Thursday, 4 December 2014

Movie Review: The Bad And The Beautiful (1952)


A fictional biography of a Hollywood producer, The Bad And The Beautiful is a riveting exposé of the power games that make an industry tick.

A-list director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), movie star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) and Pulitzer prize winning screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) all refuse to accept a phone call from producer and former colleague Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), who is now residing in Paris. Movie producer and Jonathan's long-time partner Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) gathers the three in his office and asks them to reconsider. Jonathan wants to work with them again, despite their tumultuous history.

The movie is then structured into three flashback chapters. The first charts Jonathan's rise from obscurity. After the ignominious death of his father, Jonathan vows to create his own legacy and restore glory to the Shields name. He teams up with struggling director Fred Amiel and together they start cranking out Z-grade movies for Poverty Row producer Harry Pebbel. Once they learn their craft, Jonathan and Fred set their sights on more ambitious projects, and before long Jonathan's courage and vision propel them towards the big time. Pebbel will end up working for Shields; while Amiel will learn just how ruthless Jonathan can be in his quest to succeed as a studio head.

The second chapter finds Jonathan at the height of his success. He plucks unknown actress Georgia Lorrison out of obscurity and casts her as the leading lady in his latest big-budget production. Georgia has lived her life in the shadow of her infamous and now deceased father. Jonathan cajoles Georgia into overcoming her demons and quitting the bottle, and helps her commit to the role, giving her the chance of a lifetime to become a star. But Georgia will find out the hard way that he is as persuasive as he is insincere.

In the final chapter Jonathan convinces professor and author James Lee Bartlow to adapt his book into a screenplay. The problem is that Bartlow's wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame) is a constant source of interruption, and sometimes irritation, preventing Bartlow from concentrating on his writing. Jonathan spots the obstruction and arranges for movie star "Gaucho" Ribera (Gilbert Roland) to distract Rosemary. The results are unexpected, both for Jonathan's studio and the Bartlow marriage.

Back in the present, Pebbel reminds his three guests that despite Jonathan's driven personality and abrasive methods, they all owe their career success to him. Fred, Georgia and James Lee have to again decide whether to accept the phone call from a man they vowed to shun.

In just under two hours, director Vincente Minnelli packs plenty of Hollywood into a potent film. The Bad And The Beautiful is navel gazing at its best, a film that strips naked the drive, ambition, and desperation of the people behind the images on the screen. Filled with oblique references to real people, shots of films in the making, cutthroat backroom deals, and glitzy parties, as well as the arm twisting, false ego pampering and emotional manipulation that goes into the making of every movie, The Bad And The Beautiful shines the spotlight on the larger than life personalities that create the silver screen magic.

The three chapter format works surprisingly well, and at around 35 minutes each, ensures brisk pacing. Several secondary characters make appearances in all three segments, including Pebbel, Gaucho, and pompous director Von Ellstein (Ivan Triesault), helping to tie together Jonathan's story from obscurity to ostracism. Even Georgia's character has tiny roles in the first and third story, perhaps to justify Lana Turner's top billing.

Star rankings aside, this is undoubtedly Kirk Douglas' movie, Jonathan Shields proving to be one of his most suitable and memorable roles. Douglas' features are put to best use as a driven, manipulative executive, his mind always working overtime to further his own cause while leading others along unfamiliar garden paths.

The Academy Award winning Charles Schnee screenplay (based on the book Tribute to a Badman by George Bradshaw) creates characters that are real and sympathetic without being necessarily always nice or honest. Jonathan Shields and his industry colleagues display strong streaks of selfishness and raw self-interest. But they are all true to their career ambitions, and achieve success laced with the regret of hard lessons, lost relationships and failed ventures. Fred, Georgia and James Lee travel along impressive character arcs, and all undergo profound but credible transitions under Jonathan's influence.

The Bad And The Beautiful exposes the ruthless conniving at the root of the surface glamour, and finds human intrigue worthy of the full Hollywood treatment.






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