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Wednesday, August 03, 2016

The Bad and the Beautiful

I think my favorite Kirk Douglas movie is The Bad and the Beautiful, a caustic behind-the-scenes Hollywood film released in 1952 and directed by Vincente Minelli. It has the weird record of winning five Oscars without being nominated for Best Picture or Best Director. In fact, it won all of its nominations except Douglas, for Best Actor.

With a great script by Charles Schnee, The Bad and the Beautiful tells the story of hard-boiled producer Jonathan Shields (Douglas). It is told in flashback, as his old friend and studio executive (Walter Pidgeon) gathers three people Douglas wants to work with again. But he has betrayed all three, and they want nothing to do with him. As they sit in the office, we hear their stories.

It starts with Barry Sullivan, who is one of many hired as mourners at Douglas' father's funeral. They hit it off, and get hired by Pidgeon to churn out B-pictures. One of them involves men in ridiculous cat suits, and then surmise that the film would be scarier if the audience never sees the cat men. This is clearly a reference to Val Lewton, who did the same thing in Cat People. But, once Douglas gets his first big chance at a real picture, he hires another director, even though the idea for the film was Sullivan's.

Lana Turner plays the daughter of a famous actor. She is a drunk, a tramp, and making ends meet doing bit parts. Douglas sees something in her, and offers her a lead part. She thinks it's a casting couch proposition, but he's serious. They begin a relationship, but after the opening night of the film she goes to Douglas' home and finds him with another woman.

Finally, Dick Powell plays a novelist and college professor who is lured to Hollywood when Douglas buys his book for the movies. His Southern belle wife, Gloria Grahame, comes along, and tragedy occurs, indirectly caused by Douglas.

The film is fascinating in its warts-and-all view of Hollywood. Douglas, a brave actor, again plays a complete heel. Turner, who I haven't seen in too many films, is luminous, and has a great breakdown scene when she drives away from Douglas' house, not caring whether she lives or dies. I find it mysterious that Grahame won an Oscar for her role--at the time it was the shortest Oscar-winning performance (nine minutes, since bested by Beatrice Straight in Network and Judi Dench in Shakespeare in Love), but she doesn't have that "Oscar show clip" moment. I took a look at the other nominees that year, and the only other nomination I've seen is for Jean Hagen in a comic performance in Singin' in the Rain. Perhaps Grahame was due, or seen sympathetically at the time.

The Bad and the Beautiful also won Oscars for Art Direction, Cinematography, Costumes, and Schnee's script, which is full of sparkling dialogue. such as when Powell says: "My first novel, on which I had labored for seven years, was just out. Surprisingly for a scholarly work on early Virginia, it was doing a brisk nationwide sale - possibly because it was liberally peppered with sex. Because, after all, early Virginia was liberally peppered with sex. Could that have been why Hollywood bought it?"

Best Picture went that year to The Greatest Show on Earth, in my estimation the worst film that ever won that honor. The Bad and the Beautiful is 100 times that piece of dreck. If you haven't seen it, do so as soon as possible, you won't be sorry.

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