The Bad and the Beautiful

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.

4 thoughts on “The Bad and the Beautiful

  1. Fintan McDonagh

    Thanks Cathy for a spot-on analysis of a great film. I think this is one of the very best Hollywood-on-Hollywood movies, up there with its near-contemporary Sunset Boulevard. You’re right: it’s not as cynical as Wilder’s masterwork, but it doesn’t stint in showing the ruthlessness of parts of the industry.
    I loved reading producer John Houseman’s reflections on the basis of several of the characters. Two of the figures (more Bad than Beautiful) are based on Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang. Now I want to know who inspired the other characters! Surely enough time has passed for the juicy truth to be told?

  2. Mark Vanselow

    I’ve just managed to catch this film on the big screen. The final frame is simply brilliant, and one could react to it in any number of ways–it’s rare in the emotional freedom that it allows its viewers. It’s not a film that ends “this way” or “that way”. It’s a film designed to draw a very individual impression from each member of the audience.

    One of the things that I love about old movies, is that there are always more of them to discover, and they constantly impress me with their excellent closing scenes. Just when you think you’ve pretty much discovered all the classic films and exquisite endings that one could, along comes a film such as this one. The four main characters–Shields, Georgia, James and Fred–are rather intriguing pieces of work, and again, we are most free to draw our own conclusions about these individuals.

    I’m always on the look out for great movies about making movies–“Ed Wood” springs to mind (it’s just too bad that he never made Shields’ film about cat men–that would’ve been a riot!). “The Bad and the Beautiful” definitely belongs in the class of “great movies about making movies”. It was released the same year as “Singin’ in the Rain”–a film that was shot in colour, full of music–and isn’t anywhere nearly as well-known, however, “The Bad and the Beautiful” is every bit as fabulous.

    Great review, Cathy! This is my first visit to this site–named after one of the best lines from “Do The Right Thing”, no less!

    1. Cathy Landicho Post author

      Thanks, Mark! I’ve actually watched this film three times this year, and never tire of it. Another great movie that’s kind of about movies is Woody Allen’s “Purple Rose of Cairo” – one of his lesser known ones. It’s a lot of fun, really surprising and clever… a playful proponent of the magical power of films. Check it out!


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