Saturday, May 17, 2014

Movie Review: Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner in "The Bad and the Beautiful" (1952)

Lana Turner and Kirk Douglas in "The Bad and the Beautiful," 1952. Understatement of the day: wow, she was beautiful.

Barry Sullivan, Lana Turner, and Dick Powell in "The Bad and the Beautiful," 1952.

“The Bad and the Beautiful,” directed by Vincente Minnelli, is a look at a callous movie producer who makes great films but destroys the lives of those around him. Kirk Douglas is perfectly cast as the producer, and garnered his second Best Actor Oscar nomination for the movie. As Douglas himself once said, “I’ve made a career out of playing sons-of-bitches.” And Jonathan Shields, the character Douglas plays, is certainly a son of a bitch.

“The Bad and the Beautiful” is told largely in flashback form, as director Fred Amiel, (Barry Sullivan) leading actress Georgia Lorrison, (Lana Turner) and author James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) meet in producer Harry Pebbel’s office. (Pebbel is played by Walter Pidgeon.) Pebbel tells them that Shields, who is living in France and hasn’t made a movie in years, wants them to work with him one more time on a new project. As they all wait for the trans-Atlantic phone call to be connected, they each tell their memories of Shields, and how he screwed them over. However, Pebbel is quick to point out when each of them have finished their stories that Shields’s bad behavior actually helped them to become the successes they are. 

The acting in “The Bad and the Beautiful” is superb, with strong performances from all of the leads. Kirk Douglas had the perfect blend of seductive charm and arrogance to pull off the role of Jonathan Shields. Lana Turner was excellent, and her scenes with Douglas crackle with dynamic energy. Turner, always known more for her gorgeous looks than her acting talent, shows that she was much more than just a pretty face. Turner also looks beautiful throughout the film, making the title quite apt. Barry Sullivan gives a nice performance as Shields’s early friend who is soon left by the wayside. Walter Pidgeon does a good job as Pebbel, who gives the slick-talking young Shields his first real job in the movies, and Pidgeon projects his usual air of calm authority. Dick Powell is also excellent as Bartlow, the cynical and jaded author. Powell had a very interesting movie career. He began as a musical star in light comedies during the 1930’s, starring in movies like “42nd Street,” (1933) and “On the Avenue” (1937). When it seemed as though his days as a romantic leading man were numbered, he tried to broaden his image. While he lost out on the lead in “Double Indemnity,” (1944) he landed the role of private detective Philip Marlowe in “Murder, My Sweet,” also known as “Farewell, My Lovely” (1944). That role led to many more dramatic roles, as Powell made the successful transition to dramatic actor. Powell starred in many TV shows during the 1950’s, and also directed five films during the mid-1950’s. (One of those was the ill-fated “The Conqueror” starring John Wayne as Genghis Kahn.) Powell’s second wife was the actress Joan Blondell, and his third wife was June Allyson. Powell died of cancer in 1963, at the age of 58. Gloria Grahame took home the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role as Rosemary, even though she’s only onscreen for 9 minutes. But it’s an excellent performance, no matter the length. Grahame’s stormy personal life would soon overshadow her fine acting ability, though. Grahame was married four times. Her second marriage was to the director Nicholas Ray, who had one son, Anthony, from a previous marriage. Ray and Grahame also had one son together before divorcing in 1952. In 1960, Grahame married her former stepson, Nicholas Ray’s son Anthony. Grahame then had two sons with Anthony Ray. Weird.

“The Bad and the Beautiful” set a record for most Oscar wins for a film that was not nominated for either Best Picture or Best Director, winning 5 of the 6 Oscars it was nominated for. Douglas was the only one to come home empty-handed, losing out to Gary Cooper in “High Noon.” It’s surprising that Minnelli wasn’t nominated for his excellent directing. Fresh off his success with 1951’s “An American in Paris,” Minnelli created vivid compositions with rich black and white photography. It’s odd to see a Minnelli film in black and white, since he’s so known for his rich color palettes. Minnelli and star Kirk Douglas must have enjoyed working together, as they would later team up for two more movies, 1956’s “Lust For Life,” which starred Douglas as Vincent Van Gogh, in one of his best performances, and 1962’s “Two Weeks in Another Town.” There’s a good amount of humor in “The Bad and the Beautiful,” which makes it a delight to see, even today. There’s a parody of a fussy English director, which is a jab at Alfred Hitchcock, amid other Hollywood in-jokes. 

There are no tales of outrageous behavior from the set, as producer John Houseman wrote in his autobiography, Unfinished Business, “I have never produced a film on which there were fewer problems.” (P.319) Kirk Douglas, in his 1988 autobiography The Ragman’s Son, spends just a page on the movie, writing, “When they announced that Lana Turner was the ‘beautiful,’ the paper were filled with ‘When these two get together…’ I was ready for it. But she was going with Fernando Lamas, who was terribly jealous. He was always around. Nothing happened. I liked Lana, and I thought she did one of her best pieces of acting in that picture.” (P.171) Given Douglas’s reputation as a ladies’ man, I think Fernando Lamas was very smart to not let Lana spend any time off-set with Kirk. 

If you’re a fan of movies about Old Hollywood, or any of the leading actors, you’ll definitely enjoy “The Bad and the Beautiful.”

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