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“Don't worry. Some of the best movies are made by
people working together who hate each other's guts.”
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After an opening montage where we move around Hollywood and spy on famed director Fred Amiel, famous actress Georgia Lorrison, and noted novelist James Lee Bartlow hard at work, we then watch them all separately turn down a phone call from notorious film producer, Jonathan Shields -- some more bluntly than others, with Bartlow telling Shields to ‘drop dead’ before hanging up on him, while the other two refuse to even talk to the man, letting their underlings or house-staff give him the runaround. Thus, the message is clear: none of them want anything to do with Shields or what he’s trying to sell.
Seems this Shields used to be a big deal in Hollywood, with several Academy Awards to his name; but the producer stepped on a lot of people on the way to the top. And now that he’s cratered and struggling to get a picture off the ground after a series of near bankrupting box-office bombs, he needs the names of Amiel (Sullivan), Lorrison (Turner) and Bartlow (Powell) attached to his latest project to get the money he needs. And so, Shields (Douglas), who has a personal history with all three, arranges for an en masse meeting through a third party; one of his associate producers, Harry Pebbel (Pidgeon) -- Shields’ former boss, now an underling, in one last ditch effort to make his pitch. And while all three agree to the meeting, mostly as a favor to the affable if not irascible Pebbel, you get the sense all three are itching for one more chance to tell Shields to not only go screw himself but to rub his nose in it as well. As to why all this venom and rancor? Well, that’s a long story...
As the legend goes, before its general release, Paramount Studios arranged a special screening of Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) for several studio heads and specially invited guests. And as the legend continues, after the scathing indictment on the Hollywood machine ended, Barbara Stanwyck knelt in front of star Gloria Swanson and kissed the hem of her skirt. Swanson then looked for fellow “has been” Mary Pickford but was told she was too emotionally overcome and had to leave. Others were not so kind. Actress Mae Murray was offended by the tale of a faded and discarded starlet and reportedly remarked, "None of us floozies was that nuts." But this all paled to the tirade put on by Louis B. Mayer, who berated Wilder, saying, "You have disgraced the industry that made and fed you! You should be tarred and feathered and run out of Hollywood and sent back to Germany!" Wilder, whose family had perished in the Holocaust, responded without missing a beat, telling the pompous -- and some would argue, insidious, MGM mogul to either "Go f@ck yourself" or to "Go shit in your hat" depending on which source you consult.
I honestly have no idea if this legendary confrontation had any influence on MGM’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1953), which is a lavishly more sanitized look at what goes on behind the closed studio doors of Hollywood to expose the back-stabbing spit and shady bailing wire on which all that tinsel hangs, but it does kind of rebuke some of Wilder’s assertions, saying the sacrifice for the sake of art is worth it, collateral damage be damned.
The film began life as two magazine articles written by George Bradshaw, Of Good and Evil, published in the February, 1948, issue of Cosmopolitan, and later expanded in the February, 1951, issue of The Ladies Home Journal as Memorial to a Bad Man, which concerned the reading of the last will and testament of a notorious cut-throat New York theater producer, who posthumously tried to explain away his terrible behavior to the three people he hurt the most; a writer, an actor and a director. MGM secured the rights and assigned producer John Houseman to translate it into film, under the working title, Tribute to a Bad Man.
Coming on the heels of All About Eve (1950), one of the first changes Houseman made was to move the action from Broadway to Hollywood to make it more accessible to audiences. From there, Charles Schnee was tasked to adapt the screenplay and Vincente Minnelli was tabbed to direct. "It was a harsh and cynical story, yet strangely romantic," said Minnelli. "People who read the script asked me why I wanted to do this. It was against Hollywood, etc. I told them I didn't see [Shields] as an unregenerate heel -- first because we find out he has a weakness, which makes him human, and second, because he's tough on himself as he is on everyone else, which makes him honest. That's the complex,wonderful thing about human beings -- whether they're in Hollywood, in the automobile business, or in neckties." And as the production toiled on, realizing the title sounded too much like a western, and in a nod to top-billed Lana Turner, MGM publicity guru Howard Dietz quickly rechristened the film as The Bad and the Beautiful (1953), which Houseman and Schnee both hated but lost the battle when production head, Dory Schary, signed off on it.
