Friendship and Manipulation

Directed by Vincente Minnelli, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) is a character study of movie producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) and the friends he leaves by the wayside on his way to the top. A few months ago, my favorite movie podcast, Filmspotting, did their Minnelli marathon and although I vowed to review every film along with the marathon, I’ve fallen behind. I swear I’ll do better next Filmspotting Marathon.

Despite being made more than 60 years ago, The Bad and the Beautiful is still as relevant and poignant as ever. That’s because it’s not only about the movie business, it’s about manipulation and narcissists and the wild, sometimes fun, sometimes crappy ride they can bring their friends and associates along for.

Screenwriter Charles Schnee creates his three jilted and beautiful characters with such depth and pathos that Jonathan’s magical charisma is no match for them in the viewers’ heart. At the beginning of the film when writer/director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), writer James Lee Barlow (Dick Powell), and actor Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) arrive at producer Harry Pebbel’s (Walter Pidgeon) office to list favor for Jonathan. As they enter, Georgia takes the time to draw a mustache on the Shield’s icon outside the office giving us an instant recognition that whatever they were summoned for, they don’t like Shields.

Pebbel: Here it is. After two years, Jonathan is ready to produce a picture. He wants you (points to James) to write it, you (Jonathan) to direct it, and you (Georgia) to star. Now on the name Jonathan Shields, it’s impossible to raise five cents. But on Fred Amiel, Georgia Lorrison, James Lee Bartow I can raise two million dollars by tomorrow noon. Not going to beg you to say yes. I had two years of begging for Jonathan and that’s enough. I know you’ll never work with him again, but he can’t seem to get it through his head. Please, a favor to me not to him, will you give me your answer while I get him on the phone?

They agree and while he has the operator connect to Jonathan across the ocean, he tells each of their stories which begins with Jonathan befriending them and ending when he betrays them.

Starting chronologically with Fred and ending with James, Harry goes through the story of Jonathan and Fred picking up the pieces of his father’s failed empire with small films and small budgets and ending with a masterpiece penned by Fred. Throughout we watch how Jonathan, as a master manipulator, has the talent to work successfully with whatever is available in order to make money and great pictures. But his limited attention is his fatal flaw. Fully adept at nurturing projects and people through the infant stages, he has no ability or desire to go much beyond that, which results in him dropping people when he gets his eye on another prize. He’s a great talent. He’s a great networker. He’s great at coaching people to work as a team, but he doesn’t value them for themselves, only for what they can do for him.

Yet Fred, Georgia, and James are guilty too, guilty of not spotting the shark in Jonathan. Fred is hungry and offers him kindness for no real reason aside from the fact that he admires Jonathan’s drive to pull the studio from the ashes of his abhorrent mogul father.

Georgia learns to love him as he nurses her back from being an alcoholic. A friend to her when she had none and wanted none, Jonathan becomes her guardian angel.

While James is suspicious of both Hollywood and Jonathan, content as a history professor, he doesn’t need Jonathan’s money, notoriety, or fame. But Jonathan reels him in with slow and purposeful efforts asking only an increasing variety of small favors until James finally lowers his guard and pays the biggest price of them all. All three are attracted to a smaller degree by the industry help that Jonathan offers them, but it’s the promise of friendship that cements their bond to him. And although he has made them victims of his manipulation, they also attain success, in part, because of him.

It’s this talent at manipulating that makes Jonathan such a successful producer. When he and Fred are trying to raise money for their first picture Jonathan dreams up a scheme where he goes to a high stakes poker game with Hollywood producers, including Harry. Fred thinks his plan is to win, but Jonathan loses and loses big. He loses so much he tells Harry he can’t pay him, but perhaps he can work off his debt to him as his line producer.

