Kirk Douglas in The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

*mild spoilers*

Kirk Douglas is somewhat of a legend, but to be honest, I don’t know much about him other than him being Michael Douglas’ dad and that Melissa Leo awkwardness during the Oscars. From what I’ve read, he seems to be considered one of the best actors of that era who, according to Wikipedia, “dived into every role, dissecting not only his own lines but all the parts in the script to measure the rightness of the role, and he was willing to fight with a director if he felt justified.

It’s easy to see that pursuit of excellence in The Bad and the Beautiful, because he easily stands out as the shining light of this rather stupid movie. The Bad and the Beautiful tells the story of an unscrupulous producer Jonathan Shields (Douglas), who utilises an actress (Lana Turner), a director (Barry Sullivan) and a writer (Dick Powell in an extremely dull performance) to build his career. The story is told through the three characters recalling their experience with Shields and how he pretty much screwed them over. Never mind that though, cause once they finish telling their stories, they get a stern lecture from Harry Pebble (Walter Pidgeon), who is pretty much like “Yeah, he fucked you up emotionally but hey, he gave you your success too.” It could have been an extremely complex and fascinating morality tale, but the whole thing is just one-dimensional, flat and boring, especially the last act involving Powell’s character. Gloria Grahame’s nomination alone is baffling, much less her win.

To be honest, the performance is written to be a pretty repetitive one, with each act involving Jonathan charming his “target” and then successfully  screwing them over. The first thing that Douglas does to overcome this problem is to inject a LOT of charisma and charm into this role (it’s almost as if he knew how weirdly written his character is), such that you never tire of watching him. His presence is incredibly strong and it’s easy to see why he is considered one of the greatest movie stars.

But beyond the charisma and charm is some pretty strong characterisation that allows us to understand Jonathan as a character and his motivations. In the first act with the aspiring director Fred Amiel, we get to see many excellently portrayed sides of Jonathan, from the incredibly intense energy Douglas exudes to portray his drive, to his charming personality that could persuade anyone, to his brutal nature when he cuts off Fred from directing his next picture. There is not a false note in his performance, and I found it very easy to believe that Jonathan was able to build his success this easily because of how driven, ambitious and charmingly manipulative he is. There’s a kind of bromance between the Fred and Jonathan that works very well, mainly thanks to Douglas. I actually enjoyed watching them build their careers together. There is an especially memorable scene where both of them were brainstorming a rather silly movie about “Cat Men”. Douglas actually made me believe that the movie could work with his enthusiasm.

The second act is also equally strong, once you get over the weird casting of the super beautiful/glamorous Lana Turner as Georgia Lorrison, an alcoholic and depressed actress with a severe inferiority complex (Her performance is actually not too bad though). While it’s pretty much the same formula of him using her to succeed, Douglas displays a suprisingly moving tenderness and kindness when grooming Georgia, and he actually makes their relationship an interesting one. We know from the start that Jonathan doesn’t (want to) love her, and yet the internal struggle is surprisingly believable and intense. His breakdown scene when caught cheating is a surprisingly good mixture of rage, guilt and humiliation, allowing the viewers to see a darker, more emotionally vulnerable side of Jonathan. They also have pretty good chemistry and it’s easy to see why Georgia was charmed over by him.

The last act with James Lee Bartlow, the writer played by Dick Powell, is where Douglas’ performance falters. For one, the writing sucks and I really found it hard to buy this part of the story. Basically, we are introduced to the fact that 2 of Jonathan’s latest films have bombed, and out of desperation, he recruits James Lee to help out with his next project. A major portion of this act focuses on the relationship between James Lee and his vapid wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame). I suspect this part was intended to be the “lighter moment” of the film, where we get to see Rosemary constantly bugging James Lee and preventing him from getting work done…which…okay? I mean, it’s hardly believable and it doesn’t help that there’s absolutely zero chemistry between Grahame and Powell. So in comes Jonathan, who sends away Rosemary with some big movie star in order to get James Lee the peace he needed. Unfortunately, *spoilers* the plane crashes, killing Rosemary and the movie star *spoilers*. It’s freaking stupid, although I get that it’s supposed to portray Jonathan’s brutal side. Not that he actually caused the crash, but rather the fact that he so “cruelly” caused Bartlow to lose his wife. Credibility aside, Douglas is actually hardly in this act. There are still a couple of good moments, like when he decided to take over the directing of the film himself and then later shelve it when he thought it was terrible. Still, the performance does lose quite a bit of its steam here.

All in all, I thought Kirk Douglas did a pretty great job here. His performance steals the entire movie, which btw, is also kinda boring. He gives the character charisma, intensity and actually a surprising amount of depth. It could have been a 5 star performance, but that last act was so poorly written that I felt it dragged it down quite a bit. Still, it’s worth watching. 4/5.

 

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