Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Reeling Backward: "The Bad and the Beautiful"

Have you ever noticed that movies about making movies are usually outstanding?

Yes, it's true that it is self-indulgent for millionaire movie stars, directors, screenwriters and other filmmakers to spend their time pointing the camera at themselves, so to speak. And they've done it a lot -- almost since the birth of cinema, movies about movies have been commonplace, like Buster Keaton's "Sherlock Jr.," in which a projectionist gets stuck in the movies he's showing.

I'd knock them for their narcissism, except for one thing: These flicks are usually just so darn good.

"Singin' In the Rain." "The Player." "Get Shorty." "Wag the Dog." "Adaptation." "Swimming with Sharks." "The Aviator." "Barton Fink." "Shadow of the Vampire." "Cinema Paradiso." "8-1/2." "Sunset Boulevard." Those are just a few of the great movies made about the craft or business of motion pictures.

I'd long heard that "The Bad and the Beautiful" was a worthy addition to that list, and after catching it recently I'm happy to report it's true.

This 1952 film stars Kirk Douglas as Johnathan Shields, an all-powerful movie mogul who manages to estrange nearly every person who's ever worked with him. Lana Turner, who plays a lush actress Shields turns into a superstar, actually got top billing over Douglas since Turner was at the height of her fame, and he was still relatively early in his film career, despite being 36 years old at the time.

The story plays in flashback as Shields' right-hand man has assembled the greatest actress, director and writer he ever worked with, and begs them to give him one more shot. He's exiled in Paris and hasn't made a picture in two years, mainly because he's alienated half of Hollywood, and gets them together in a room so he can (via telephone) make his one last pitch.

The stories tells how Shields done each of them wrong. There's his early film career with a film director. They spend their days making third-rate B pictures on a shoestring budget. When the director convinces Shields to take a shot at a real movie that's he's written the screenplay for, he double-crosses him and goes with another director after the studio chief greenlights the project. It launches his career, but ends their friendship.

He and the Lana Turner character are lovers, of course, although it's something of a teacher/pupil relationship at first that slowly blossoms into love. She's the daughter of a great film actor, now deceased, and believes all she's inherited from him is his love of the bottle. Shields convinces her otherwise, casts her in a huge make-or-break starring role, and then treats her like garbage just when her star is born.

I found the third sequence the least compelling of the three, as Shields befriends a professor who's written a popular novel and convinces him to move to Hollywood and become a screenwriter. Perhaps it's just the character, played by Dick Powell, who's very cut off from others and too unwilling to give of himself. I guess the movie did too good a job of making him seem like an actual writer.

"The Bad and the Beautiful" was directed by Vincente Minnelli, a top Hollywood genre director whose other credits include "Gigli," "Lust for Life" (also with Douglas), "Father of the Bride" and "An American in Paris." He shows his usual deft hand, turning up the melodrama and sexual energy as the situation allows.

A couple of random observations: I noticed how the Shields character often took off his shoes in an office setting -- something pretty unorthodox at the time. I wonder if it's supposed to show his contempt for the people he works with, or just that he's a man who doesn't abide by societal rules.

I also saw that the Latin Lover actor character, Goucho, was played by Gilbert Roland. His final film role was as the revengeful Don in "Barbarosa," the excellent 1982 Western starring Willie Nelson. Yes, Willie Nelson. Go rent it if you haven't seen it; it's wonderful.

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