This week in Hit Me with Your Best Shot, Nathaniel has assigned the Oscar-loved 1952 picture The Bad and the Beautiful, one of that decade’s most celebrated “everything in Hollywood is toxic and evil” movies. It’s essentially a hybrid of Citizen Kane and Sunset Blvd. done up in the MGM house style: which means that the cynicism of those movies is buried underneath a layer of melodrama that, I happen to think, keeps it from being nearly as essential as either of them. It is still, though an awfully fun poison pen love letter to the film community, with terrific performances across the board (ironically, the Oscar-winning turn by Gloria Grahame is one of the film’s weakest), and gorgeous cinematography: it is, I do think, the best black-and-white work in the career of either director Vincente Minnelli or director of photography Robert Surtees, both of them men whose best visuals tend to involve color, 3-strip Technicolor when possible.
It’s a bit embarrassing, then, that the shot I picked as my favorite in the film is far from the most gorgeous or visually complex in the picture. But sometimes personal sentiment will win out, and here’s the thing: The Bad and the Beautiful is, stripped of all its narrative accretions (and they are, in fairness, some of the best parts), the biopic of a megalomaniacal film producer, Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas, giving one of his all-time best performances, combing charisma and rancidity in perfect balance), whose personal history is drawn from an assortment of real-life figures. Among those figures was RKO’s legendary horror B-unit producer Val Lewton, an individual for whom I have considerable personal affection. So when reminded that this movie (which I last saw over a decade ago, when I knew much less about film history than I do now) included a sequence on the set of Doom of the Cat Man, an obvious ribbing of Lewton’s magnificent Cat People, there was very little chance that I’d pick a shot from anyplace else in the film.
Nothing visually complex, nothing to unpack, nothing that even resonates thematically with the whole of the movie. It’s just a little one-off joke about directing a child actress to scream like her life is in peril, stretched out just long enough that her terror ceases to register as anything but total fakery. Which is, after a fashion, the point of all these backstage Hollywood movies, and The Bad and the Beautiful especially (which, uniquely I believe, is about a producer, and thus more about the nuts and bolts economic aspects of cinema than even movies about a director would be.
Mostly, though, this is my inner fanboy speaking: look at how they made old horror pictures! Isn’t that cool? Few movies about moviemaking are better at depicting the mechanics of it than The Bad and the Beautiful, and even if that’s not the thing that Minnelli and company necessarily meant for me to walk away from the film with, it’s my very favorite part; and this is where I feel happiest to be watching the movie. Which is also not what Minnelli and company wanted, but there are plenty of movies about venal people ruining other people’s lives; there are not many films at all about Val Lewton and Jacques Tourneur surrogates making a little girl freak out on cue, and for that, I will always privilege this film above its roots as a gossipy melodrama.