Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) - Trashy Take on "Citizen Kane"

The Bad and the Beautiful film poster
"The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952).

Cinema junkies think that MGM's "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952) is one of the most underrated films of all time. It won five Oscars, so I think it was more than amply rewarded for a story that hasn't held up all that well over the years. "The Bad and the Beautiful" offers that perennial Hollywood "peek behind the cameras" that happens so regularly that it constitutes a film category all of its own. Films that try to show how awful, mean, cruel and terrible Hollywood is to its overpaid faces leave me cold. Director Vincente Minnelli amps up the cat-fighting and back-biting until it is off the Richter scale.

The Bad and the Beautiful
Driving right off the road in "The Bad and the Beautiful."

The best word to describe this film is "melodramatic."  There is so much melodrama that it the melodrama arises likes its own life form, with Kirk Douglas there to shout, "It is alive!"

The Bad and the Beautiful
Melodrama abounds in "The Bad and the Beautiful."

Meanwhile, everyone is exquisitely dressed and the rooms look like they were updated versions of the drawing rooms at Versailles.  Not that there's anything wrong with that - but if ordinary folks lived like this back in the Fifties, they must have all had access to an army of MGM stylists.

The Bad and the Beautiful
Kirk Douglas was a very physical actor at this stage of his career.

Kirk Douglas specialized in playing tough-guy narcissists early in his career. The year before this, he played one of the most misanthropic characters ever to grace the silver screen in "Ace in the Hole."  He muscles around a few dames in this film and shows gets that evil look on his face that later made his role as the suspected rapist in "In Harm's Way" so powerful.  Eventually, he turned his image around until he became a sympathetic and even heroic tough guy in classics like "Paths of Glory" and "Spartacus." But in "The Bad and the Beautiful," he is at his peak in living up to, or should I say down to, his negative image.

The Bad and the Beautiful
There is very impressive film noir lighting in "The Bad and the Beautiful."

Kirk plays Jonathan Shields, son of a tyrannical (or so everyone says) Hollywood producer who has just passed away. Angry (why is never explained, though presumably because his father alienated people) at Hollywood in general, he vows after the funeral to become a success in order to "throw the name Shields back in everyones' face." This leads to a series of vignettes involving Shields' relationships with a wannabe director (Barry Sullivan), a scheming actress (Lana Turner) and a novelist who is a reluctant screenwriter (Dick Powell).

The Bad and the Beautiful Lana Turner
Lana Turner models a fashionable trench coat.

Shields is patterned on David O. Selznick. To hammer that home, there is a brief scene showing Shields amongst some actors dressed as Civil War soldiers, as in Selznick's "Gone With The Wind." Like the Shields character, Selznick had been retired for some years at the time of this film's release. However, he was lurking, managing his wife's acting career, presumably tanned, rested and ready to make a comeback. All very interesting to contemporary insiders, but who besides film buffs remember Selznick today?

In structure, the story resembles "Citizen Kane." Told in flashback, we even get a brief trip to a derelict castle that rather obviously resembles the one in "Kane." As in "Kane," we find out that Jonathan's path to the top of Hollywood involved viciously hurting the feelings of people like the Turner, Sullivan and Powell characters. The main departure from "Kane" is that Jonathan, as is apparent from the very first scene, ends this picture very much alive and with the chance of redemption. So, consider this a "Kane" with a happier, crowd-pleasing ending.

The Bad and the Beautiful Lana Turner Kirk Douglas
Kirk Douglas at his charming best.

Unfortunately, the comparisons with "Kane" end there. The script has moments of brilliance, but a whole lot more of melodrama and unexplained contrivances. The trip to the castle, home of a dead film star, for instance, comes out of the blue and doesn't advance the story at all. Many other moments in the film are either self-indulgent, weird (Douglas playing a record of the dead film star for Turner, the dead star's daughter), or just unexplained (Douglas paying mourners to be at his father's funeral). But mostly, "The Bad and the Beautiful" just shows Shields making tough but warranted business and personal decisions.

Okay, all that is is not so bad. However, the real downfall of "The Bad and the Beautiful" is that Jonathan, set up to be this ogre, really doesn't come off that bad at all. In fact, all of his supposedly terrible actions actually seem quite logical, even inevitable, and at worst no more Machiavellian than those of your standard social climber. It really is how the others react to him, or should I say how they react to the reality of business necessity, that paints a negative gloss. But he doesn't intentionally go out of his way to hurt anybody. So in what way, really, is he so bad? The film pulls its punches throughout. "Kane" showed an innocent corrupted by his own talent into becoming a monster, realizing only too late where he had gone wrong. This film pretentiously tries to imply that a somewhat ordinary fellow with lots of opportunities is just this wicked, wicked man because he insists on doing things the right way. It just doesn't come together. Jonathan's not wicked, or at least not wicked enough, to ever work up strong feelings about him. That Hollywood is actually a business and not a fairytale land may have been astonishing in 1952, but it sure isn't today.

The Bad and the Beautiful Gloria Grahame
Gloria Grahame barely is in "The Bad and the Beautiful," but won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar anyway

Gloria Grahame somehow won an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress for playing Powell's flirty wife. It sure must have been a weak field that year. Or perhaps the Academy was rewarding her for her strong body of work that year in "The Greatest Show on Earth" and "Macao." Really, though, Hollywood was just, as usual, rewarding a woman for playing a bad girl of easy virtue. That happens with regularity.  What she did behind the camera to earn it, nobody now can say.

Dick Powell is great, though his character makes little sense (how did he ever hook the vixenish Graham anyway?). Since so much else about this film shows it to be a roman a clef, I will take a guess and posit that Powell is supposed to resemble Arthur Miller, and Graham, Marilyn Monroe. As is well known, the two (Miller and Monroe) eventually married. The only problem with that is that, while the two apparently were a "thing" already when this film was made, Miller was still married to someone else. In this instance, the script was making an "in" joke that only those familiar with the Marilyn Monroe situation would have caught.

The Bad and the Beautiful
My, what big eyes you have.....

The biggest mystery in "The Bad and the Beautiful" is not a plot point. Instead, it is how Lana Turner got top billing over Douglas, since he dominates practically every scene in the film and she only appears here and there. Turner does have one marvelously comical (unintentionally so) scene where she drives like a maniac after finding out that Jonathan doesn't love her (the heel!). She's very pretty and is at the top of her career here, but even Lana can't save a turgid script.

The Bad and the Beautiful
I always appreciate it films tell me when they're over.

"Bad" is Hollywood at its most excessive. It tries to paint itself in vivid colors of good and evil that are recognizably fake. It's an interesting film with pretensions of greatness that falls flat. See it for some corny performances and a glimpse of old Hollywood, but it's no "Citizen Kane."


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