As scripted and shot, the rise and fall of Jonathan Shields would be told in a series of three flashbacks, each told from a different perspective of the director, the actress, and the writer as they wait for a transatlantic phone call. On screen, Shields comes off as an easily identifiable mash-up of Orson Welles, Val Lewton, and, especially, David O. Selznick, whose father’s film production company went bankrupt, and who began his career in the B-units, personally groomed Jennifer Jones for stardom, and nearly bankrupted a studio by making a Civil War epic, only Gone with the Wind (1939) was a box-office bonanza. Shields’ fictional The Proud Land? Not so much. Even while the film was still in production the rumor mill over its ‘basis in fact’ content had Selznick sniffing around to see if there was anything he could sue MGM over, but despite the similarities his lawyers determined there were no grounds for a lawsuit.
Selznick wasn’t the only real life effigy to be found in the production either. In fact, everyone on screen kind of has a real life surrogate and career echo as you can easily draw a line between Georgia Lorrison and Diana Barrymore, both daughters of iconic alcoholic actor fathers (John Barrymore); Bartlow can be traced to many an author lured to and ruined by Hollywood, ranging from William Faulkner to F. Scott Fitzgerald but probably owes the most to the lesser known Paul Green; Harry Pebbel is a nod to MGM’s own B-Movie unit chief, Harry Rapf; and down the cast list you have even more reasonable facsimiles with Ivan Triesault doing his best Fritz Lang impression, and Leo G. Carroll and Kathleen Freeman standing in for Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma Reville.
The only character I can’t really peg is Amiel -- Jacques Tourneur, maybe? -- who kicks this story off proper with the first flashback as Pebbel assures all he understands why they refuse to speak to Shields. In Amiel’s case, it begins 18 years ago as a paid extra at the funeral of Jonathan’s father, Hugo Shields, who was so despised the vast majority of mourners had to be hired to thicken the crowd. And here, during the eulogy that paints the deceased movie mogul as one of the founding fathers of motion pictures and a rock on which Hollywood was built, Amiel snarkily rebuffs all hosannas (-- apparently old Hugo wasn’t just a heel but was thee heel), not realizing he was standing right next to the deceased’s estranged son, costing him his fee.
After, Amiel seeks Shields out, apologizes, and a friendship is soon forged over a desire to make pictures together. But to Shields, this runs deeper than that and soon becomes a personal crusade to avenge his father’s reputation, make it in Hollywood, and restore the name of Shields by “ramming it down their throats” and, turns out, he will accomplish this by any means necessary.
And through a strategic poker game loss, Shields lands them both a job with executive producer Pebbel to pay off the gambling debt, who is in charge of the B-picture unit of some unnamed studio. Here, both Shields and Amiel hone their craft, the former producing, the latter directing, on a dozen or so five-to-ten-day-wonders, and then make their reputation on a horror movie, Doom of the Cat-Men, turning a “five-cent script, a ten-cent budget and a two-cent leading man” into a bona fide hit.
This whole Cat-Men sequence is my favorite part of the movie, just the nuts and bolts of it, beginning with Amiel and Shields looking on stupefied as the prop man tries to sell them on some ratty cat-creature costumes. The wardrobe man was played by Ned Glass, and Minnelli was so impressed with his performance he had planned to expand his role. But when the actor failed to show for his close-up, turns out Glass wasn’t vetted close enough and when the brass at MGM realized he was on the Blacklist, and was apparently ratted out, he was subsequently banned from the lot. (MGM, however, was not patriotic enough to cough-up the $20,000 needed to re-shoot the wardrobe scene with a different actor, ‘natch.) Faced with the insurmountable task of selling these “terrors” we get to the Lewton-Tourneur- Cat People (1942) connection as Shields and Amiel decide to forgo an actual monster and rely on shadows, suggestion, and the audience's own imaginations. (And keep a sharp eye out for young Sandy Descher, who gives her lungs a good warm up for that ass-puckering scream to come in 1954's THEM!)
And their reward for this box-office success? They get to do The Son of the Cat Man next. Seeing their future going down the drain of Cat Man sequels, Amiel thinks it is time to take their shot at something a little more significant and presents a pet-project he has been nursing along for nearly a decade: a treatment for the big screen adaptation of The Faraway Mountain on a Harry Pebbel budget. And his pitch to Shields is so passionate, knowing full well several other major studios have already tried and failed to adapt the popular novel, Shields usurps his friend’s carefully laid out work as his own, convincing Pebbel to not only make the picture but to do it on an A-budget with an A-list director once they convince an A-list actor, Victor “Gaucho” Ribera (Roland), in another hilarious interlude, to star in it, meaning Amiel has just been unceremoniously pushed to the side. Here, Shields brutal betrayal is completed when he bluntly tells his friend that while he is ready to produce an A-picture, Amiel just isn’t good enough to direct one.
