The Bad and the Beautiful (Vincent Minelli, 1952)

Vincente Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful is a struggle to like at first; knowing it's a takeoff on David Selznick's life doesn't help. Every time one of the people facing Walter Pidgeon tells his or her story, Pidgeon replies with "Oh yeah, he ruined your life--all you got was an Academy Award, big boxoffice, the Pulitzer Prize, etc."

And maybe that's bearable, but the line "you know, when they list the ten best pictures ever made, there are always two or three of his on the list" really sticks to my craw. Well, there is The Third Man.

Maybe even if I didn't know it was Selznick it's a bit of a struggle. His brand of tough love in the service of his passion for moviemaking seems, on one hand, teasingly authentic in detail, yet on the other, somehow sanitized--he doesn't go to bed with Turner, he's implicated but did not cause the murder of Powell's wife, so on and so forth.

But it's still a fascinating story, and it's wonderful to see how real Hollywood characters are conflated or combined, leaving you guessing who is who (is that Stroheim or Sternberg? Is Turner Diana Barrymore or Jennifer Jones? Is Powell Faulkner or Fitzgerald?). And the climaxes of each story have real power, as Douglas runs through the deadliest of the sins. Betrayal for power, betrayal for sex, betrayal for maybe the most perverse motive of all, the good of the person betrayed.

The most vivid climax I thought was the second, with Douglas freaking out and frightening Turner into that half-suicidal drive. I've heard of people watching that scene for laughs but I thought it was hair-raising the way the camera swings around her like a passerby catching a glimpse, the way the traffic lights glare and glower round her, the way Turner (in one take, I hear, possibly her single best moment on film) runs the gamut from hysteria to despair, all in a few minutes. She upstages Powell's story, though Powell does have one great bit--when he stares at Douglas, finally knowing what he'd done, and Douglas desperately tries to talk his way out of it.

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