Thursday, December 1, 2016

Is Kirk Really Bad?

A few years ago, we discussed The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) (you can see our prior review here.  You'll also find a detailed description of the plot and characters there).  We decided to revisit the film, this time looking at it from a slightly different perspective - our discussion for this viewing focused on the character of Jonathan Shields, as wonderfully portrayed by Kirk Douglas.

So, the question is, is Jonathan Shields really bad?   We have three characters who are furious at him.  We looked at them in some detail.

Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) is angered when Jonathan passes him over for an experienced director on the film of Fred's script, The Far Away Mountain.  Is Fred justified in demonizing Jonathan?   When we first meet Fred, he is working as a professional mourner because he cannot sell a script.  Jonathan teams up with Fred and succeeds in getting them both jobs in Harry Pebbel's (Walter Pidgeon) studio.  Though Fred is not aggressive in blowing his own horn, Jonathan is. The final result, Fred becomes an Oscar-winning screenwriter and director, marries the woman of his dreams (to whom Jonathan proposes on Fred's behalf), and has a happy, stable family life. Does Jonathan backtrack on his promise to get Fred the acting gig? Sure.  Would Fred have gotten it, if Jonathan had pursued it further? Probably not.
Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) spends most of her time drinking and sleeping with men.  She perpetually mourns for her late father, a great actor, notable bon vivant, and drunkard.  Georgia however is notable for her beauty and for her inability to act.  Jonathan, who was friendly with her father, sees talent where no one else does, and goes out on a limb to hire her to star in his picture.  She inevitably breaks her promise to not drink and disappears on the first day of shooting.  Urged to replace her, Jonathan instead sobers her up, and keeps her in the production.  It's Georgia who envisions a great romance - Jonathan, a man plagued with his own demons, has no such idea.  However, he attempts to protect Georgia from his relationship with Lila (Elaine Stewart); it's Elaine who makes sure Georgia knows.  And Jonathan makes it clear he is furious at her callous revelation. Did he mislead her romantically? Probably.  Is he really out to hurt her? No.
James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), tempted to Hollywood by a hefty paycheck and by his wife Rosemary's Gloria Grahame) eagerness to sample the bright lights of the big city, signs a contract to write a screenplay of his book.  But Rosemary is a time suck.  We learn that it took him seven years to write his first book, primarily because of her interruptions.  To get the screenplay written, Jonathan asks his friend Victor "Gaucho" Ribera (Gilbert Roland) to squire Rosemary to the local hotspots to keep her distracted.  Though we hear only one half of a telephone conversation, it's clear Gaucho has more on his mind than squiring. Jonathan, however, is very clear in his response.  "I said 'squire', Gaucho".  He responds.  Is the fact that Rosemary and Gaucho choose to bring the relationship further than was requested Jonathan's fault? Not really, but perhaps he should have picked less of a Lothario as an escort.
The person who should resent Jonathan most is actually his biggest supporter.  Harry Pebbel becomes Jonathan's employee after Jonathan and Fred strike out on their own (assumedly, without his key writer and director, Harry cannot keep his B picture studio going).   Harry could see Jonathan (and Fred) as traitors, yet he is the one who forces our characters to look inward - to realize that their fame, awards, success all stem from what Jonathan did for them.  He does not defend, but points out truths (like the fact that Jonathan let Georgia out of her contract over Harry's protestations).  As such, Harry becomes the bellweather for our opinion of Jonathan, and he is hard to ignore.

It's hard to imagine anyone other than Kirk Douglas doing it.  He makes the character a real person - a combination of both the bad and the good. The nuances of Douglas' performance become more visible with each viewing of the film.  Since it's likely that Jonathan was loosely based on real people (see this AFI Catalog entry for some of possible candidates), it is important that Douglas create a real individual, not a caricature, which he does admirably.
When the film opened at the Radio City Music Hall in New York City, the New York Times review was not particularly enthusiastic.  Regardless of their opinion, the film won five Oscars, including Best Supporting Actress (Gloria Grahame) and Helen Rose for her splendid costume design (b&w film).  If you've not seen The Bad and the Beautiful in awhile, give yourself a treat and watch it again.  Now, we're not saying that Jonathan Shields is a prince among men, just that, on second viewing, you might find yourself rooting a bit for his comeback.

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