The Bad and the Beautiful (1953)

Directed by Vincente Minnelli

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The Bad and the Beautiful is told in the same fashion as Citizen Kane.  It’s the story of a legendary figure, in this case Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), as told through three flashbacks, each from the perspective of a different character.  We only ever meet Shields through these subjective accounts, told by a director, actress and screenwriter whom he is alleged to have screwed over.

Before we meet Shields, we’re introduced to these three characters who have rubbed elbows with him, as they all firmly reject calls from his office.  Before anything else, we know that Shields is known as a scumbag.  Still, these three characters are brought before the desk of Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon), a man for whom Shields once worked and who now works for Shields.  The three say they’re only there out of respect for Harry.

What we learn is that Jonathan Shields is a once famous, now disgraced producer who can no longer get any movie made.  The combined star power of director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), Harry says, will be enough to get Shields’ latest picture made.  They all loathe Shields and say they won’t help him, so Harry tries to make them remember what Shields did for them, and the film is told through these three flashbacks.

Fred Amiel met Shields as a young man with hardly a scent to his name.  After the death of Shields’ father, Jonathan is penniless and hopeless, yet he has a strange sense of determination and wills himself into the studio system through Harry Pebbel himself.  Together, as a producer-director team, Shields and Fred rise through the ranks, making a series of successful B movies.  When Fred comes to Shields with his dream project, they work night and day to get it off the ground.  Their sales pitch is so good that Harry assigns a new, more experienced director to the project.  Fred feels betrayed, particularly since that passion project of his would go on to win Shields an Academy Award.

Harry acknowledges Fred’s feelings but says that Shields is the man who gave him his career.  Then he transitions to Georgia, a struggling actress whom Shields turned into a star, sticking with her through the studio’s objections and her own alcoholism.  They fall in love, and after the premiere of their first picture together, with her now a star, she finds that Shields has taken up with another woman.

Harry again acknowledges her understand hatred for Shields, but he says that if it wasn’t for him, Georgia would have no career.  Finally he focuses on screenwriter James Lee Bartlow, a novelist from a quiet college town who had no interest in Hollywood.

By this point we know exactly what’s going to happen.  Through the first two flashbacks, we have watched Shields rise the ranks, and by the time Bartlow meets him, Shields is Hollywood royalty.  He courts Bartlow, partially appealing to him through the enthusiasm of Bartlow’s wife, Rosemary.  Shields observes that Rosemary is a distraction to Bartlow’s writing process, so he insists that him and Bartlow withdraw to a cabin to work.  To keep Rosemary busy, Shields has famed actor Gaucho Ribera keep her busy, and they die in a helicopter crash.  Bartlow is devastated, but Shields keeps him on track, and Bartlow thanks his friend for helping him through this tough time.  Later, Shields mistakenly mentions his role in organizing the affair between Gaucho and Rosemary, thus severing his friendship with Bartlow.

The film ends with Harry insisting that despite all their pain, Shields’ involvement in their lives was a net positive.  He asks if they’ll agree to meet with Shields over his new film, and they all say no.

We never do meet Shields in the present moment, and all the flashbacks are subjective, so we never really do get a sense of who this powerful man was.  He’s a legendary figure within the movie’s world, and his career trajectory is loaded with cliches of the rags to riches roller coaster.  Anything Shields allegedly said or did has to be viewed with a grain of salt considering the anger each of these people holds towards him.  The only thing adding credibility to their individual stories is the fact that they’re mostly disconnected, and they each came to their feelings towards the man independently.

The storytelling structure seems ripped straight from Citizen Kane, though each of the three vignettes does little to build on Shields’ life or career other than to show that his success was continued and his backstabbing nature consistent.  Each story just reinforces what we’re told at the beginning, and there’s no dramatic change of heart at the end of the film.  If you think that maybe these characters might overlook their old frustrations, you’re wrong.  They’re brought into a room, effectively for a sales pitch, and they all say no.

The story is that Jonathan Shields is based on producer David O. Selznick, and you think this has to be based on a real person (like Charles Foster Kane on William Randolph Hearst) because the whole films feels loaded with spite.  Again, there is no real arc to the story, just the account of one man’s rise and fall, told through three separate characters as if to let you know that this was a bad, bad man.  Told through three points of view, the criticism of Shields feels less vengeful and more factual.  This is just how he is, the film might as well be saying, and yet the story as a whole, told through one screenwriter, feels somewhat vengeful.

All in all, this was a surprisingly entertaining film.  It feels as though it’s written with spite but directed (by the same man whose previous film was An American in Paris), with a tender heart.  Everything feels playful and delicate, even the moments of heightened emotion.  It’s all presented with some distance, as if the characters aren’t wrong to feel scorned but that we shouldn’t identify too strongly with their pain.  It’s just how the industry goes.

There is plenty of criticism thrown at movies about Hollywood, if only because Hollywood seems to love them.  This is a movie about Hollywood that is pretty delightful because it touches on so many aspects of the industry and embraces the way movies are packaged and sold.  As producer Harry Pebbel says early in the film, “I’ve told you a hundred times. I don’t want to win awards. Give me pictures that end with a kiss and black ink on the books.”

The entire film comments repeatedly on the industry, but it still manages to glorify it even while undercutting that same glory.  The industry creates enemies of everyone around Shields, it kills Rosemary, and we see just how rotten so many of these characters are.  And yet, the three characters we’re meant to empathize with all remain in the industry.  They’re hypocrites, in some way, and I think the film is trying to shine a light on this.  Who are we to root for?  Because there didn’t seem to be an obvious answer, I better enjoyed the film, watching it like you might watch a particularly juicy documentary or read a tabloid article.

Maybe this is just the vision of Hollywood everyone from the outside wants to imagine.  It’s anything but boring, instead full of backstabbing, mystery, murder and fiery romanticism.

Up Next: Dial M for Murder (1954), Gun Crazy (1950), LBJ (2017)

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