Vincente Minnelli’s lip-smacking Hollywood satire is back on the big screen in all its gaudy glory.
"I've told you a hundred times. I don't want to win awards. Give me pictures that end with a kiss and black ink on the books!"
The title makes it sound like some cheapjack, soft focus '80s soap opera, and in many ways, Vincente Minnelli’s lip-smacking, tripartite Hollywood satire, The Bad and the Beautiful, does share its unabashedly melodramatic DNA with this trashy contemporary counterpart.
For one, Kirk Douglas' "genius boy" producer, Jonathan Shields, is a man who can’t see the wood for the trees, mercilessly trampling on allies and cohorts in his vainglorious bid for power and influence. Had the film been a murder mystery (and, with a few very minor tweaks, it probably could’ve been), then Shields is a clear, Caesar-like predecessor to JR Fairfax.
Yet, it’s soapy tenor and the mildly bogus logic of its narrative machinations are easily forgivable, as Minnelli’s film shines when examined on a scene-by-scene, shot-by-shot, or even frame-by-frame basis. Shields, exiled in Paris, is on the line to his old producer buddy Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon), hawking an idea that requires the collaboration of three old pals-turned-mortal enemies: Pulitzer-winning screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), starlet Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) and Oscar-winning director, Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan). They want nothing to do with him, and the film tells us why in three giant flashbacks.
Douglas is riveting as Shields, an immaculately-coiffed viper in the league of the Machiavellian news reporter, Chuck Tatum, he played in Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole two years previously. But the real stars of the film are Minnelli and his cinematographer Robert Surtees, whose sublime visual choreography marks the very pinnacle of subtle, old school Hollywood artistry.
Rarely employing close-ups and using edits extremely sparingly (but not so as you'd notice), his camera glides through scenes and soaks up the rich detail given by the lighting, set design and costumes. The way Minnelli moves his camera is really on the same premier league as Ophüls or Kubrick.
There’s beauty, grace and musicality to the way the entire film is constructed. Consider the discipline, framing and length of shots and you can easily spot a through-line back to Minnelli’s lighter musical works such as An American in Paris and Meet Me in St. Louis. There are even montages that verge on the surreal, such as one in which Shields and Amiel are churning out b-horrors and – in an Escher–like wide-shot – they’re testing out staircases for use in their latest opus.
On initial inspection, Shields is presented as a cut-and-dried demon and his actions come across as abhorrent and self-serving. Though, Charles Schnee’s screenplay always attempts to unsettle the moral equilibrium by re-stating that, despite his callous methods, these artists would be nowhere if Shields hadn’t taken a chance on them – an equilibrium that finally tips over with the acerbically nasty final shot.
Indeed, watching the film now and Shields character actually seems like the only one untethered of ego, operating with only the end-result and the pleasure of the masses in mind.
The later scenes where he takes over directorial duties on his latest big budget costume epic present him as kind overseer who is completely immersed and fascinated by the creative process. So even if you already know every line backwards, it's well worth giving this one another sweep.
Always a pleasure to revisit a Minnelli, re-released ahead of a full retrospective at London’s BFI Southbank.
The wittiest, most glamourous and finely sculpted piece of trash you’ll ever see.
A gaudy soap opera that also manages to satirise gaudy soap operas. Hows about that?