Finally saw The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), the Vincent Minnelli-directed Hollywood film that trashed Hollywood. Perhaps today it’s known more for its statistical significance; it won 5 Oscars, the most ever for a film not nominated for Best Picture. It’s been on my must-see list for years, and seeing that was my wife’s Father’s Day gift to me: “You can watch whatever you want to tonight!”
As would be expected in a Minnelli film, it’s beautiful to look at, and won Oscars for best b&w cinematography (well-deserved), art direction (of course—it’s Minnelli) and costume. The structure of the film is a combination of Citizen Kane, A Letter to Three Wives (most closely) and All About Eve, and tells the story of someone people used to call a “heel,” played in full grit-your-teeth-and-look-like-you’re-going-to-explode style by the inimitable Kirk Douglas, receiving his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor. (He never did win a competitive Oscar.) He plays Jonathan Shields, who’s down on his luck (or was finally getting his due) as a successful producer, and he is asking three former colleagues (a director, an actress, and a writer) for help. They’ve all been made great successes due to their collaboration with him, and they never want to work with him again. Why? That’s the story.
It’s not as dark and biting as Sunset Boulevard, nor nearly as fun or fascinating. There is a great surprise near the end that I happily didn’t see coming, and which added a great deal of energy when the film most needed it. But perhaps the most enjoyable aspect for a film person is guessing who is supposed to be whom. Is this or that character based one famous actor/actress/director/producer, or is it a composite? And if so, a composite of whom? Clearly the character played by the top-billed Lana Turner is based on Diana Barrymore, son of the legendary John. One shot of a drawing of her supposed actor father in profile is enough, though the film lays it on pretty thick in that same scene. Is Leo G. Carroll’s character based on Hitchcock? The guessing games are nearly endless.
The Oscar-winning script is witty and dark in a noirish way, with biting humor that is somehow never really funny. Instead of enjoying the brilliance of the lines (a la All About Eve or even Sunset Boulevard at times), the characters tamp down the dazzle of the script and proceed to growl the lines away, adding to the dark mood but robbing us of the shared joy of a brilliant retort or comment.
Gloria Grahame won her Best Supporting Oscar for her tiny role here, and I’m not sure why. She’s a fine actress, and she played her part with a bit more edge and definition than some of her other characters, but the role is small and there’s nothing outstanding here. What did catch my attention was what I believe is the best performance in the film. It’s not Kirk, or the beautiful Turner, nor even stars Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell or Barry Sullivan. The freshest performance is by Paul Stewart in the small but recurring role of Syd. Who? Most film people know him as Raymond in Citizen Kane. Take another look at his performance here, and mourn the loss of career that might have been. He was a life-long working actor, but he clearly deserves to be remembered for more than a bit role in a great film.
If given the choice and you have limited time, take Sunset Boulevard over The Bad and the Beautiful. But if you’ve seen the former, take a look at this black-and-white and very purple studio-era classic. Revel in the look, enjoy the lines and performances, and watch for Stewart at every turn.