The Bad and the Beautiful opens with a kiss—a kiss between two cameras. We’re on a Hollywood set, and we swoop in, via a crane shot, on an actress sprawled on a couch, just as a crane with a camera on it approaches the actress from the other side. The two cameras converge on the woman, but they’re really not concerned with her. The shared object of infatuation here is Hollywood itself.
True, The Bad and the Beautiful goes on to critique the industry as well—sometimes with a bracing bitterness. Yet as it traces the career of legendary producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas)—marking the friendships, loves, and even lives that are lost along the way—the movie ultimately swoons for all things silver screen. It’s a counting of the costs that finally determines the price was worth it.
The film’s framing device involves Shields’ attempt to launch a new project with three estranged players from his early career: director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell). The problem is, as we learn in three extended flashback sequences, Shields’ had dramatically burned his bridges with each of them years earlier.
By far the most compelling of the three segments is the one involving Turner’s Georgia Lorrison. She and Shields share a tortured pedigree: just as his father was a ruthless producer who left his son with few connections in the business and no assets, she is the daughter of an acclaimed actor who had little time for her when he was alive. Shields, mostly enamored by Georgia’s status as Hollywood royalty, insists that she has what it takes to be a huge star. Georgia, suffering from depression and alcoholism while trying to work in her father’s shadow, takes awhile to believe in Shields’ belief in her.
Turner makes Georgia a tragic figure, a working-woman precursor to Shirley MacLaine’s Fran Kubelik in The Apartment. Coming home late from another booze-infused night of “networking” (the film nods here and there to the way the movie business involved both implicit and explicit prostitution), Georgia discovers Shields waiting for her in her apartment, hoping to recruit her. She slinks past him in a glittering black dress, into a dressing area, and emerges in a pair of comfortable, everyday pajamas. Deflating the Hollywood myth with a costume change, she tells Shield she just wants to get some sleep.
Eventually Shields wins her over and she does indeed become a star. A romance follows, but that’s secondary for him. The work will always be first. That’s why, when she beams at him after a long day of shooting that didn’t result in what he wanted, he responds, “That’s the look I want in that wedding scene. Can you give me that?”
A few things mentioned so far should mark The Bad and the Beautiful as a directorial effort by Vincente Minnelli. That elegant early crane shot, for one, but also this thematic concern: how to balance the personal and the professional, especially if you’re an artist. Consider that by the time The Bad and the Beautiful was released, Minnelli had already married and divorced Judy Garland, whom he had directed before. And that the two of them had had their own Hollywood princess, Liza Minnelli, who was born in 1946.
More moments that mark this as a work of Minnelli: the way the camera glides through a Hollywood party, picking up bits of conversation along the way, decades before Robert Altman; another camera movement along the faces of the crew watching a scene, rising up to the glare of a spotlight (something the Coen brothers would nod to in Hail, Caesar!); a climactic shot in which Georgia, Fred, and James Lee each lean in toward an illuminated telephone receiver, trying to hear the call. All of these sequences have an unshowy effortlessness that represents the pinnacle of Hollywood glamour. It’s not just that the movie is wearing a tuxedo; it’s that it wears it so easily, and well.
Douglas, it must be said, throws the calibrations off a bit in the few moments he goes full Kirk. But that’s probably why he was nominated for on Oscar. Also nominated—and winning—was Gloria Grahame as Rosemary, James Lee’s starstruck Southern wife. The part isn’t great (Rosemary is dismissed as a pretty distraction), but Grahame gives her a spark that’s nowhere on the page. At one point James leans in to give her a kiss, but she pulls back, walks away, does a spin, and then comes back to kiss him on her own terms. Hollywood can be cruel to those who give themselves over to it, but when a movie gifts you a moment like that, it’s hard not to fall in love.