If it’s not quite Sunset Boulevard, Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful stands on its own as a scathing portrait of Hollywood’s cutthroat ways and means. Set in the smoky back rooms of Los Angeles studios—in fact, self-serving producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) is puffing a cigarette in nearly every scene—The Bad and the Beautiful is the tale of how the manipulative Shields used three of those closest to him for personal gain, yet deeply contributed to their eventual career success. Plagued-with-self-doubt director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), beautiful-but-masochistic actress Georgia Larrison (Lana Turner), and beleaguered writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) all taste the double-crossing wrath of Shields, the son of a hated movie bigwig who lusts for power and to prove that he’s more than just a loathed man’s child. Early on, it’s difficult to envision that Shields will pull it off: his initial meeting with Amiel is at his father’s funeral, where Amiel served as one of many mourners paid eleven bucks by Shields so his father wouldn’t be buried in complete solitude. His grand family home is stripped barren a la Citizen Kane; a bottle of gin and a few paintings are all that’s left. The last of his dollars went to Amiel & company at the funeral. Before he’s accomplished a thing on his own, Shields appears in grave danger of fading into total obscurity.
And yet, the opposite happens. Rather than succumb to his fate, Shields begins working in a bit role producing B-movies, and then leverages an opportunity—Amiel’s ambitious script for an adaptation of a favorite novel—into landing the star Gaucho (Gilbert Roland). So begins Shields’ ascent into one of Hollywood’s most powerful figures, and it starts with how it will often continue: back-stabbing someone close to him. In this instance, Amiel gets tossed to the curb once his script is accepted, as Shields elects to go in a different direction. The Bad and the Beautiful continues on this path, a series of extended flashbacks—the film opens with producer Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) trying to coax the three into one final project with Shields—depicting how Shields built up, and subsequently tore down, the trio’s hopes and dreams. Its message, that the adversity and heartbreak of Hollywood can toughen one up, creating a star that wouldn’t have been there otherwise, is delivered strongly and smoothly in the first two acts (Amiel and Larrison’s backstories). The third segment, Bartlow’s, is a bit uneven: though it has some great moments, the premise that the circumstances in question could be viewed as a ‘positive,’ no matter what became of Bartlow’s screenwriting career afterwards, is at best a stretch and at worst downright offensive. Still, the overarching themes are delivered strongly, often ruthlessly, and Minnelli’s controlled-but-penetrating direction, coupled with powerful performances by Douglas, Turner—an alcohol-soaked encounter between the two in a tightly-framed room is riveting—and the rest of the cast, including Gloria Grahame (In a Lonely Place; The Big Heat) as Bartlow’s feisty wife make The Bad and the Beautiful a mostly excellent work. Shields is unable to grasp true happiness, no matter how much authority he gets, no matter how full his mansion becomes. And the final few images, filmed outside Pebbel’s offices after the three make their decision, are a perfect portrayal of Hollywood’s unique, yet turbulent, allure.