A frustrated former big-city journalist now stuck working for an Albuquerque newspaper exploits a story about a man trapped in a cave to re-jump start his career, but the situation quickly escalates into an out-of-control circus.
Told in flashback form, the film traces the rise and fall of a tough, ambitious Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields, as seen through the eyes of various acquaintances, including a writer James Lee Bartlow, a star Georgia Lorrison and a director Fred Amiel. He is a hard-driving, ambitious man who ruthlessly uses everyone - including the writer, star and director - on the way to becoming one of Hollywood's top movie makers. Written by
a movie that embraces the Hollywood studio machine while putting a harsh criticism of it
That one line summary makes me sound like I'm calling the Bad and the Beautiful a case in 'tough love', where director Vincente Minnelli wags his finger at what happens to some people (cough, David O. Selznick, cough), while also showing too the joys of working in the business. But it's a business at its most booming time, coming out of the 40s where the producer was king, and the director had to vie for room at times to really get his vision in. Here the producer Jonathan Shields is played by Kirk Douglas as someone with big ideas at first- he even has an idea to help make a scary movie about cats even more frightening by not showing the cats (echoes of Val Lewton). Soon he rises the ranks and becomes big enough to really call the shots all he wants, but it also gets in the way of personal relationships, severs ties, and sometimes even makes him out to be monstrous (there's one shot I remember all the time where Douglas, in a big fit of anger against Lana Turner's character, seems like he's a whole foot taller with the ego almost manifested). The narrative of the film is a retelling by people who knew him, a sexy but soon disillusioned actress, a director who once worked with Shields but then got cut off from him, and a writer played by Dick Powell.
Rashomon or Citizen Kane it is not in trying to reveal more grandiose and amazing things about human nature, but rather a supreme rumination on the good times and the bad times, possibly more of the latter. What's great about Douglas's portrayal is that through the stories from the three ex-friends and co-workers and lovers, he becomes a very well-rounded character. At the core, of course, is the producer who at the time had as more creative say than anyone else on the set. This brings some of the great scenes ever shown about movie-making, such as the moment when Amiel, the director, tries to put Jonathan in his place about how a scene should be shot, "in order to direct a picture you need humility". Another comes with the moment when Jonathan and his soon to be 'asistant to the producer' has to object out of just being stunned. But more than Douglas, it's also tremendous, memorable screen time for Lana Turner, perhaps in her most successful performance in just sheer acting terms (not necessarily just in presence or style like in other pictures), and for Dick Powell, who with this and Murder My Sweet has two defining roles outside of his usual niche.
With many sweet camera moves, a script that crackles with the kind of scenes and dialog that makes one wish for the glory times of Hollywood's Golden Age, and at least four or five really excellent performances, The Bad and the Beautiful might not be as astounding and near-perfect as 8 1/2 or as funny as Bowfinger, but it ranks up there with the best movies about movie-making, and can make for some fine entertainment even for those who aren't really interested in how movies are made.
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