does the film attempt to justify Jonathan Shields’s actions? Not one bit. Kirk Douglas, in an outstanding performance, plays him as the most vile, treacherous man on earth, he manipulates, lies, plots, anything that is necessary to get a performance or a script he wants, and his actions grow more dire as the story progresses, and with them, his oppression and involvement in the films. Producers were either sympathetic and humble, like Val Lewton, allowing their directors freedom over the picture, or autocratic and controlling like David Selznick, denying all of that artistic freedom; it is clear which type Shields represents.

The Bad and the Beautiful, even in its title, is an exposition of Hollywood, a land of dualities; in it is deceit and manipulation, abuse of power and blackmail, every despicable trait in a human being, but it is also a place of magic and dreams and art. In his biography I Remember it Well, Minnelli says of Hollywood, “There were dark undercurrents to be sure ...The talk of the dehumanizing of the stars and the prostituting of the writers' talents. But never had I met such animated robots or such willing whores.” 


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