Shields: If you put me on, say at $300 a week, I could pay you off slowly but surely, $6,351 dollars.
Pebbel: You think you blackmailed me...Well, get this, my unit turns out 18 pictures a year. I cry for ideas. If you'd have sweat out a story for me the way you sweat out losing that $6,351 dollars, I'd have hired you anyway. Why didn't you come to me in the first place? What are you, proud?
Shields: I tried to see you, Harry. I couldn't get in.
Pebbel: Do you know who gave me my first job?
Shields: My father.
Pebbel: Yes, and you're just like him, got to angle everything the cute way.
Shields: Look, I'll pay you off a hundred a week.
Pebbel: I wouldn't take a dime. Just bring me a picture I can shoot, genius boy.
Shields: You're all right, Harry. One day, you'll work for me.

Jonathan isn’t the only manipulator, Pebble is too. He is a producer after all and it’s his job to get things done. By relating their stories back to them Pebble reminds them they wouldn’t have gotten where they are without Jonathan. But at the same time, he’s also offering them empathy in agreeing with them that Jonathan is a heel. Yes, Jonathan is a heel, he’s saying, but he made us all a lot of money and a lot of success, so will you help him one last time?

One of the reasons this movie stands the test of time is Minnelli’s camera work. Front and center throughout the film, it not only shows us the salient moments we should really pay attention to, it also maps out the changing relationships between the characters. Artfully used it can sometimes track in on a detail (sometimes to comic effect) and at other times it allows the characters space to illustrate the action between them. For instance, at the start of the film, we get a lot of information by just looking at the three characters in the three-shot sitting in front of producer Harry Pebbel’s desk. We can see with one glance exactly what each character thinks of Shield, what their experience has been with him, and what their response to his request that they work with him is going to be before the question is even asked.

Barlow: Drop dead.

At other times the picture shows us how the relationship between Jonathan and each main character has changed, like when Jonathan has betrayed Fred. It starts out as a two-shot with Jonathan and screenwriter/director Fred facing each other, both are excited about the meeting with the studio brass. But when Jonathan underhandedly tells Fred he won’t get to direct, as planned, but veteran director Von Ellstein (Ivan Triesault) will do the honors, it switches to a close-up of Fred so we can see the dramatic change the news has had on him. When Von Ellstein comes out of the office, he takes Jonathan by the shoulder and the two walk in front of Fred.

Von Ellstein: Mr. Shields, today I’ve seen what I thought I would never see, a script prepared by a producer who thinks like a director. For thirteen years I’ve been …

Amiel: Goodbye Jonathan.
Shields: Look, Fred ... eh … so long, Fred.

And just like that Jonathan walks off the screen and out of Fred’s life. Nevermind that Fred wrote the script that Von Ellstein is praising. Jonathan greedily takes the praise earned by his partner and leaves him hanging in the wind. It sounds almost soap opera-y, but Minnelli films it in such a way so it feels natural rather than melodramatic.

Compared with the elaborate staging and vibrant colors of Minnelli’s earlier Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Bad and the Beautiful, feels like a much smaller film that’s more true to life. But its star power of Douglas, who made a splash with The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) and Out of the Past (1947), along with Turner, who wowed audiences in 1946 with The Postman Always Rings Twice, was just as bright as his previous hits. If there was ever any thought that Minnelli could only make a big film by using his Technicolor palette, The Bad and The Beautiful proves that notion misguided.

By putting his powerful cast in an expertly blocked character-driven piece, Minnelli serves us a story that continues to be relevant today. Its central questions: what do we owe, if anything, those who help us, yet also treat us like objects, how can we distinguish friendship from mere charm, and can we continue to work with opportunists once our central illusion is destroyed, or does understanding the game help us protect ourselves, are still questions that many of us deal with in our careers and relationships.

At the end of the film the three walk out rejecting Jonathan’s deal, but at the last moment they pick up the extension and listen to Jonathan’s pitch to Harry. Will they hang up and go their separate ways, or will they climb on board? The ambiguous ending leaves us without a firm answer, allowing us to imagine the different possibilities and how they’d play out. But whatever the three decide, we’re sure that they won’t ever be so foolish as to allow Jonathan to play them again.