The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Directed by Vincente Minnelli

I hate to use a cliché, but “…They don’t make movies like this anymore.” They certainly don’t make them this good.

A bit melodramatic, a bit over-the-top (same thing), a little slatternly, The Bad and the Beautiful is a juicy, engaging Hollywood drama about … well, Hollywood!

For me, what makes this movie work is while it has all the elements of a soap opera, it somehow manages to restrain itself and not indulge those elements excessively.

It ends up being an interesting character study, several of them actually, but particularly of the Hollywood mogul played by Kirk Douglas (who is absolutely wonderful in this role).

Douglas plays Jonathan Shields, a Hollywood producer, and the film catalogues his rise to the top and fall from grace through three primary relationships, roles played by Barry Sullivan, Lana Turner, and Dick Powell.

While he helps all three achieve success in Hollywood the price extracted for that success is high, and he is resented for it. Douglas appears to have no scruples in using people to achieve success. However, there is always a sense that he is not quite as Machiavellian as he seems. He appears more wrong-headed in his relationships than evil.

Like Citizen Kane, the movie prefers to reveal him through the characters affected by him, and their impressions of him, rather than an intense study of the man himself.

And while the movie is certainly no Citizen Kane, the approach is effective because it creates mystery around the character. Why is he the way he is? The movie gives no explicit answer to this.

It leaves some doubt as to whether he is quite the bastard he is made out to be. In this sense, the movie tries to hedge its bets. You can’t help but feel the movie wants you to think he’s a bastard but it’s not quite brave enough to come right out and say so. (The Walter Pigeon character, who argues in Shield’s favour, presents some very specious arguments for him.)
Spicing all of this up is alcoholism, sex, power and greed. In many ways, the role Douglas plays as the producer Shields is that of the devil – he offers the people in his life their dreams, and they take the opportunity. It’s only afterward when they have to meet the price that they rebel.

So while the film is about the character of Shields, it is also about what we’re willing to accept to achieve what we want. The film ends with a telling shot of his three victims.

The DVD of The Bad and the Beautiful is great. The picture is amazingly clean and clear. The sound is also good though it is limited by the era it was made (1952).

On the reverse side of the disk, the special features’ centre piece is a 90 minute documentary, Lana Turner: A Daughter’s Memoir. It’s a great feature for the disk as it tells the very Hollywood life of one of the great actresses of studio system Hollywood.

(Originally posted in 2002.)

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