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The Bad and the Beautiful

The Bad and the Beautiful

1952. M-G-M, Directed by Vincente Minnelli. With Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon, Barry Sullivan, Dick Powell, Gloria Grahame

This is one of the great inside looks at the movie business, although what it reveals about Hollywood may not be what it thinks it is revealing.

In the opening shot, a man on a camera boom swoops across a sound stage and dives down toward a reclining actress. It's such an interesting, seductive piece of film that we don't realize at first that we have been on the move as well: our camera, the one taking the shot that we see, must have been doing a complementary swoop and dip of its own. It could be almost be a mirror shot. It is certainly a pair of cameras doing an elaborate dance toward each other and then down together toward the actress. Here, as throughout the film, we're lured into thinking that we've actually gone "behind the scenes," forgetting that all that backstage bustle and intrigue has been staged. The filmmaking artifice exposed in The Bad and the Beautiful is still being zestfully used—on us.

The "Bad" component of The Bad and the Beautiful is the ruthless head of Shields Studios, played by Kirk Douglas with a break in his voice and a wild look in his eyes. Shields's story is told (All About Eve style) via the flashbacks of three former associates—a director, an actress, and a novelist-turned-screenwriter—whom Shields had romanced and betrayed on his way to the top. These days the "adult" portrayal of Shields' psychology looks pretty simplistic, but the portrait of the Golden Age of Hollywood, seen from the wised-up vantage point of 1952, is really fascinating.

This movie purports to expose the cynicism, sexual exploitation, and pervasive double-dealing of the movie business. Even more disillusioning, it purports to expose the artificiality of what gets shown on the screen by exposing us to the many incongruities of the movie set: the costume extras who pull out their knitting the moment the lights go off; the actor who snaps out of character to ask "How was that?", etc.

In a sequence designed to show Georgia Lorring (the Lana Turner character) coming into her own as an actress, we watch two takes of the same scene. It's stunning to see the actor playing the scene with Georgia (Gilbert Roland playing the actor "Gaucho" playing the part of the Man in the Drug Store) do exactly the same thing twice: he hits his marks, turns his head at just the same angle, uses identical vocal inflections. This mechanical aspect of movie acting is usually hidden from the public, and once we've seen it, even the performances we're supposed to believe in (Douglas's passionate outbursts at Turner, for example) become suspect. It's daring of Minnelli to have risked undermining his melodrama in this way, and suggests that getting us to care about the personal trials of Shields, Georgia, Gaucho, et. al. is not his main interest.

The movie is full of these distancing devices, from transparent roman-a-clef references to laughable back projection. Most striking, in my opinion, is the use of Lana Turner. I say "use of," not "performance by," because she is presented here, in all her wooden glory, as an icon. Turner is not a good actress or an interesting personality; she brings no truthfulness or insight to the flashy role of Georgia; she has an unexpressive face and an annoying Liz-Taylorish little voice. And yet, in a movie that's concerned with the distance between surface appearance and underlying reality in the movies, she's just about perfect. Everyone else in The Bad and the Beautiful is quite good, and there's some excellent ensemble work, and amidst all this professional smoothness, Turner is weirdly, arrestingly artificial. She's not really performing, she's just on display. She's a plastic object, a real-life relic of Hollywood in the 30s (her character's big break comes in "the drug store scene;" Turner's own "discovery" at Schwab's Drug Store is one of the best-known Hollywood legends). It's subversive and quite modern.

I'm going to look soon at Two Weeks in Another Town, another movie-making movie with Kirk Douglas that Minnelli made 10 years later. I like all of Minnelli's 1950s melodramas very much, but I think he finds his perfect subject here as he simultaneously explores and exploits the delirium of studio-system Hollywood. Those long camera movements that glide from the scene-being-shot to the behind-the-camera observers and back again link the multiple levels of movie reality as gracefully as anything I've seen.

( 4/4/1996)


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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein