Criterion Prediction #42: The Bad and the Beautiful, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Bad and the Beautiful
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Cast: Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan, Gloria Grahame, Gilbert Roland
Synopsis: Ambitious and unscrupulous movie producer Jonathan Shields (Douglas) claws his way to the top of the studio system by scheming and conning the very people whom he befriended in order to become a player in Hollywood – director Fred Amiel (Sullivan), actress Georgia Lorrison (Turner), and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Powell).
Years later, Shields gathers the reluctant trio because he needs them for another project. Shields cannot marshall the resources to get this film made on his own, but with the collaboration of his former friends and colleagues, he can get the project off the ground. Amiel, Lorrison, and Bartlow begrudgingly arrive at the behest of producer Harry Pebbel (Pidgeon), one of the few people to still maintain a connection with Shields. Each recalls their relationship, burgeoning career, and eventual betrayal by the duplicitous Shields; despite being an unbelievable bastard, he was still responsible for their success.
Critique: Director Vincente Minnelli, mostly known for his lavish musicals like The Bandwagon, GiGi, and An American in Paris applies a razor-sharp satirical and cathartic dissection of a system that produced many of his commercial victories. The Bad and the Beautiful is a busy film – witty, sharply written, well observed and occasionally funny – with a tight script bolstered by stellar performances. The plot mirrors some prominent figures in the business like Orson Welles, David O. Selznick, and Val Lewton. For the most specific example, when Shields and Amiel are working on a project entitled Doom of the Cat Men, they decide not to show people in cat suits, but create a sense of implied fear thus making their first hit film, not unlike what Lewton and Jacques Tourner did with Cat People in 1942.
The analogous tethering is not limited to the story of Val Lewton, or David O. Selznick, but the naked ambition of showbusiness and Hollywood’s studio era. Material as sardonic as Charles Schnee’s screenplay could decline into dour cynicism, but the taught rhythm and snappy wordplay steers this non-linear tale into Hawksian territory; the punchy dialogue lands a few blows but never hits too hard to damage the film with bruises of contention.
The delineated arc and episodic setup of the each backstories plays out like an anthology of betrayal as a result of the double-talking, Faustian mechanics of Jonathan Shields. But when you consider the time in which the this was made it feels all the more potent as The Bad and the Beautiful takes a scalpel to the studio system while it was still wielding a lot of power. Characters motivate a story, and a story functions as a result of fully realized and strong characters; in this case there’s no weak link in the film, in front of or behind the camera.
Though Criterion credits Douglas’ performance in Ace in the Hole as his “fiercest”, he shows his just as much fang in The Bad and the Beautiful. Lana Turner brings a lot of emotion to the Georgia Lorrison role (who may, or may not be inspired by the Barrymore dynasty). Next to The Postman Always Rings Twice this might be her best work. Dick Powell and Barry Sullivan are in top form as well; they not only have great chemistry, but consistently balance restraint and embellishment. Minelli and screenwriter Schnee’s cynicism works due to the immediacy and cultural relevance of its subjects, but the lasting power of The Bad and the Beautiful has sustained because it’s an intelligent, well made movie.
Why it Belongs in the Collection: There’s an annoying pattern with classic movies and home video distribution that I can’t seem to reconcile. When it comes to directors like Orson Welles, John Huston, and David Lean, we’re less likely to see titles such as Lawrence of Arabia, The Maltese Falcon, or Citizen Kane featured in The Criterion Collection because they still make money at their respective studios. For instance, the Sony Collectors Edition of The Bridge on the River Kwai looks great, yet it’s impossible to shake that annoying voice in the back of my head saying “I wonder what would Criterion have done with this movie?”
Although The Bad and the Beautiful is a classic film from a celebrated director, it’s not held in the same regard as Vincente Minnelli’s more popular musicals like An American in Paris, a Blu-Ray release that is likely a money maker for Warner Brothers. Sure it would be nice to see Minnelli’s musicals make their way into the collection, but in theory The Bad and the Beautiful is a great place to start regarding the attainability of the films rights, and the growing collection of Warner properties featured in the Criterion Collection.
Seeing as the current DVD has’t evolved past the cardboard snap case, I don’t think Criterion would have any problem acquiring the rights to the film.