*SPOILER & CYNIC ALERTS*
Quick! Without searching online, do you know who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction last year? … Anyone?
Alas, this is the downside of winning a Big Prize. In time, winners’ names become reduced to a trivia answer. (“I’ll take last year’s winners for $200, Alex.”)
There are countless movies that examine winning big prizes or, rather, winning big in life. One film, the 1952 drama, The Bad and the Beautiful, examines winning in Hollywood.
We think The Bad and the Beautiful could be the ultimate Hollywood film, but not in the way you might expect.
First, let us say this is a well-crafted film with inspiring performances. It would take us at least week to describe how brilliantly cast these actors are, under the expert direction of Vincente Minnelli.
Told through flashbacks, the film is cordoned into three sections as told from the perspective of three characters, each a member of the Hollywood elite. Common to all of these characters is Jonathan Shield (Kirk Douglas), a ruthless but charming movie mogul who uses people then beats them at their own game.
Douglas’ character has been exiled from Hollywood and is languishing in Europe. In an attempt to resuscitate his career, he arranges a phone meeting with the three people he’s used the most: a film director (Barry Sullivan); an actress (Lana Turner); and a screenwriter (Dick Powell). Each of these has a heart-wrenching story of how Douglas used them and knocked them aside.
At first the trio is reluctant to have the teleconference with Douglas, let alone work with him again. But Douglas’ ally/producer (Walter Pidgeon), a smooth-talking diplomat, explains to each of them how Douglas has actually boosted their careers. The director has twice been awarded an Oscar. The actress is a top box-office draw. And the writer has won the Pulitzer Prize.
See? Douglas’ character isn’t that bad, explains Pidgeon. He’s actually helped you people. It’s not like he’s killed anyone.
Oh. Wait a minute.
Let’s look at Powell’s character. He wrote a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about a southern woman based on his late wife; a woman who died in an accident during an illicit rendezvous that Douglas had arranged. Douglas didn’t mean for the woman to die; after all, it was her choice to jump at the bait he offered. Is it Douglas’ fault he spotted her weakness and gave her a push? But now that she’s dead, Powell ends up writing the Great American Novel. Pidgeon’s character tells Powell he should be grateful.
Grateful? For losing his wife?
Similarly, Sullivan’s character thinks he’s Douglas’ friend and entrusts him to direct a screenplay he wrote. Douglas steals the screenplay and manages to get Sullivan fired from the project. As for Turner’s character, she falls in love with Douglas; their relationship lasts during the filming of a movie, then he dumps her without warning.
Pidgeon also tells Sullivan and Turner they should be grateful, too. Being used and stabbed in the back in return for more money and fame is worth it, apparently. Why else would you develop relationships?
Is this really the underlying message here? Relationships are expendable when furthering your career? It’s all worth it if you attain greater material success?
The Bad and the Beautiful is a perfect example of a character-driven film and, if you haven’t seen it, you really ought. You may not agree with our cynical view of the film, but we think you’ll be intrigued by its steely-eyed view of Hollywood.
The Bad and the Beautiful: starring Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Dick Powell. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Written by Charles Schnee. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., B&W, 1952, 116 mins.