Sunday, February 5, 2017
The Bad and the Beautiful
Vincente Minnelli's 1952 The Bad and the Beautiful, notwithstanding its lurid title, is a handsome, ultra-subtle morality play contrived to illustrate an interesting, if problematic, thesis: making art is difficult and artists are intrinsically lazy; therefore, they must be betrayed into doing their best work -- deceit and cruelty are the goads necessary to induce an artist to achieve excellence. This thesis is illustrated by three interlocked stories in Minnelli's movie, set in Hollywood, and produced with the highest gloss that the old studio system could accomplish. (This is the kind of beautifully made studio film in which a shot of someone knocking on the door to a house is decorated with a filigree of moving shadows representing the leaves and boughs of the unseen immemorial elms capering in the wind on the lawn -- the studios were so good at these shots that they could impart a distinctive mood to each iteration: either it is a stormy day or there are light spring breezes or it is high summer without any breath of wind.) The story concerns a brilliant --he's called "the genius boy" -- but ruthless film producer named Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas). We first see Shields paying off mourners at this father's funeral (the film is replete with imagery of bad fathers) -- the old man was such a son-of-a-bitch no one would voluntarily attend his obsequies. Shields is ambitious and, like his father, wants to make movies. He forges an alliance with a director, a man named Amiel (Barry Sullivan). They work together on a series of "Poverty Row" movies including, in one very funny sequence, something called "Doom of the Cat-Men", a fictional film clearly inspired by Val Lewton's low-budget masterpiece Cat People. For many years Amiel, more ambitious than he is experienced, has wanted to adapt into film a novel called "The Faraway Mountain." This is a prestige project -- I think the novel is supposed to be something like B. Traven's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. Shields gets the money, but jettisons Amiel for a more experienced and bankable director, a guy who is intended to look like Erich von Stroheim. (A cruel joke because, of course, von Stroheim couldn't get regular work as a Hollywood director because he was deemed "difficult" after the debacle with Greed.) Amiel is deeply wounded, but admits in the frame story -- this involves Shields who has gone out of business placing calls to enlist talent to make one last picture -- that he wasn't sufficiently mature enough as a director to make that movie, that his efforts would have failed, and he would have been finished in Hollywood. As it is, Amiel has made a number of Oscar-winning films after ending his relationship with Shields. The second story involves alcoholism and misguided, destructive filial obsession. A famous alcoholic actor with Shakespearian pretentions has died leaving his beautiful and talented daughter bereft, hiding like a ghost in the family manor, and drinking herself to death. Shields believes in the young woman's talent, casts her in a leading role, and makes her believe that he loves her. On the basis of the promise of his love, the woman (played by Lana Turner) delivers a splendid performance. When she brings a bottle of champagne over to Shields' mansion after the film is finished, she finds him entertaining a sluttish extra. In the frame story, the actress admits that her hatred for Shields drove her to become a great star and that she could not have accomplished this without his betrayal. The third story involves, curiously enough, the failing of uxoriousness. A Professor and novelist from the old South has a beautiful, frivolous, highly sexual wife (Gloria Graham). Shields lures the couple to Hollywood and discerns that the writer will never achieve anything -- his wife is too demanding and she distracts him from his work with her trivial and childish whims. Shields contrives for a sleazy Latin lover (Gaucho played by Gilbert Roland) to seduce the woman and keep her from distracting her husband -- this plan works out too well: Gaucho and the novelist's wife are killed when their plane crashes on the way to Acapulco. This catastrophe frees the novelist to become a world-class screenwriter and author -- he has just won the Pulitzer Prize when the frame-story initiates the three flashback tales. The film's subtlety arises from this proposition: in each case, Shields' betrayal is a necessary predicate for the artist to achieve his or her highest excellence; the artists know this intuitively and so, when they are being betrayed, they react in curiously muted ways -- they know that the fall is "fortunate." An example of Minnelli's brilliantly implicit way of staging the betrayals is in the final story. The smashed plane where Gaucho and the novelist's wife have been killed lies like a shattered behemoth against a black mountain. The novelist has to mount a flimsy ladder to view his wife's corpse, embedded it seems in the rock face. We expect that the man will be overcome and, in fact, will swoon from the ladder on which he is precariously perched. But, instead he views the corpse with apparent equanimity. Although a part of him grieves, it's clear that the artistic aspect of his personality is relieved to be free of this dear distraction. Throughout the film, Minnelli veils his meanings, occludes them with surface detail, and requires the audience to do its work interpreting the material that we are presented. In the final scene, the viewer is left to decode an ambiguous image -- the three principals of the three narratives -- bending forward into the light in a shadowy room, eagerly listening on another line to Shield's pitch to his producer. Of course, they will succumb to Shields' blandishments, but Minnelli is reticent about this conclusion -- he tricks the audience into thinking that we are smart and perspicacious: in fact, it's all on the screen, but we need to be able to read the signs. The movie is novelistic in the best way -- it swarms with vivid small parts: there are various flamboyant and self-aggrandizing film directors portrayed (we seem someone like Hitchcock for instance); there is a rich tapestry of characters: desperate show-girls, Shields' loyal PR man (played by the brilliant Paul Stewart) and his producer, technicians, costumiers, an agent who weeps uncontrollably when his client is cast in a major role. Minnelli uses the device of signifying his own directorial authority over the large and variegated cast by sweep over the movie sets and parties with magisterial crane shots -- in the very beginning of the film, we see a moving crane, filmed as if in a documentary, symbolizing the power of the director. He is inventive in the way that he stages scenes -- for instance, in the first encounter with the wounded actress played by Lana Turner, we are in a kind of haunted castle and see the woman only as pair of legs dangling down from a dark attic. Similarly, a suicide attempt that probably isn't really authentic is filmed from inside a speeding car in close-shot with the lights on oncoming traffic raking across the contorted features of the leading lady. Kirk Douglas exudes menacing, unpredictable charm as Shields; he justifies his cruel opportunism by claiming that it arises as a result of a character trait that we would label bi-polar disorder today -- after completing each movie, he collapses into a deep, almost catatonic funk. In one scene, Douglas manhandles Lana Turner -- both of their eyes glint with ferocious intent -- and, as he seizes her hair, she looks up with him with unfeigned and total terror.