The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, Vincente Minnelli)

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It’s a symbol of the impact that cynical lifers Billy Wilder and Joseph L. Mankiewicz — whose twin portraits of aging in the entertainment industry, Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve, competed for the Best Picture Oscar in 1951 — had on Hollywood’s perceptions of itself that this unusually small production for MGM and director Vincente Minnelli almost rides on the idea of skepticism for the movie industry as its major commercial boon. The inside-baseball stuff of Sunset is mostly a backdrop here, while Mankiewicz’s impact is hard to miss. The Bad and the Beautiful, remembered in some circles as a classically hardened movie about moguls, makers and shakers, feels at first blush like a pale cross between Eve and A Letter to Three Wives, replacing the theater and the ad industry with the creeping crawling world of call sheets, budgets, outsized personalities and over- or understuffed production slates. It’s a film that indulges our taste in and fascination with all this drama that presumably every audience member knew lurked just behind the cameras of even this smug little number.

Alas, it’s a movie unable to maintain its level of muckraking and train-wreck snarling with anything like the conviction of its contemporary influences. It’s formatted as a life-story flashback about a once big-time producer now on the skids and desperate to reconnect with three people (a director, a screenwriter and a starlet) he stepped on during his march to the top — each of the three individually returns to their storied histories with one Jonathan Shields, a series of scrappy meetups, shady dealings and broken promises (of course) stretching onward to death, deceit and disruption. Shields’ impatience and commitment to his work have tragic consequences; one character in particular loses his idyllic family life in grim fashion. There’s even an Old Dark House, in case you were hoping it would appropriate a few clichés outside of the showbiz-narrative genre.

The sparks of wit and cynicism in the script (best of all probably being a sequence about raw, on-the-run exploitation shooting clearly based on Val Lewton’s Cat People) can’t make up for its basically contrived nature, or its resistance to detail. At one point, the film takes the trouble to indicate that we’re about to see what it’s like when a producer sits down to watch screen tests, but then the whole idea is basically discarded, as though just mentioning supposed industry buzzwords was enough to make us all feel like we were in on the action. The moment when Shields decides to scrap a movie that’s already in the can because it’s suddenly unsatisfactory to him is ludicrous to the point that it makes analogous moments in the comedies Sullivan’s Travels and Singin’ in the Rain seem like the stuff of documentary.

As the David O. Selznick-like producer, ego, and mogul-in-waiting, Kirk Douglas — who would seem a natural choice for the part — doesn’t hit anything but the most obvious notes. It’s dramatic to compare his unconvincing, drawling relaxation here with the genuine nastiness he’d just exhibited in Wilder’s Ace in the Hole. Here is a role that calls doubly for such nastiness — not just an opportunist but a malicious, seemingly amoral one — and he seems afraid to contribute to it at full volume. He seems too friendly, too reasonable, to be a figure of menace and dread. Even though none of the three narratives in the film are sourced from him, it always seems we’re seeing him the way he sees himself: the gentle giant under the cold exterior, as though this film’s own beloved producer and talent-spotter John Houseman meant strictly to justify and defend the machinations so often inherent to this profession, a trite concept when weighed against the fearsome nature of someone like Darryl Zanuck or Louis Mayer.

As a character, then, Shields just isn’t very full-bodied, from lucky first blush with fortune to real tastes of power. We get neither a sense of true ruthlessness or failure out of him; instead we’re basically just told he’s ruthless, and a failure. Minnelli’s visual flair, seen in handsome if compromised productions like An American in Paris and even ugly ones like Gigi, is subsumed in a kind of staid anonymity — the takeaway being that someone somewhere thought this story was important. To be perfectly clear, anyone with a living fascination for old Hollywood is bound to be fascinated and drawn to The Bad and the Beautiful like catnip, but to that end the film seems to thrive on your appreciation of other movies, not on any kind of in-depth interest in what it has to offer.

In one of her signature roles, Lana Turner outperforms the other actors by a mile. This was perhaps because she knew the part, herself a gossip and a subject of just the sort of lurid Hollywood narratives — eight marriages included — that would peak later in the ’50s with her ties to an abusive, murdered gangster named Johnny Stompanato. Turner got a kick out of it all and liked nothing more than to be queried about her personal life; she is the sort of dramatic, over-the-top presence that the world of this film is built on, and yet her work within it is marked by its humane subtelty. It’s an instantly appealing performance, but it was inexplicably Gloria Grahame, sensual but ridiculous as writer Dick Powell’s southern belle bride, who walked away with an Oscar. Grahame’s award may have been a pity move since she is saddled with the most blankly silly story arc in the film — a chatterbox silenced by a Romeo and a plane crash — but she’s merely a symptom of the way the film substitutes its bare skepticism about The Biz for any real insight into the characters or their actions. There’s not much any actor could do to “fix” these three overly simplistic stories and their occupants.

That said, the airing of dirty laundry is fun — is Turner’s troubled Georgia Lorrison modeled upon Judy Garland? Rita Hayworth? Jennifer Jones? No one disputes that Leo G. Carroll, in a series of barks and bites that roll ferociously across the screen, is playing one of the directors he most often worked with, Alfred Hitchcock, and the film is quite brutal toward his working methods and the presence of his wife as a co-decisionmaker, but it’s a pity that this remarkable and funny performance is confined to just two scenes. It’s interesting that the film is more even-handed and arguably less mean-spirited than Sunset Blvd. but also has so, so much less a sense of gravity and honesty to it, and certainly less wit, and when you look at the way it tempers its passionately bitter treatment of Hitchcock, you sense why Wilder succeded where Minnelli and writer Charles Schnee did not. Minnelli in particular is too much a part of this industry to ridicule it the way Wilder felt free to.

The film’s last scene — when all three parties say no to a patsy begging them to work with Shields again then crowd around another extension to hear how he takes the news — is unmistakably meant as its key. Its actual meaning, though, is muddy: is it simply saying that we are both repelled and fascinated by the assholes in our lives? Or that the allure of a great underdog victory trumps all common sense? Or that kind people and their nemeses alike can’t get enough of one another? Whatever it’s trying to get at, it does so with sufficient clumsiness that it just seems silly. So does the film as a whole, and yet as a document of how the world of American movies saw itself in the early 1950s, just when things were beginning to unravel at the studios, it is essential — and a goldmine for any research into that narrative. But as entertainment, it’s merely passable, despite (and maybe because of) some moments that suggest just how much of a wallop it could’ve been.

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