Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: The Bad and the Beautiful

Friday, August 29, 2008

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood: The Bad and the Beautiful

[Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood is a series revisiting those classics of the early 1950s which turned a withering gaze on the American film industry. Whether due to the blacklist, the decline of Hollywood's Golden Age, or America's more generalized postwar anxiety, Hollywood's screenwriters and directors were suddenly driven to lift the curtain from the dream factory and take a closer look at what went on behind the silver screen. Be warned: these reviews will contain spoilers.]

The Bad and the Beautiful, released the same year as Singin' in the Rain, steps that film's good-natured satire up a notch. Where the sunny musical pokes and prods the stars - the easiest and safest target of public ridicule - Vincente Minnelli's melodrama dares to criticize a big-shot producer for his hubris and ruthlessness. Singin' in the Rain punishes its protagonists with bruised egos, while The Bad and the Beautiful doesn't stop short of personal betrayal, sexual manipulation, and even death. One film heaps its ridicule on the absurdities of silent cinema, a period safely in Hollywood's past, while the other takes the action right up to the world of 1952, basing its characters on figures still prominent in "the biz." All in all, it would appear that The Bad and the Beautiful launches a serious attack on Hollywood's mores and myths, that it is a scathing indictment, while Singin' in the Rain is a good-natured roast. Yet in truth, The Bad and the Beautiful - in its own unusual way - is just as much a celebration of the Hollywood system as Singin' in the Rain - perhaps more so.


Within the spectrum of the early 50s films about Hollywood, it's appropriate to place The Bad and the Beautiful on the lighter side of the scale. Though it gets pretty dark, The Bad and the Beautiful, unlike A Star is Born, In a Lonely Place, The Barefoot Contessa, and Sunset Boulevard, does not place death at its center. Consequently, its overall sensibility is less tragic than that of the other pictures. Actually, it's a success story. Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) is the son of an original Hollywood big-shot, and he's determined to escape his father's damaged legacy and restore the family name. His rise to the top is told through the stories of the people he betrayed, manipulated, and lied to along the way. But despite this potentially (and often actually) grim approach, Shields' behavior is ultimately vindicated: not just by his triumphs, but by the triumphs of the three people he's hurt most.

Fred (Barry Sullivan), a director, was in Shields' shadow, talented but afraid to present himself, until Shields stole his best project out from under him. Georgia (Lana Turner), an actress, was the self-destructive, alcoholic daughter of a dead movie star, a washed-up bit player, until Shields used sex to hold her in thrall, motivating a great performance before dumping her to shack up with a tramp. James Lee (Dick Powell) couldn't type a sentence of his new novel without his wife swooping in to distract him, that is until Shields set her up with a Latin Lothario who promptly crashed an airplane and killed them both. Now Fred is one of Hollywood's top directors, his initial humiliation driving him to success. Georgia is top star, carrying herself with poise and grace. And James Lee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, albeit a widower.

These three figures, still bitter, are gathered together to listen to Shields' last plea: he wants their cooperation in a new project which will rescue his studio from bankruptcy. At film's end, after their individual stories have unfolded in flashback, Fred, Georgia, and James Lee storm out of the office, only to pause in the lobby, pick up a phone receiver, and listen in on Jonathan Shields' latest brainstorm. Unlike Singin' in the Rain, The Bad and the Beautiful does not respect humility; it doesn't celebrate the gag men and supporting players whose professionalism keeps the show running. Its hero is a man who knows how to play the system, who pulls strings to get what he wants and who, we're led to understand, helps others in his own brutal way.

The film posits a world in which everyone is under the thrall of someone else: Shields and Georgia are burdened by the legacies of their respective fathers; James Lee is nagged and hemmed in by his wife; Fred is dependent on Shields himself. By drawing these people closer to him, and then cutting them loose after he's built them up and shown them what they're capable of, Shields is actually empowering them: to make it in the business you've got to be tough, and by being tough himself - even towards them - he toughens them up too.

But glancing beneath the film's initially ambivalent, but ultimately conclusive, celebration of the powerful producer, questions linger. Shields "rescues" these figures from their humdrum lives and makes them big in Hollywood, but at what cost? Each storyline escalates the price its protagonists pay for success. Fred admittedly desires a Hollywood career, so perhaps Shields' tough-love betrayal was worth it. Georgia was not interested in stardom, and her fragile psyche could easily have been shattered by Shields' dishonest seduction, but given her initial state, I guess Shields did her a favor. Still, the situation's not as clear-cut as it was with Fred. As for James Lee? He never wanted to be a screenwriter to begin with and while his wife's death allowed him to finally get her "down on paper" in an award-winning novel, he's lost her in the flesh.

Shields - and possibly the film itself - seems to think that the only success worth having is the kind of success Shields wants and desires. If he helps the other characters, it's by turning them into mirror images of himself, and by extension his father. Looks like he never really made out of the old man's shadow after all.

(For another interesting take on The Bad and the Beautiful, check out Self-Styled Siren)

Previous: Singin' in the Rain
Next: A Star is Born

Hooray for (Hating) Hollywood starts here.

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