This was the start of Kirk Douglas solidifying himself in my mind as probably one of my top five favorite actors on the List, up there with Henry Fonda and (though she’s still a decade ahead of this) Giulietta Masina, but what I mostly remember the movie for is watching it with my ex, who wasn’t such a fan of movies, who sat with me while I watched at least twenty different titles over over the first two years of the Project but who really only sat and focused with me for a handful. We’d made a dinner of chicken and rice, maybe a vegetable too but probably not, and we’d eaten the whole meal within ten or fifteen minutes and then, with the apartment to ourselves that night, just sat together cuddling for the rest of it, talking, and I remember being so heartened to find that she was just about as engrossed in the movie as I was. An ex before her, Marianne, walked me through the first two seasons of Game of Thrones and looked similarly exalted whenever I’d get hooked on some aspect of the show and before her there was another ex who walked me through the first season of Orange is the New Black and got similarly excited on my behalf whenever significant stuff happened (although I remember that she was mostly just scrolling Instagram).
(I also wanna digress here into how me and my ex’s marathoning of 90 Day Fiance might have actually been the same experience as what I’m saying we had with The Bad and the Beautiful but, here, lemme just link you to the diary post about it instead.)
Bad and the Beautiful shows Douglas occupying some middle space between the charmer and the scoundrel he could play with equal savvy (the charmer and scoundrel he played quite well in life, too, from what I’ve heard of his turbulent marriage, his infidelities). He plays a Hollywood producer who, when the picture begins, ahs been long outta the business, shunned, ruined.
Three people he came up with—three people whose careers he catapulted to new heights—are convened int eh office of one of the few producers in Hollywood sympathetic to his comeback: a leading lady, a novelist-turned-screenwriter, and another producer.
The shape of the movie has us moving, chronologically, in flashbacks that reveal, simultaneously, how Douglas achieved his own professional ascent and how he built up the person from whose perspective it’s being examined.
It also shows us how that person fell out with him.
The structure his genius.
And so’s the story, insofar as it’s insightful about its subject, Hollywood.
We begin with Douglas and his producing partner, played by Barry Sullivan, working on a cheap horror film that is clearly supposed to be Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People: the conundrum being that the little horror film calls for a bunch of men to stand in ridiculous cheap monster outfits that totally undermine the horror.
The producers have an inspired idea to keep the monsters confined to the sahdows.
They’ll never be seen.
The movie’s a hit.
Martin Scorsese, talking about Cat People in A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies, actually uses the footage of Douglas and Sullivan reaching this epiphany.
Then the movie gets darker when we see Douglas pull Lana Turner (the stunner of Postman Always Rings Twice) out of her alcoholic torpor, visiting her in her apartment in what looks like an encounter that’ll culminate in sex but doesn’t, just torment, and when eventually he succeeds at getting her straight, getting her into the film for a celebrated performance, thereby laying the groundwork for what looks like a great romance—she surprises him at home and finds him fucking a statuesque co-star.
Douglas, caught, delivers the kind of self-loathing tirade of somebody who know she’s going to compulsively and systematically burn every bridge in his life. Stops and shouts and banishes Turner.
And on we go to the story of how he snatches Dick Powell, who plays a popular novelist, out of his quiet academic life and over to Hollywood to adapt his best-selling novel for the screen. Powell’s traveling with his bubbly and encouraging wife (who, in retrospect, kinda reminds me of the aforementioned girlfriend with whom I watched this). It’s a complicated story, how Powell falls out with Douglas, and it’s the sorta story element aht unfolds in a cringy kidna way, by accident, and the sting of its reveal is so potent. You need to experience it.
By the end of the movie we’re given the impression that all three of them, so angry still about the indignities they suffered at Douglas’s hand, are becoming softened, sympathetic, forgiving by the act of re-telling the story to themselves.
I think the movie is an industry movie, for sure, with the inherent themes of greed and yearning and ambition and failure that show up in every great story about Hollywood. But I’m seeing something, too, about the redemptive powers of storytelling.
As a storyteller myself this is obviously he kind of thesis I’d like to walk away with—but I don’t think I’m conjuring it out of nothing. I’m just not sure of how exactly to flesh it out.
I mean it’s definitely a life-affirming movie, insofar as the point of it seems to be illustrating how some perceived misfortune, or betrayal, might have actually been for the best (there’s an accidental death in the picture that we might not want to say that about, but it applies to everything else).
There’s also a commentary here about the collateral damage of success. It’s not only because Douglas was alsot he star of the last Billy Wilder movie on the List, Ace in the Hole, that I think this picture is a kind of sibling piece to the Wilder picture that came before that one, Sunset Boulevard.
All three, as a matter of fact, might play well as a triple-bill about the traps of ambition and success.