' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Bad and the Beautiful

Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Bad and the Beautiful

Like 1950’s landmark punk-smack “All About Eve”, Vincente Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful”, released two years later, takes dead aim at the pool of piranhas that is show biz, merely substituting the bright lights of Broadway for the Hollywood Sign. Strangely, though, it seems much less well known. I might not have watched it save for a small blurb in the New Yorker cluing me into its existence. And I dare say this is a film deserving of the same sort of grandiose recognition, both for its lead performance via Kirk Douglas, making like the Harvey Weinstein of his day, demonstrating a romanticism and a charisma that belies an assassin’s streak, and for the film itself in the way that it portrays the movie business as being one that is on any given Oscar Sunday both, well, bad and beautiful.

Neatly divided into three acts, the film opens with director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) and comely leading lady Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) gathered in the Parisian office of producer Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) who begs each one to team back up with another old Hollywood producer, Jonathan Shields (Douglas), to make a film. Alas, this trio has nothing but nightmares when it comes to Shields. Hell no, they won’t work with him, and via three separate flashbacks each person tells their dreadful Shields story.

Fred and Jonathan become friends at the funeral of Jonathan’s studio mogul father. Sensing a mutual love of the movies, the two men team up – not unlike Affleck & Damon – and take any backlot job they can find, considering Jonathan’s famed father had no assets left, slowly but surely scaling the ladder from the canyon floor with the peak in sight. A significant loss in a poker game to Pebbel himself leads Fred and Jonathan to working off the debt via bad and low budget pictures until one day, determining the time has come to make a “real” picture, Fred shows his pal a script for a potentially brilliant project called “Far Away Mountain.” Jonathan shows it to Harry who quickly approves except……Harry takes all the credit. And when the time comes to tab a director, Jonathan casts aside Fred for a better known veteran instead.

Next up is Georgia, a fierce alcoholic and daughter of a deceased screen legend, she lands a small part in a Shields’ picture, does well and catches the producer’s eye. He will turn her into a star, regardless of whether or not anyone else sees the talent he is certain she possesses. She falls in love with him and he with her and he coaxes a masterful performance out of her that turns her into a star and renders a great film. But when he fails to turn up the night of the premiere Georgia finds him at his mansion with a cheap floozy and Jonathan, ragefully, casts his starlet away, advising no one will ever have that much control over him.

Last, Bartlow, a college professor, has written a best seller that Shields wants to turn into a movie. Ah, but Bartlow, like any writer worth his whiskey, wants no part of it, at least not until his wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame) talks him into it. So off to la-la land they go where, in an ironic twist, Rosemary’s presence prevents her husband from finishing his work on the screenplay, much to Jonathan’s chagrin. Thus, ever wily, Jonathan enlists his leading man, suave Gaucho (Gilbert Roland), to flirt away with Rosemary to his heart’s content to keep her distracted. Flirting, however, turns hot and heavy and the two run off together, only to tragically perish in a plane crash. In spite of this turn of events, filming goes on, Shields, in a disagreement with his director, takes over as auteur, only to flub his duties and make a turkey that he orders shelved. And then things go from bad to worse when he inadvertently reveals that he was the one who tasked Gaucho to commit his adulterous misdeed. Yikes.

All this, of course, makes Jonathan sound like an Academy Award-winning monster, a man you wouldn’t trust with your worst enemy, and leaves you wondering why anyone would agree to avail themselves of a Shields Production. But that’s what makes Douglas’s performance so perfect and perversely affecting. He utterly inhabits the neighborly fiber of a filmmaking overlord that is used to mask a lecherous soul. Each act is magnificently constructed to portray Jonathan, respectively, as a friend, a lover and a confidant, effortlessly reeling in the director, the star and the writer for personal gain and then, at the last instant, when their usefulness has expired, shiving them with his PGA card.

Early on Shields talks of getting the "after-picture blues." Fred councils: "You'll learn to love 'em and leave 'em." Oh, Fred, if only you knew. Because that is part of what Minnelli's film is arguing: that to sustain success in Tinseltown you have to be able to leave behind someone and/or something that you loved with all your heart. Hollywood, as we know, is full of sharks and, as Alvy Singer once noted, sharks have to be constantly moving or they die.

Since seeing the film I have read people arguing that the end, in particular the final shot, is not as tough as was originally intended. I would disagree. It's the two themes commingling perfectly. Our insulted trio states implicitly they will never work with Shields again. But then in a shot that echoes a shot from earlier, they gather around a phone to hear Shields pitching his newest idea to Pebbel. Their faces light up. They know it's gold. Gold, baby! And without overtly saying so, we know they cannot and will not resist.

They believe so much in the Beauty of Hollywood, they are willing to accept the Bad.


Andrew K. said...

Taking time to suck up once again and say how much I appreciate this feature. This film is in my memory as a footnote in the supporting actress annals because of Grahame's performance (and, also Douglas' performance). It's also a film I foolishly tend to confuse with Written on the Wind, for no reason I've ever been able to discern.

That long digression was just to say that I'll definitely rewatch this soon-ish, owing to your review.

As you were.

Nick Prigge said...

Thank you, sir. I appreciate that. As I've said before, if nothing else I just love writing these posts for myself - and this one in particular was very fun to write. I really, really liked this movie.

But it's always nice to know someone else is enjoying them too.