The Bad and the Beautiful would make a terrific double feature with Sunset Boulevard. Like that film, it is a cynical look at Hollywood. It shows the impossibility of balancing careers and personal lives in show business, with the story of an ambitious but cold-hearted producer who destroys personal relationships in order to advance the careers of himself and his collaborators.
The film owes a lot to Citizen Kane, and the most obvious nod to that great film is how the story is structured. It also uses flashbacks from multiple points of view to look into the life of a main character who is not shown outside of them. The aforementioned main character is legendary Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas), who is looking to make a comeback after failing to direct a picture himself. His associate Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) turns to the previous collaborators whose careers Shields built up and who now hate his guts, but unlike him, they are all still big players in the industry.
The first is director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), who rose up through the industry with Shields. Shields and Amiel had worked on adapting a novel into a big budget production, but at the last moment Shields decides to let a veteran director take over. This ruins their friendship, though both of their careers survive it. This consists not only of an artistic betrayal as Shields basically takes all the credit for Amiel’s adaptation, but also a personal one, as it ruins the relationship between the two.
Next is famous leading lady Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner). She is first seen in Fred’s flashbacks, wallowing in the house of her late father, who was a famous actor as well. She sticks in Shields’ memory, probably due to their almost identical daddy issues. Both of their fathers were great successes and even though neither of them got along with their fathers, they hope to emulate them. Shields sets out on a mission to make her a star, again probably to make her into another version of her father, just as he hopes to become another version of his father. He realizes the best way to get Georgia out of her depression and alcoholism following her father’s death is to pretend he’s in love with her. After he’s gotten a good performance out of her, he discards her in favor of another starlet (Elaine Stewart, who steals every scene she’s in).
This portion is easily the most interesting out of the three, and I almost feel that it should have been saved for last because of that reason. This is more emotional than the other two, at least it was for me while watching it, because you not only have the unrequited love portion but also the daddy issues. The love story is very tragic; it’s immediately obvious, even to Georgia I think, that Shields is playing her. She goes along with it anyway because she’s in love with him. The two have some very well written exchanges, becoming sarcastic and tragic all at the same time. The scene when Shields finally rejects Georgia is very powerful; Douglas gives a great speech in which you see that he probably would be in love with Georgia, if only he would take his mind off producing films for a few seconds and open up. There is also another Citizen Kane connection here. Just as Kane attempts to turn his second wife into an opera singer because her mother thought she should be one, Shields devotes himself to developing Georgia’s stardom to turn her into her father in a way. The two almost share fathers as well, as Shields relates that Georgia’s father was a father figure to him in his youth presumably because he didn’t get along with his own. Even more strange, Shields almost becomes a father figure to Georgia at times, chasing her down and sobering her up when she’s drunk and sarcastically offering to “wash out [her] mouth with soap and send [her] to bed without [her] supper.”
The last flashback features a writer, James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), who lets himself be convinced by Shields to adapt his debut novel for him. He is pressured by his wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame) to take the job. She is attracted to the glamour of Hollywood, but keeps interrupting her husband’s work, so Shields realizes she has to go. He arranges for a famous actor to seduce her, with tragic consequences. As a result, Bartlow not only becomes one of Hollywood’s most respected screenwriters, but a Pulitzer winner for a book about his wife. It’s true he never would have been able to write these things with his wife there, but now he is a lonely and bitter man. He has success in his career, but it comes at a price.
Though I’ve been comparing this film to Citizen Kane quite a bit, it is not quite as elegant as that film. It tries the same sort of narrative structure, but does so in a much clunkier way. Instead of having the flashbacks of the various characters merge and build on each other as in Kane, The Bad and the Beautiful literally lines the three characters up and has them recount their stories in chronological order one after the other with little overlap. Even more tedious is Pebbel’s tendency to point out Shields’ good points after each character is done reminiscing on his bad ones. It’s obvious the film is harkening back to Citizen Kane, but it falls short of the earlier film’s brilliance. Nevertheless, it’s still a good approach. It highlights the mystery of Shields’ character, by comparing him to one of cinema’s greatest enigmas, Charles Foster Kane. It does this more through the way Shields is examined rather than how he actually behaves, though as I have pointed out there are some similarities. In my mind this elevates The Bad and the Beautiful from an inferior rip off of Citizen Kane to an interesting companion to it, even if it isn’t quite as good (but let’s face it, not much is).
Though at times it feels showy and artificial, there is a lot of good acting in this movie. I’m a big fan of Douglas and he does a wonderful job here, playing a very likable scoundrel. Gloria Grahame, in an academy award winning role, is very memorable as Mrs. Bartlow. She creates a vibrant character, though she has little emotional depth she is endlessly watchable and one of the picture’s highlights. Turner was endlessly sympathetic. She was probably the one most inclined toward overacting, but given her character’s penchant for self-delusion, I don’t think it was out of place. Georgia Lorrison is a character who is acting through almost every minute of her life, but as Shields points out, not always with “style.”
The Bad and the Beautiful has some flaws, but the overall story makes up for them I think. It admirably tries to emulate Citizen Kane‘s structure, and even though it falls short, it doesn’t fall so short that it becomes a rip off. It’s a really good look into the toll one man’s ambition takes on other people’s lives, and also the impossible trade off between an artistic career and a normally functioning personal life. With a great cast turning in some great performances, The Bad and the Beautiful is one of Hollywood’s greatest films about itself.
“I’ve told you a hundred times. I don’t want to win awards. Give me pictures that end with a kiss and black ink on the books.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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