The Bad and the Beautiful (1952/2002)

by Matt Langdon


The Bad and the Beautiful, written by Charles Schnee and directed by Vincente Minnelli, is one of a handful of great Hollywood movies about making movies and the cost of putting one’s professional life before personal relationships. Most movies on this subject—such as George Cukor’s A Star is Born, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard, and Robert Altman’s The Player—have dealt in a cynical way with the negative sides of the film business and the people who make the movies.

Just like those films, The Bad and the Beautiful tells us that the choice that must be made between art and life is a difficult one. But where those films clearly denigrate the film business and all that’s related to it, The Bad and the Beautiful tells us that the business does have a positive side and that there is an ambiguity in making the choice between personal and professional relationships.

cover art

The Bad and the Beautiful

Director: Vincente Minnelli
Cast: Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan, Gloria Graham

(Warner Studios)
1952 / DVD release Warner Studios, 2002

The film starts with three of Hollywood’s best and brightest called together by an old Hollywood producer named Harry Pebbels (Walter Pidgeon). In his office, they have a phone meeting, to discuss working on a film again with another film producer named Jonathan Shields, whom they have all sworn never to work for again. Shields (played by Kirk Douglas) has fallen out of favor with the studios and feels that due to their past working relations with him—and despite the fact that he has personally hurt each—he can ask for their help and they will be obliged to lend him a hand.

The group consists of director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), movie star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner, in what is arguably her best role) and writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). The story is told in flashback, as each recalls how he or she first met Jonathan, fell under his sway, and was eventually betrayed. But the irony, as Pebbels points out, is that despite their being hurt by Jonathan, each has attained considerable professional success because of him.

Jonathan Shields is indeed a ruthless, megalomaniac film producer, who has exploited all his relationships in order to achieve his own goals. In some flashback scenes, before we know him, he seems just another diligent producer who gets the best work possible out of everyone around him. He isn’t intrinsically bad, but it’s clear that he will go to any extent to control a situation, as in his first scene in the film, when he has hired extras for his father’s funeral. Throughout the movie, he deliberately (although not always this outrageously) directs and manipulates the people and the situations around him.

He runs his personal life just like his professional life, and expects the same of those who work with him. And even though this behavior destroys his relationships, it doesn’t matter to him, so long as he is able to create great films. Numerous times in the flashback sequences, we see how ruthless he can be, as for instance, when Bartlow loses his wife in an airplane crash, and Shields tells him that he is better off without her because she hindered his career.

The film asks if it is possible to forgive such heinous flaws. The answer is both yes and no, and speaks to the central theme of respect. Yes, the three can forgive Jonathan because of what he once meant to them personally, but no, they will never work with him again because of the way he turned his back on them and (in some cases) mishandled delicate personal situations. Still, they have to admit that they really liked him at some point, and know that he helped them tap into their best work.

Their ambivalence is displayed brilliantly in the film’s pivotal last scene when the three, after brushing Jonathan off, are compelled to listen to his new film idea. The scene is set up with the three exiting the phone meeting into a dark room adjacent to Harry Pebbels’ office. Georgia notices the phone and, as she does in two earlier scenes featuring phone calls from Jonathan, she picks it up to eavesdrop on Jonathan and Harry’s conversation. Slowly, the other two come out of the dark shadows into the light and join Georgia, suggesting that their curiosities are beginning to override their personal animosities. And, of course, opening up the possibility that they may work for Jonathan again.

This theme—maintaining respect in a brutal business—might appear cynical, as Minnelli and screenwriter Charles Schnee seem to be telling us that, no matter how bad somebody is, if he has some hand in your career, then you owe him something. And, in fact, the film was originally titled Tribute to a Bad Man, after George Bradshaw’s story, on which it is based. But that title, although accurate, was considered both too blunt and too obvious by the film’s producers, so it was scraped for the more subtle (if trashier) title, The Bad and the Beautiful.

Some critics have accused Minnelli of accepting the premise at face value, as if he is saying that career achievements are more important than personal relationships. Pauline Kael wrote that the film “is a piquant example of what it purports to expose.” But Minnelli is neither that cold nor cynical. While it’s true that the film does have a luxuriant fagade, it also has enough scenes dealing ambiguously with the art/life dichotomy that Minnelli can’t be accused of intentionally espousing such a specious view. And too there is nothing in the movie to suggest that an extreme example of this premise would be acceptable. It’s not as if the film is recommending that Leni Riefenstahl should honor Adolf Hitler for financing two of her greatest films. Jonathan Shields is no Hitler, but the uncertainty of giving “the devil his due,” as Pebbels points out, is the film’s central concept.

Made from a newly restored print, the DVD highlights Robert Surtees’ exquisite black and white cinematography, especially in the many high contrast shots that at times recall film noir. It shows a little edge enhancement and there is some two-dimensional flickering or compression artifact in the background of some shots, but these are not noticeable enough to detract from the movie’s visual or thematic effects.

Although Minnelli is primarily known for making such musicals as Meet Me in St Louis and An American in Paris, this film has many characteristics familiar from the director’s other work, including an assortment of sweeping crane and dolly shots that he used to give musical scenes a light, buoyant quality. Rather than singing and dancing, though, The Bad and the Beautiful features a great score by David Raksin that underlines each primary character and important scene. One fine extra on the Warner’s DVD, titled Scoring Session Cues, presents a menu of the movie’s musical themes, so that we can listen to them outside of the context of the movie.

Ten years after The Bad and the Beautiful, Minnelli directed a thematic sequel of sorts, titled Two Weeks in Another Town, which is about a washed-up actor (played by Douglas) trying to get movie work in Rome. It’s not as good as The Bad and the Beautiful and (perhaps because of this) is difficult to find, but the trailer is included as an extra on this DVD.

The best extra on the DVD is an informative and involving documentary titled Lana Turner: A Daughter’s Memoir. It follows the star’s rocky life in and out of the movies, from the perspective of her friends and her daughter Cheryl Crane, and complements the film, showing us that Turner was no stranger to controversy, or to personal and professional dilemmas brought on in part by her huge success as a movie star.

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