Told in flashback, we already know that Jonathan has world has collapsed. But what we don't know is why these three renowned people - an Oscar winning director, a highly praised leading lady, and a Pulitzer Prize winning author - despise Jonathan. Slowly, we learn that Jonathan is completely obsessed with his own vision, and he will use his friends' strengths - and weaknesses - to get what he wants. But we also discover that each of the three became who they are because of Jonathan.
Fred is a would-be director unable to get a job. He is meek, unassuming, and almost passive. Jonathan even takes the initiative to propose marriage to Fred's girl FOR Fred. But once Jonathan steals Fred's pet project, Fred learns to fight for what he wants. He becomes a power in Hollywood, and a success in his personal life.
Georgia, the daughter of a famed Shakespearean actor - and noted drunk - is herself a drunk, who thinks nothing of sleeping around to amuse herself. She is, by her own confession, a lousy actress, and she has no ambitions. She both hates and idolizes her dead father, and has hidden herself away from even the possibility of success, until Jonathan enters her life.
James Lee is a college professor in Virginia, living quietly with his amorous wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame). It has taken him seven years to complete his first book, primarily because Rosemary won't let him work. This story is perhaps the most hard to deal with of the three. In order to allow James Lee time to work, Jonathan involves Rosemary with film Lothario Victor 'Gaucho' Ribero (Gilbert Rowland), leading to both their deaths. Left to himself, James Lee becomes a successful writer, but at what cost? Is the death of Rosemary worth the success he achieves? Or, is love and companionship more important than success?
Director Vincente Minnelli carefully weaves in nods to real Hollywood in this fictional tale. It's very apparent that the unseen George Lorrison (voiced by Louis Calhern) is modeled on John Barrymore; and that Georgia is loosely based on Diana Barrymore. Also, the filming of a horror film involving cat men is a nod to the 1942 film Cat People. But also alluded to, according to this article from SUNY Albany are such notable filmmakers as David O. Selznick, Alfred Hitchcock, Josef von Sternberg, Erich von Stroheim, Val Lewton, and William Faulkner. TCM provides a great deal of information on this film, including the fact that Clark Gable was asked to play Jonathan (he turned it down). Certainly, it would have been a very different role - Gable was much older (perhaps too old to play the younger Jonathan), and was also too likeable. Is it possible to loathe Clark Gable?
This is a film with an amazing cast, both of leads and of extras. Kirk Douglas is electrifying as Jonathan. He conveys the small things as well as the big ones - his dislike, but love for his father; his admiration for Georgia's father; his fear of loving and being loved. Barry Sullivan, an actor who is usually not high on my list, is excellent as well. And Gloria Grahame as the modern day Scarlett O'Hara, Rosemary Bartlow, is stunning. (Her line, "You have a dirty mind, James Lee, I'm happy to say" is priceless.) Did Rosemary cheat on her husband? We'll never know, because Grahame paints such a beautiful, multidimensional portrait. And watch for bit parts from people like Barbara Billingsley and Ned Glass. This "Behind the Camera" from TCM discusses Glass' role in the film; Glass was a victim of the Hollywood Blacklist, and this film began his problems.
Finally, also from TCM, a look at the critical reception of the film in their Critic's Corner. The film won five Oscars (from six nominations), as well as receiving accolades from the major critics.
Before we go, a clip from the film in which Ned Glass as the costumer for "Doom of the Cat Men" demonstrates how NOT to dress a monster: