“The Bad and the Beautiful” is a film about Hollywood. Kirk Douglas plays Jonathan Shields, the son of a famous Hollywood producer who has his sights set on following in his father’s footsteps. Starting out as the producer of B movies for a friend of his father’s, Harry Pebbel (played by Walter Pidgeon), Jonathan finds, befriends and ultimately betrays the best director, actress and author that fate sends his way. The movie is about this destructive mode of living that Jonathan inhabits. Along the way we see that Jonathan is both tremendously talented and possessed of enormous personal magnetism. But these positive traits are set against his staggering disregard for the welfare of the people around him. Basically, he’s a narcissist. He also suffers from bouts of clinical depression when he finishes each of his film projects.
The set up for the plot is the actress (Lana Turner playing Georgia Lorrison), the director (Barry Sullivan as Fred Amiel) and the author (Dick Powell as James Lee Bartlow) arriving at the office of Harry Pebbel who is trying to get the three of them to agree to star, direct and write Jonathan’s next project. His last film was a financial disaster and the only way he can get funding is to have a team of celebrated professionals like them involved.
Harry is the narrator introducing the three vignettes that chronicle Jonathan’s disastrous relationships with Georgia, Fred and James Lee. Each of the stories features Jonathan catalyzing the creative success that each is capable of but also betraying each of them in a way that is unforgivable.
Fred hands Jonathan the script of a great movie with the understanding that Fred will direct it. Jonathan manages successfully to get the studio to provide a lavish million-dollar budget for the project but then decides to hand the direction to a more experienced man. This ends Fred’s friendship and partnership with Jonathan but allows Fred to pursue his own career which ends in him becoming a highly successful director for other studios.
Georgia’s story features Jonathan saving this fragile young daughter of a famous actor who has fallen into a self-destructive cycle of drunkenness and loveless affairs. He realizes that in order to give Georgia the confidence she needs to succeed he will have to pretend to be her great love. With Jonathan’s help she finds her acting skills and makes the part and the movie a great success. But after the film wrap Jonathan goes into his typical depression and when Jonathan isn’t at the opening party Georgia returns to Jonathan’s home to cheer him up. Instead, she finds him entertaining a starlet in a negligee. But instead of being embarrassed he becomes enraged that she thinks she can own his affections. She flees into the night in a torrential rainstorm and we see her driving wildly and almost crashing into the oncoming traffic. This is the weakest scene in the movie. Her hysterical screaming while braking the car into a spin strikes me as absurdly comical. The next day she quits her job and even though she was bound by contract Jonathan lets her out of it. She goes on to become the most acclaimed, in demand and highest paid actress of her time.
James Lee’s story finds him recruited by Jonathan to write the script for a movie being made from his own best-selling book. It’s actually James Lee’s wife Rosemary (played by Gloria Grahame with an awful Southern accent) who wants him to stay in Hollywood for the movie work. But at the same time Rosemary is the greatest impediment to James Lee accomplishing much writing. She interrupted him at every turn and distracts him with chaperoning her to Hollywood parties.
Jonathan is frustrated by this lack of progress so he arranges for James Lee to accompany him to a cabin in the woods where they can work undisturbed. But to make sure that Rosemary doesn’t intrude Jonathan arranges for his handsome friend “Gaucho” to keep Rosemary company. Of course, Jonathan knows Gaucho will make a pass at Rosemary and he also believes she will welcome it.
Sure enough, James Lee and Jonathan make enormous progress and finish the script. But in the meantime, Gaucho and Rosemary take the opportunity to fly to Acapulco for a love tryst. They are both killed in a plane crash and James Lee is devastated by his wife’s death and by the knowledge of her infidelity. Jonathan convinces him to stay on in Hollywood to assist in the production of the movie and this lifts James Lee out of his despair. But Jonathan inadvertently says something that reveals that he knew about Gaucho’s affair with Rosemary. But instead of apologizing Jonathan goes on the attack and tells James Lee that Rosemary’s death was her own fault and that she was a hindrance to James Lee’s career. And the outraged widower punches Jonathan in the face and walks out. Afterward James Lee writes a book about a woman like Rosemary and the book wins the Pulitzer Prize. We are led to understand by Harry’s remarks that James Lee’s new understanding of his wife’s hidden desires was what made the book the success it became.
After finishing the reminiscences Harry is going to call Jonathan in Paris and tell him whether Fred, Georgia and James Lee will be willing to work with him on his new project. As the call is connected the three of them tell Harry they refuse and begin to leave the office. As they walk into the anteroom, we hear Harry talking on his phone to Jonathan as he begins to hear the details of the new movie.
In the last scene Georgia carefully picks up the receiver of an extension phone in the anteroom and starts listening very interestedly in what Jonathan is saying. Quickly Fred and James Lee huddle around her eavesdropping with her. Obviously as much as they despise Jonathan for his selfishness they are fascinated by his talent.
This movie is a narcissist’s love letter to itself. Hollywood almost prided itself on destroying the people it used up to make its products. Vincent Minelli was the director and his wife Judy Garland could have been the model for the character Georgia. And any number of other Hollywood actors, producers, directors and writers could probably have been templates for the characters in this movie. The only difference would be that the betrayals were worse in real life and the talent of the producer would have been much less impressive.
I’m of two minds about this movie. It is very well made. It captures the spirit of the industry it portrays. But the shabbiness of the people on display revolts me. Jonathan is never apologetic. He always attacks his victims. He always justifies his betrayal. He is a sociopath. I guess taken as a cautionary tale it would have value. Maybe it speaks to the selfishness in all of us.