It’s hard to imagine Kirk Douglas at 100, mostly because it feels like he exists outside the normal passing of time. He’s less of a walking man but more of an image captured forever on celluloid in the likes of Spartacus, Paths of Glory and Ace in the Hole. What makes him special is a unique blend of Technicolor heroism, dazzling charisma and more than a hint of darkness. He wraps himself in the latter two qualities for The Bad and the Beautiful, a heady mix of hagiography and cynicism that revels in the only subject Hollywood truly cares for: itself.
The number of movies over the years that have turned self-reflective towards the machinery behind the magic are beyond count. Many are terrible, others can be excellent, inciting rosy nostalgia and self-indulgent backslaps from the industry itself. In recent years alone The Artist picked up Best Picture at the Oscars and La La Land threatens to do the same again in February. The Bad and the Beautiful didn’t walk off with the top prize. It wasn’t even nominated. It did however win five awards from six nominations, setting a record for the most wins without receiving a nod for Best Picture or Best Director. It’s harsh for a film, and a director in Vincente Minnelli, who would have been deserving winners, but it does at least place the attention on the actors and the beautifully measured screenplay they work from.
Funnily enough, the one person to fail to convert his nomination into a win was Kirk Douglas, his turn as embattled movie producer Jonathan Shields losing out in 1953 to Gary Cooper for High Noon. Douglas does wonders with a role that could easily have tipped into hyperbolic bluster. Shields once sat atop the world but he destroyed the people who put him there, eventually bringing about his downfall. The picture opens with Shields ringing director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), each refusing to answer. He wants them for his comeback, knowing he can never raise the financing alone.
What follows is a series of flashbacks as each member of the trio lapses into the memory of their time with Shields, and the way he let them down. It’s an often ruthless journey, turning youthful and naïve optimism into embittered hatred. Charles Schnee’s Oscar winning screenplay trades high melodrama against low motives, creating an atmosphere that unfolds like a pulp bestseller dipped in a fatalistic character study.
First up there’s Amiel, an aspiring director, who partners with Shields in the early days, the two moving from B movie obscurity to the big time. Betrayal, a common theme in Shields’ life, follows. Then the story jumps to Turner’s alcoholic actress and another rise and betrayal. The same deal unfolds with Bartlow, a genteel professor and best-selling novelist convinced by Shields to adapt his own novel. The move to LA is not a positive one for his marriage to Rosemary (Gloria Grahame picking up an Oscar for less than ten minutes of screen time). The shout of betrayal once more comes from Shields’ one-time collaborators.
There’s no doubt Shields is content to throw people under a bus should it offer personal advancement. What Douglas manages, and it’s quite a feat, is to bring to life a convincing and entirely empathetic mogul. Much of it comes in the incidental details around his character. At his father’s funeral he’s forced to hire extras to pad out the mourners. Later, he only meets Lorrison because he has a strong and enduring respect for her father, an actor himself.
Douglas’ abilities shouldn’t be downplayed though. He manages to make every action taken by Shields seem like exactly the thing a person of his nature would do in the circumstances. He’s ruthless when he needs to be, but he’s not malicious, and is portrayed with considerable charm and enthusiasm. It makes the quest, one that dips into the darkness of Hollywood before finally rolling over to worship at the throne of tinsel town, a wholly compelling one.
Of course given the subject matter, a lot of fun has been had trying to work out whom the characters are based on. Shields’ has been compared to anyone from David O. Selznick to Orson Welles. Others are said to have their counterparts. It’s an amusing diversion; though not one that has any impact on the quality of the film. It doesn’t matter who the people in The Bad and the Beautiful are supposed to be. What they are is an astute summation of Hollywood and the people that keep it ticking over. They may be willing to sacrifice each other for success – which industry is this not true of – but they also want to make something special.
There’s movie melodrama and a healthy degree of cynicism going on, but layer by layer, as the story advances through Shields’ past mistakes and victories, an entirely non-saccharine hymn to the magic of the movies emerges. That this magic comes in a film full of plenty of its own is all the more reason to continue watching over six decades after The Bad and the Beautiful first saw release.