For director Vincente Minnelli’s follow-up to the Best Picture-winning An American in Paris, The Bad and the Beautiful seems an almost odd choice, especially coming from one who had helmed such Technicolor MGM musical fare as Meet Me In St. Louis and The Pirate. It’s a dark portrayal of Hollywood, focusing on the rise of a ruthless young producer who uses those around him to climb to the top.
The film opens with three characters: actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) and director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan). The three have been gathered by executive Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) to conference call with producer Jonathan Shields, who is trying to put together a film from Paris. Pebbel is practically begging them to listen to Shields’ proposal, as it becomes apparent that each has their own backstory with Shields that has alienated them from the producer.
Told in flashbacks, we learn that Shields is of Hollywood breeding, his father an unpopular filmmaker in the industry. Shields is conniving, and has his sights set on his own stardom in Hollywood. He meets director Amiel at his father’s funeral, and the two go into making low-budget pictures for Pebbel. The two form a successful partnership making such B-pictures, but when the time comes that Shields is able to pitch a big-budget project to the studio, he throws Amiel under the bus and recommends another director for the project. Amiel eventually goes on to be a successful director in his own right, with two Academy Award wins for directing.
In the second flashback, Shields finds alcoholic actress Georgia Lorrison working in bit parts and builds her confidence, eventually giving her the leading role in one of his films. As Lorrison starts to fall in love with him, Shields plays along so that the emotionally fragile actress will be able to finish his film, only to cast her aside for another actress upon the conclusion of production. Shields tells her that he can’t reciprocate because he doesn’t want to be controlled by anyone. Lorrison goes on to be a box office success, but swears she will never work for Shields again.
Lastly, Shields teams with author James Lee Bartlow. Shields wants Bartlow to adapt the book he wrote into a screenplay, which Shields will produce. However, the author isn’t serious about the project, and finds himself distracted by his Southern belle wife, Rosemary (Gloria Grahame). Shields hires an actor, Gaucho Ribera, to keep Rosemary occupied and thus free Bartlow to work on the screenplay. However, Rosemary and Gaucho end up running off with each other, and parish in a plane crash. Devastated, Bartlow finds support from Shields and the movie, which becomes a welcome distraction from the crash. Bartlow and Shields seem to have a good working relationship, but during the production of the film, Shields fires the director and takes over himself. Not having any directing experience, the movie ends up being a failure, causing Shields to go bankrupt. In a fury, he lets it slip that it was he who put Gaucho and Rosemary together, and Bartlow leaves. The author goes on to win the Pulitzer Prize with his second novel.
As the film returns to present day, all three, after reflecting on their relationship with Shields, refuse to hear the new proposal. As they’re walking out, Pebbel says it must’ve been horrible for all of them, considering all three are working at the top level in Hollywood. As they leave, curiosity gets the better of them and they huddle around the extension phone, eavesdropping on the conversation between Shields and Pebbel.
The Bad and the Beautiful is a far cry from the films that most remember Minnelli for. It’s shot in moody black and white, not the lavish color of his musicals. The film boasts an impressive ensemble cast, with each of the main players leading stars in their own right. Kirk Douglas is perfect here, showing off his conniving side and his explosiveness as only he can. As much as I love the first two segments of flashback, being a Dick Powell fan, it’s interesting to see him opposite Douglas in a non-musical, non-noir dramatic role. Gloria Grahame won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Rosemary, and although she isn’t in the film much, she captures your attention as the annoying, shallow wife.
In fact, The Bad and the Beautiful won five Oscars total: Cinematography, Screenplay, Art Direction, and Set Design in addition to Grahame’s award. Kirk Douglas was nominated for Best Actor, but lost to Gary Cooper for High Noon. The film, while praised by critics and honored by the Academy, was not nominated for Best Picture, nor was Minnelli nominated for directing.
As New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote in his January 16, 1952 review, The Bad and the Beautiful paints a disturbing picture of Hollywood, one where people use each other to get to the top at all costs, but it is above all, a picture of Hollywood as an industry:
“Through all of this gory demonstration of the miserable innards of a man, the doctors are also displaying the innards of Hollywood. They move from producers’ offices to studio sets and screening-rooms, from cheap boarding houses to Beverly Hills mansions, from well-laden bars to beds, pretty well indicating — or suggesting — what goes on therein. They talk about “shooting on location,” “going over the budget,” “sneak previews” and “audience response,” and they make a few jabs at movie critics, European directors, Pulitzer prizes and such—all of them incidental nettles that get under the average Hollywood person’s skin.”
So even if the film seems to rely on the stereotypes of the industry, it makes for fine melodrama. Acted and directed to perfection, The Bad and the Beautiful remains one of the most interesting (and nasty) films to take a look at Hollywood from the inside.
The Bad and the Beautiful screens tonight at 8pm ET on TCM as part of The Essentials, and the Summer Under the Stars tribute to Lana Turner.