Their partnership (and friendship) irrevocably broken, Shields rides The Faraway Mountain to his first Academy Award, and leverages that success into founding his own studio, taking Pebbel, but not Amiel, with him, which leads us to the second flashback and the reclamation of Georgia Lorrison. We’ve already met Georgia briefly in the Amiel segment, during a raiding party on the decaying mansion of the late George Lorrison, where we find out Shields has a history with the Lorrison family. Seems her father used to work for his father and was more of a dad to Jonathan than his actual sire. Georgia is also following in her father’s footsteps, making both acting and boozing a career choice. And while she isn’t very good at acting, turns out she’s a genius at drinking.
Still, as a favor to her late father, drunk or sober, the highly unstable Georgia still lands a few bit parts and extra work around town, where she once again gets on Shield’s radar and soon comes under his influence. (His father had a great Lorrison, and so he should have one, too, right?) He dries her out and gives her the old Shield’s touch and works some of “Jonathan’s Magic” on her, giving her the lead in his latest epic over the objection of nearly everyone else.
Alas, Georgia panics at the last moment and disappears on a bender on the first scheduled day of shooting. And while everyone else scrambles to replace her, Shields tracks her down and realizes one of her hang-ups is that she’s fallen in love with him and gives her one more chance, beginning with an impromptu dip into a swimming pool to sober her up.
Manipulating that passion for him and funneling it into her performance, Georgia gains confidence and is a smash hit. But when Shields is a no-show at her post-premiere party, Georgia tracks him down at his mansion, wanting to *ahem* 'celebrate with him personally' but finds his bed already occupied by another potential starlet. (A wonderful, catty performance by Elaine Stewart. “I forgot to tell you, Georgia. I saw the picture. Thought you were swell.” Are you kidding me?! How awesome was that?) Here, the true Shields finally appears, shattering his carefully crafted charming facade, as he rejects Georgia wholesale, saying he was just playing the romantic part to keep her sober long enough to finish the picture, and how he will never be tied down to any one person. Crushed by this jilting, Georgia flees into the night and is so distraught she winds up putting her car in the ditch at 80mph in perhaps a third suicide attempt.
But she survives and immediately breaks her contract with Shields, who doesn’t fight her on this and lets her go, having gotten what he needed out of her. Besides, he has his sights on Shields Productions’ next big project: an adaptation of the Civil War epic, The Proud Land, written by one James Lee Bartlow, which leads to the third and final segment of the film, where we find Bartlow hard at work on his next book until his wife, Rosemary (Grahame), a true southern belle, says he has a phone call from Hollywood. Seems Shields wants Bartlow to adapt his novel into a screenplay; and while the author isn’t all that interested in the offer his wife certainly is, and Shields uses this as leverage to get the couple to at least come out and visit the coast, which is soon manipulated into an extended stay when the highly susceptible Rosemary soon becomes smitten with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood.
And so, Bartlow agrees to write the screenplay to appease her but his progress is slow due to the constant disruptions of Rosemary, causing a frustrated Shields to do something drastic to keep her out of the way, siccing Gaucho on her to *ahem* 'keep her occupied' while he and Bartlow retreat to an isolated cabin to finish the script. But once it’s finished several days later, on the way back to Hollywood, they are greeted by giant newspaper headlines saying Gaucho is feared dead in a small plane crash along with a mystery woman -- rumored to be the wife of a certain noted author. And so, on top of the terrible loss, Bartlow must also deal with the salacious innuendo that his wife was having an affair. Again, Shields spins this to his advantage, channeling the tragedy and anger of this perceived betrayal into work on the picture.
Here, though, perhaps driven by some complicit guilt, Shields finally makes a mistake, pissing off the appointed director so much he quits. And feeling no one else is qualified to fulfill his vision, Shields takes it upon himself to direct the picture, which quickly goes over budget -- way, way over budget. And worst of all, the end result is so turgid and awful, Shields refuses to even release it. This boondoggle is then made worse when Shields inadvertently reveals it was his machinations that put Gaucho and Rosemary together, and whose efforts to callously justify what he did earns him a well-earned punch in the mouth and his only friend left in the business to walk out on him.
