Thursday, April 9, 2009

Target #266: The Bad and the Beautiful (1952, Vincente Minnelli)

TSPDT placing: #714
Directed by: Vincente Minnelli
Written by: George Bradshaw (story), Charles Schnee (screenplay)

WARNING: Plot and/or ending details may follow!!! [Paragraph 2 only]

If there's one thing that filmmakers know, it's Hollywood. It's the charm, magic and otherwordly emotion of a studio movie set, or – the flip-side – the seedy underbelly of greed, ambition and betrayal. The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) is an excellent drama about Hollywood, but it's not quite on par with the similar show-business satires of previous years, particularly Mankiewicz's All About Eve (1950) {which concerned the stage, but tread similar territory} and Wilder's Sunset Blvd. (1950). Perhaps the difference lies in director Vincente Minnelli, whose work is as graceful and professional as ever, but who is quite obviously an optimist: he loves Hollywood, and can't bring himself to despise all that it represents. Whereas Billy Wilder apparently hated everyone and everything, lending Sunset Blvd. its legendary bitter edge, Minnelli looks down upon his disgraced producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) not with hatred, nor even pity, but almost admiration – as a misunderstood genius making a final hopeful bid for redemption. Unlike that Gothic grotesque Norma Desmond, it seems that Shields' "return" will be a success.

The Bad and the Beautiful employs a similar storytelling device to All About Eve (1950), telling its story almost entirely via noirish flashbacks. Three successful artists – a director, actress and writer – arrive at the home of Jonathan Shields, the disgraced Hollywood producer to whom each of the three owes their monumental success. So why do they loathe him? Shields gave director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) his big break in cinema, worked with him to great acclaim, and then shut him out of his dream project, a Gone with the Wind-like epic called "The Faraway Mountain." Georgia Larisson (Lana Turner) was likewise plucked from obscurity, rescued from a lifetime of self-loathing sex and alcoholism, before being abandoned in her moment of triumph. Novelist James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell, in another great dramatic role) already had some acclaim, but also the hindrance of distracting Southern belle wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame). Though he couldn't possibly have foreseen the consequences of his actions, Shields took care of that, as well.

Each of the three owes their livelihood to Jonathan Shields, and I think that this is the true root of their hatred: they're eternally in debt to him, and like Faust, feel as though they have traded their souls for a room at the top. Kirk Douglas portrays Shields wonderfully, and in the film's most searing moment, he explodes into a fit of rage, his short, stocky stature seeming to inflate as his antagonism grows. But Shields isn't really as inherently "bad" as the film's title would have you believe. He is presented as a flawed genius, whose personal shortcomings stem from the same artistic vein as that which fuels his cinematic intuition (a Graham Greene quote clarifies my meaning: he once described himself as having "a character profoundly antagonistic to ordinary domestic life," and that "unfortunately, the disease is also one's material"). Indeed, Shields was modelled on several filmmakers, most noticeably Val Lewton (whose Cat People (1942) gets an indirect reference), Orson Welles, and David O. Selznick, whose box-office flop Duel in the Sun (1946) also exhausted considerable funding and several directors.

Currently my #5 film of 1952:
1) Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly)
2) Limelight (Charles Chaplin)
3) Umberto D. (Vittorio De Sica)
4) On Dangerous Ground (Nicholas Ray, Ida Lupino)
5) The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincente Minnelli)
6) High Noon (Fred Zinnemann)
7) Macao (Josef von Sternberg, Nicholas Ray)

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