Relationships are complex, and few movies demonstrate this as well as The Bad and the Beautiful. The 1952 black and white film starred Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, and Barry Sullivan. The film, which was directed by Vincente Minnelli (Liza Minnelli’s father), is based on George Bradshaw’s story, “Tribute to a Bad Man”. While the entertainment industry serves as the backdrop to this story, the film’s message is applicable to everyone: We often get what we need, but not necessarily what we want. Sometimes it takes us a while to figure out that there is a difference.
The movie begins with movie producer Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) asking director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) to work on a new film idea that their former colleague, Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) has been working on to save his studio from complete financial ruin. Amiel, Lorrison, and Bartlow immediately refuse. The anger they all have towards Shields is palpable, which makes Shields’ character all the more mysterious and exciting. What could Shields have done to make these people hate him so much? Well, as most of us have experienced in our own lives, the truth is rarely straightforward.
Most of the film is structured in a series of flashbacks. Each flashback tells the story of how Amiel, Lorrison, and Bartlow met Shields and what caused each of their relationships to crumble. While the format of the film may seem simplistic, the momentum never stalls. All the characters in this movie are intricately developed. No one is all good or all bad. In the beginning of the film, before we even meet Shields, there is an expectation for him to be an egotistical maniac, but as most great stories demonstrate, the truth is rarely that simple. Shields’ impact on each of their lives is important, unpredictable, and at times, shocking.
The performances from the actors are as brilliant and discerning as the writing. Kirk Douglas, as the charismatic alpha movie producer, is mesmerizing. Even when he’s not on screen, you can feel his presence through the other characters. Lana Turner is also captivating in this role as an emotionally scarred but talented actress. Though Turner has always been known for her ice blond hair and elegant face, she expertly transforms into a vulnerable and fragile starlet. Lorrison is not the most sympathetic character. She’s self-destructive and a saboteur, but she also has an incredible capacity to love. Gloria Graham, who was only on screen for nine minutes playing Bartlow’s feisty wife, earned an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. If her name sounds familiar, that’s because Graham had performed almost her entire life and played many memorable characters, including Ado Annie in Oklahoma!
The Bad and the Beautiful earned five Oscar nominations, including Best Actor for Kirk Douglas. The soundtrack for the film is legendary. David Raksin wrote the music and the soundtrack is both memorable and haunting. Ironically, the music almost didn’t make it into the film because neither Vincente Minnelli nor producer John Houseman liked it. Fortunately, Raksin’s music was ultimately accepted, and to this day, many composers such as Stephen Sondheim consider the music for The Bad the Beautiful to be one of Raksin’s best work.
The Bad and the Beautiful is a film that will remain timeless. Movies that explore relationships are always relevant because people haven’t changed all that much since the invention of moving pictures. Our tastes and preferences may change and technology may give us more options, but we will always be exploring themes that help us understand what it means to be human. This movie is important because it teaches a vital lesson about people. Shields wasn’t always a sensitive, nurturing, or loving person. He was extremely self-absorbed at times, but what he gave Amiel, Lorrison, and Bartlow was a foundation that would allow them to become extraordinarily successful. The Bad and the Beautiful is art imitating life: relationships of any kind can be messy and painful, but they can also be rewarding, pivotal, and beautiful.