And now, his studio teetering on bankruptcy, and unable to raise funds for another feature, Shields has the gall to ask these same three people he took a crap on to help bail him out -- and it says a lot that he makes Pebbel do the heavy lifting for him, here. And Pebbel makes the hard sell, too, sarcastically commenting on how Shields ruined their lives alright: Amiel having gone on to win two Academy Awards on his own; Georgia, a former drunken tramp, is now one of the highest paid actresses in town; and Bartlow’s latest book, an ode to his late wife, garnered him a Pulitzer Prize. And all of that, Pebbel contends, is all thanks to Jonathan Shields.
Obviously, this tough-love pitch fails to resonate and all three refuse once Shields’ call finally comes through, and all three silently get up and leave as Pebbel breaks the bad news to Jonathan over the phone. But once they leave his office, Georgia picks up the secretary's extension and clandestinely listens in on the conversation, and is soon joined by the other two, who listen to Shields’ frantic pleas. Are they listening in to gloat over their old nemesis’ misfortune? Or are they about to get suckered in by the siren call of Jonathan Shields and fall into his orbit again? That, as they say, is up to the audience as we fade to the final credits.
Like The Faraway Mountain, The Bad and the Beautiful started out as a B-Picture that eventually grew into an A-Picture. Thinking on it, it actually owes less to Orson Welles as a character but more to him as a filmmaker as its flashbacks and multiple viewpoints and faux-documentary style is highly reminiscent of Citizen Kane (1941) -- and it’s also fairly easy to see the similarities in the character arcs of Jonathan Shields and Charles Foster Kane. Both started out with principles, goals, and something to prove, but then sort of lost their moral compasses along the way, destroying everything in their path on the way to success and, ultimately, a long and lonely tumble to the bottom once the summit is conquered. Houseman was Welles’ partner back in The Mercury Theater days, and served as an assistant in the making of Citizen Kane, chipping in on the script and the editing. At some point the two had a falling out, though, and Houseman became one of Welles’ biggest detractors.
When The Bad and the Beautiful was finished previews were positive but felt the film was too long, and so, twelve minutes were chopped out before its general release. It proved to be a hit and would go on to garner six Academy Award nominations, winning five: Best Costume Design, Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography for Robert Surtees -- and the film does look fabulous, Best Script for Schnee, which is kind of a mess, and we'll be addressing that in a sec, and Best Supporting Actress for Gloria Grahame, whose nine-minutes and 32-seconds of screen time became the shortest to ever win an Oscar until Beatrice Straight showed up for about five minutes in Network (1976). The Bad and the Beautiful’s five wins also set a dubious record for a film that was neither nominated for Best Picture or Best Director.
Getting the role of Jonathan Shields only after Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy turned it down, Kirk Douglas was also nominated for Best Actor that year but lost out to Gary Cooper for his performance in High Noon (1953). After serving a hitch in the Navy in World War II, Douglas broke into the acting business with some help from a former classmate at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, Lauren Bacall, who talked Hal Wallis into screen-testing her old friend for a role in The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), earning rave reviews, and then became a bona fide star after starring in Champion (1949). Known for his raw and intense acting method, where his emotions tended to get the better of him, Douglas parlayed that into a long and successful film career. When other actors or actresses leave teeth-marks in the furniture, this usually brings ridicule and scorn, but I’ve always found great pleasure in watching this actor over the years “spit the bit” and wail, baby, wail!
However, before filming commenced, director Minnelli suggested Douglas downplay his character’s explosiveness and focus on his charming and manipulative side instead. The actor heeded this advice, which gives the moments when he does lose it more punch. During the shoot, whenever a scene wrapped, the actor would sarcastically say to his director, "I was very charming in that scene, wasn't I?" But after filming was completed, Douglas sent Minnelli a note, thanking him for pulling out a “quiet quality that I have never been able to get in any picture." Something the two would do again in Lust for Life (1956).
On top of the lead actor, The Bad and the Beautiful is filled with wonderful performances. Minnelli also managed to coax a fine performance out of Lana Turner, known more for her bosom than her acting ability. The actress was well aware of this, and to calm her anxieties, with every needed retake with her, Minnelli said it was due to some technical glitch. Barry Sullivan and Dick Powell are … serviceable enough here. And I adore Walter Pidgeon to death. However, it is the bit players that really makes this thing tick. From the already mentioned Ned Glass and Elaine Stewart, to the always welcome mug of Paul Stewart as Shields’ press agent, to Sammy White as Lorrison’s highly emotional two-bit agent, to Barbara Billingsley as a snooty wardrobe mistress, and especially to Gilbert Roland, who is hilarious as the Latin lothario, Gaucho, who kind of gets lost in the aftermath of the tragic events of Rosemary’s death. And while I cannot find any definitive confirmation on this, but I think that’s an uncredited Kim Novak as the blonde bombshell used to “entice” Gaucho into starring in The Faraway Mountain.
