Vincente Minnelli’s 1952 film The Bad and the Beautiful, now showing on extended run at London’s BFI Southbank, paints a thoroughly entertaining portrait of classic Hollywood. Through a series of deft flashbacks, it chronicles of the rise and fall of an arrogant producer, Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), from the perspectives of those he stepped on to achieve his ambitions. The film centres around a last-ditch effort from Shields to convince three of his old colleagues-turned-enemies to work on his comeback project: director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). But what did he do to each of them to make them so angry with him? That dramatic tension hooks you in and compels you to judge for yourself whether Shields deserves help with his comeback film or not.
The story that unfolds offers a compelling, humane look at the personal lives of a range of Hollywood players during an era that preceded the invasive media scrutiny that dominates the film industry today. Kirk Douglas is brilliant as the near-mythical protagonist; this egotistical producer is not one we’re meant to feel sympathy for, but Douglas’ earnest performance reminds us that with ambition comes risk and vulnerability. It’s Shields’ ardor and addiction to filmmaking that links the three cleverly rendered flashbacks. Of the trio Shields aims to convince, Lana Turner – providing a pleasant reminder that she was more than just a pretty face – is the most captivating as the disarming Georgia. But even the minor characters are surprisingly delightful, particularly Bartlow’s wife, a scene-stealing Southern belle played by Gloria Grahame (a turn for which she won a deserved Academy Award).
The nuanced characterizations of the quirky cast are thoughtful and thorough, from their distinctive deliveries of voiceovers to their attachments to totemic props (such as Georgia’s necklace) which are often cleverly utilized for clear and logical transitions between scenes. This, combined with brisk edits, helps the film move with good momentum, accompanied by tasteful, romantic scoring. And the sumptuously detailed sets, dramatically lit, complete the dream-like atmosphere that befits classic Hollywood. The Bad and the Beautiful won five Academy Awards by practicing what it preaches; throughout the film, the protagonist aims for quality over quantity, for awards over commercial success.
That said, The Bad and the Beautiful isn’t quite a love letter to Hollywood. Rather, it presents a place where dreams begin and then are painfully reshaped. It has a refreshingly uncynical view of the industry, unafraid to be a touch moralistic in espousing self-reliance, while managing to retain a wry sense of humour about its commentary, never allowing itself to get too serious or self-congratulatory. It’s such a pleasure to see a film that respects its audience, is thoughtfully constructed, and isn’t a downer – a rare combination in Hollywood nowadays.