Lana Turner walks out of the shadows into a pool of light then into the shadows again. Into another pool of light and a second set of shadows. She is wearing an overcoat, walking the streets, looking troubled. This must be a film noir; the only real questions are where the corpse is, and what she has to do with it. None of these details is accidental or unimportant for the film we are watching, and the effect is memorable, but half of our inferences are wrong. This is Lana Turner and she is supposed to look troubled; but she is not outside, she is in an empty movie studio. After she has crossed the apparent streets to the set of the film she is about to make, she looks at her waiting chair then steps into her trailer, which from above looks like a large storage crate. She is an actress panicking before the shooting of her first big role, and the studio is part of her panic, a material manifestation of her fright. The noir effect is a stand-in for the movies in general, and the corpse may well be Turner’s career. It’s all too much for her, and she goes off on a drinking binge, her old habit.
The film is Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), soon to be shown in cinemas across the country. Pauline Kael thought it was ‘spangled’ and ‘overwrought’, although she did have a kind word for the ‘hysterical stylishness’ of the direction, of which I suppose those slow shots of the empty sound stages would be an example. There is another amazingly stylish studio scene to which I’ll return, but first let’s take a look at some of the spangle and excess.
The plot itself is too nifty by half, a sort of lesson in how to overdo the flashback. We see and hear three phone calls in the narrative present. A man called Jonathan Shields is trying to reach three Hollywood figures, a director (Barry Sullivan), an actress (Lana Turner) and a writer (Dick Powell), in that order. The first two refuse to take the call, the third takes it and tells Shields to drop dead. Next, still in the present, we see all three in the office of a movie producer (Walter Pidgeon), who is about to set up another call from Shields. He knows none of the three will ever work with Shields again, and for good reason, but wants to give the man a last chance to reach his old friends and colleagues, just in case they relent and decide to help him get back into the movie business. Shields, although we don’t know this yet, is Kirk Douglas.
We need to know why the three characters hate Shields so, and we find out in three long flashbacks, before Shields’s call finally comes through, and all three figures then say they won’t work with him again, as they have maintained all along they would not. At the end of each flashback we return to the present and Pidgeon rather heavily reminds each character how successful he or she now is, in large part thanks to the betrayals and intrusions of the hated Shields. ‘Jonathan ruined you,’ Pidgeon says to the director and later to the actress. ‘Jonathan sure destroyed you,’ he says to the Pulitzer Prize winning writer. Then there is a quaint little epilogue hinting that the three may change their minds at the last minute, or later. This is the movies, the suggestion is, a world where old hatreds are never going to be quite as interesting as new productions. Or that’s Jonathan Shields, working his old, dark magic in spite of everything, as Hollywood producers, from Irving Thalberg to David Selznick and Harvey Weinstein, are supposed to have done (or do).
We can if we like think especially of Selznick as the model for the producer here, and of Faulkner as the model for the writer. There are plenty of real-life candidates for the director role (there are also glances through other characters at Hitchcock and von Stroheim), and for the Lana Turner part there is, why not, Lana Turner. But this is not really a movie à clef, or rather the key doesn’t have to do with persons, but with stereotypes. Minnelli and his writer Charles Schnee have carefully anticipated not what we might know about Hollywood filmmaking but what we may imagine Hollywood figures ought to be like. This is all very intelligent and knowing, but also a little chaotic, because our imaginations foster various different myths at the same time.
What is a screenwriter? Someone who needs to learn how few words he or she has to provide, how much can be left to the camera. There is a fine moment here where Dick Powell, thinking of himself and Kirk Douglas, says in voiceover: ‘In the evenings we worked together.’ In the front of the frame Douglas is sprawled in a chair simply crossing out line after line of text. What is an actress? A haunted, doomed woman who needs to be reinvented (by a man with a vision) as a diva – neither she nor we will ever know whether she had any talent apart from the one this man constructed out of her looks and gestures. ‘I wanted to make a star out of someone that this town tossed on the ash-heap,’ Douglas says of his promotion of Turner, and it’s hard to tell whether the town or the ash-heap or the final stardom is driving the story. But of course that’s one of the things a producer is: a man who takes on the town and alters reality. He is also famously unscrupulous, will cheat and lie to anyone in order to get his movie made. Unless, as the one truly terrible moment in The Bad and the Beautiful suggests, he is just a driven, demonic type who has to trample on everything that is noble in himself. Douglas plays this moment rather well – he has created Turner as an actress by allowing her to love him and now needs to show her what a rat he is – but it has nothing to do with the rest of the movie. A rat will do, we don’t need a Dostoevskyan self-hating rat.
So what has Douglas done? He has manipulated Turner not for her sake but for the sake of his film; stolen a script and idea from Sullivan the director (‘Without me it would have stayed an idea’); and arranged for Powell’s dippy wife (very well played by Gloria Grahame in a comic fashion that takes us about as far from film noir as we could get) to stay out of the way of his writing – unfortunately that involved a plane trip in which she was killed. No wonder Douglas’s beneficiaries are not grateful, but the movie doesn’t really know what to do with the unruly implications it has manufactured.
Pidgeon suggests that they should acknowledge the happy result, whatever deplorable tricks Douglas got up to, but that looks like a vain attempt to make the tale more orderly than it is. We might feel invited to think, since we are told that whenever lists of the ten best films are drawn up there are always two or three of Shields’s works among them, that unscrupulousness in the service of art is no crime; or conversely, and more sentimentally, since so much of the film is caught up in hurt and resentment, that no amount of commercial or artistic success can redeem failures of friendship or love. And then again there is the story of the power-hungry mogul, the transformer of dross into schlock, whose father was a Hollywood figure so hated that the son had to pay people to show up at the funeral: a version of Charles Foster Kane for the studios.
This is all part of the spangle, no doubt, but it’s time to return to the stylishness. Near the end of the shooting of Turner’s first major film – Douglas rescues her from her binge and gets her back to the set and the role – we get a close-to-medium shot of Turner addressing her dead husband. Then the camera seems to become distracted. It pulls back to reveal a cluster of people in the studio observing the shooting, fellow actors, technicians and others. A cut leaves Turner and the corpse out of the frame, although her voice continues to speak, and we view the director, the assistant director, the producer (Douglas), all intent on what we can’t now see. Without a cut the camera crosses to reveal other studio workers and watchers and lifts to pick up operators on various bits of scaffolding, ending on a smiling man high up among the beams, sitting beside a large spotlight. This spotlight dissolves into a different spotlight, shining down now on the red carpet at the opening night of the movie: from set to screening, as if both occasions belonged to a single act. As in this work they do: the bare act of making a film (on a set, on the screen and in our heads). That’s what we and the faces in the frame are watching: a movie certainly, but also something like the movies themselves.