Still, it is Douglas’ performance that elevates The Bad and the Beautiful above the usual type of Hollywood navel gazing. And it’s so good, even though the character is truly an irredeemable ass of the highest order, we, as an audience, are still enthralled by him. “Jonathan is more than a man: he's an experience,” says Fred Amiel. “And he's habit-forming. If they could ever bottle him, he'd outsell ginger ale.” And while that narcotic analogy sort of works, I find Shields to be more like a malarial infection in that once you have it, you never really get rid of it.
As written, he’s the bitter and arrogant son of a movie producer who died broke and hated in Hollywood. All evidence points to the son hating his father, too, and yet his ultimate goal seems to be a maniacal obsession to become his father -- and I contend the film would’ve been served better if his goal was to be better than the old man but then kind of gets lost along the way, allowing for some form of redemption. But, that’s just not there. Like his old man, Shields is a malignant narcissist. He lies, cheats, and callously uses and then discards people who believe in him. He’s a master manipulator, who exploits character flaws, and then projects his own insecurities onto others when he lashes out. He loves the con, the wheeling and dealing, and the production phase of filming -- and it’s the aftermath, once it is completed, and there’s nothing left to do, where things tend to fall apart on him. Here, with nothing left to trample, he is completely lost.
And while Wilder used these same notions to take potshots at Hollywood, Minnelli does the exact opposite and endorses them. To accomplish this, he did his best to soften Shields as a character as much as possible, giving him heavy psychological scars, and even removing a whole scene where he accepts the Oscar for The Faraway Mountain, thanking himself, his father, with just a mere passing mention of Amiel. And then comes Harry Pebbel’s scolding of this ungrateful trio who, he contends, would be nothing without Jonathon Shields, which is where the film and I officially come to loggerheads.
Whatever the three owed to him has long been paid off. If anything, Shields is indebted to them -- judging by the quality of his work after he dumped them. Just look at the evidence: after Shields left him behind, Amiel apparently escaped the B’s and went on to win two Oscars on his own, which Shields had nothing to do with. But he did have EVERYTHING to do with that third Oscar Amiel should’ve won only he stole it out from under him. Lorrison would still be a drunken tramp if not for Shields’ intervention, Pebbel insists. But last we saw her, Georgia was an emotional wreck and could’ve easily fallen back into a bottle never to crawl out again. But she didn’t, and she made it big, which was in spite of Jonathan not because of him.
And then there’s poor Bartlow, who, thanks to Shields, won himself a Pulitzer Prize. Too bad it took his beloved wife getting killed to accomplish that. So, thanks a lot for that, you asshole. They all should be grateful, Pebbel bellows. “This we-made-you, why-aren't-you-grateful attitude must’ve put a tear into Louis B. Mayer's evil eye,” said critic Glenn Erickson (DVD Talk), and with this assessment of The Bad and the Beautiful, I heartily agree.
Don’t get me a wrong, I like this film well enough -- quite a bit, actually. Nobody does melodrama better than Vincente Minnelli and Douglas’s sly and psychotic performance is one for the ages. But after an excellent build-up The Bad and the Beautiful is capped with a spluttering payoff. Well, maybe. I guess it all depends on how you read that ending. If you read it like Minnelli, these kids are gonna let bygone be bygones and put on a show together. But if you read it like Wilder, we cut to the credits before the trio can tell Shields to go shit in his father’s favorite beer stein.
This post is part of Shadows and Satin Kirk Douglas’ 100th Birthday Blogathon! Thank you to our gracious host for throwing out such a wide net for contributions. Now please follow the linkage and check out the other entries, please and thank you. And before we go, while writing this essay up, I kept flashing to an old SCTV skit and killer Kirk Douglas impersonation done by Joe Flaherty. Go and check it out. Trust me.
The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) / P: John Houseman / D: Vincente Minnelli / W: Charles Schnee, George Bradshaw (story) / C: Robert Surtees / E: Conrad A. Nervig / M: David Raksin / S: Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan, Gloria Grahame, Gilbert Roland