Rarely seen but frequently referenced in film studies lecture rooms, Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) is a twisted tale of the rise and fall of Kirk Douglas’ ruthless Hollywood producer Jonathan Shields and one of the greatest ‘movies about movies’ to ever come out of Hollywood.
Wrongly regarded as a damning indictment of the studio system, which was shaking and on the verge of collapse when the film was originally released, Minnelli shows as much admiration for the manipulative Shields’ bloody single-mindedness as he does condemnation for his cruelty. In fact, at times the director’s affection for this lead character is a little too strong and the lying, deceptive Shields’ actions are condoned as being a necessary evil in a dog eat dog business.
Perhaps Minnelli had a point, and in the hands of a lesser actor Shields would be a cardboard cut-out monster the audience would have difficulty empathising with. Fortunately, the passion and charm of Kirk Douglas gives Shields the extra dimension he requires as we are seduced into rooting for the Machiavellian son-of-a-bitch.
The rest of The Bad and the Beautiful’s players are all on top form with Lana Turner, famed for her looks rather than her acting ability, giving a career best performance as the used and abused starlet Georgia Lorrison.
The picture is beautifully composed by the talented Minnelli, who must have been brimming with confidence after the Oscar success of An American in Paris (1951). His name is rarely featured in lists of great directors but the man was a true visual artist and the majority of his work is of the highest quality.
The Bad and Beautiful may not be quite the savage castigation of the studio system it is reputed to be (for the real dirt you’d be better off purchasing a copy of Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player), yet Minnelli’s love/hate letter to Hollywood is still essential viewing for any seasoned film buff.
The Bad and the Beautiful is showing at BFI Southbank from 20 April as part of the Vincente Minnelli season. For more info, visit bfi.org.uk.