Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Friends Can't Be Perfect

If anything, I’ve tried to keep my mind open through the years, stay open to the possibilities of what I’m going to respond to in films whether we’re talking about high or low art, inscrutable elegance or sleaze-filled nastiness. There are some people out there who seem to feel that the films they like are the films they like and they’re so set in those ways that they have long since passed the point where they can waver in those beliefs. Therefore, anything that goes against this dogmatic viewpoint is simply incorrect. Wrong. Bad. I disagree with this way of thinking at least partly because it indicates a certain closed-off mindset but also because it seems to completely suck out any enjoyment of movies. It’s good to analyze films, it’s good to break them down, leading to a fuller appreciation of what they are and what they can be. But there also needs to be pure enjoyment out of it all which is what sometimes seems to get forgotten. This leads to my honest admission is that I haven’t always been a fan of director Tony Scott through the years. Not that I don’t appreciate a good joke about TOP GUN but in my younger days I found his style of visual overkill not a little joyless and downright pummeling. But when TRUE ROMANCE came out in 1993 I found myself not only loving the film for Tarantino’s script but the mix of that with the style Scott brought to it all that seemed absolutely right. As the years went on I continued to find myself admiring some of his films including CRIMSON TIDE, ENEMY OF THE STATE, with MAN ON FIRE in particular thrilling and undeniably powerful in its intensity, a huge step forward for him. Even going back to the very beginning of his feature career, some of the best moments in THE HUNGER remain vivid in my mind years after the last time I saw it. And UNSTOPPABLE, which turned out to be his last film, was an absolute blast and compelling in all the right ways. And then in August of this year the director left us through horrible means that remain baffling and truly sad.
The funny thing is that Tony Scott and his filmmaking style have become so ubiquitous in what has become common cinematic language that even if I haven’t always liked it I’ve gotten used to it so by this point it’s safe to say that it’s ingrained in what I expect from the modern day action film. In the wake of his death I rewatched BEVERLY HILLS COP II which I’ve never really liked and in all honesty still don’t but I’ve just gotten so used to whatever it is--a flashback to the Simpson-Bruckheimer 80s, a reminder of Brigitte Nielsen, memories of a childhood spent seeing movies at Yonkers Movieland, whatever, I’m just kind of glad it’s there in case I need a hit of that particular brand of cinematic crack. Because to be completely honest every now and then I kind of do. And I’ve more than come around on THE LAST BOY SCOUT which I also was hesitant towards way back when, film school-era snobbery I suppose, preferring the DIE HARD/LETHAL WEAPON end of producer Joel Silver’s oeuvre, then such a major part of pop culture (recent news that his long association with Warner Brothers ended made me sad, it really did). I like it more than I did then, but still do have some minor issues and maybe as insane as the film is I almost wish it could be crazier or maybe just cut loose from the expected action formula even further than it does. But in all this mixture of Tony Scott/Joel Silver/Shane Black/Bruce Willis/Michael Kamen that is gloriously violent and profane in all the right ways…ultimately what is there not to like? Can’t I just enjoy myself? Head or gut? Ask me how fat your wife is. Turn up the volume. Cue the explosions. Let’s have some fun.
Private detective Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) hasn’t even started his new job when he discovers the one who recommended him, best friend Mike Mathews (Bruce McGill) sleeping with his wife which is shortly followed by being killed when his car explodes. And then he’s barely able to begin his assignment of protecting stripper Cory (Halle Berry) who believes someone is threatening her when she’s brutally killed by gunmen in the middle of the street. And so Joe along with Cory’s boyfriend, ex-football star Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) team up to find out what happened to Cory leading to a conspiracy involving the owner of the Los Angeles Stallions owner Shelly Marcone (Noble Willingham), Joe’s own pre-teen daughter Darian (Danielle Harris), the Senator who former secret service agent Joe has a history with and a hell of a lot of gunfire.
More than anything when I think of Tony Scott’s films, whether I like them or not, it’s the undeniable energy that comes to mind, a determined force that brings unfettered life to the feeling that there’s a determination to get the footage needed for this film in the can at all costs as well as a sense of joy that, I don’t care what you say, has never been present in any of Michael Bay’s films. And when he’s faced with having to shoot something as ridiculous as Bruce Willis running down the middle of the street in slow motion firing two guns at once it’s like he just says, “Fuck it” and films it with every ounce of the most iconic gusto possible. In the best moments of THE LAST BOY SCOUT, it builds to a fever pitch of excitement through every bad joke and nasty comeback that gets spit out in a way that’s kind of glorious. It’s a style that also has its drawbacks—with all those long lenses and smoke there’s sometimes the honest feeling that even in close-ups we’re not necessarily getting a good look at anyone’s faces and there are moments where, yeah, I wish he’d just linger a few beats longer than he does. I sat down to look at THE LAST BOY SCOUT for the first time in several years in memoriam to its director and found myself almost thinking more about the film in relation to some of the people Scott was working with in collaboration, possibly not always that easily.
Throughout its 105 minutes THE LAST BOY SCOUT seems like a unique combination of what I always think of as the Simpson-Bruckheimer aesthetic as displayed in the ferocity of his visual approach mixed with what was then the house style of the Joel Silver excessive violence done in good time 80s pop-style stable, also represented here by the presence of Bruce Willis, Shane Black and even composer Michael Kamen who only worked with Scott this one time--the typical bombast that comes from his action music familiar from many of the films produced by Silver during this period seems oddly like an afterthought as if for the director the feel just didn’t go with his style so it was kind of buried in the mix.
As for Shane Black and his script (Story by Black & Greg Hicks, Screenplay by Black) the plotting is very much of the LETHAL WEAPON school—maybe a little too much, it could be argued—but, though part of the film’s reputation seems to come from how allegedly misogynistic it is there’s also the first thematic inklings later seen in his 2005 directorial debut KISS KISS BANG BANG’s exploration of how women can be treated by the men in charge in the noir-tinged city of angels. But as intriguing as this plays during certain moments there really are just a few inklings of this concept since the focus is ultimately on Joe, Jimmy, the corrupt world of professional football and the revelations of the gambling conspiracy they uncover, so maybe Black didn’t fully know how to address these thoughts burrowing in his brain at this stage, or in this particular storyline, to do something with it that would make people think of it all as more than simple misogyny.
Black’s LAST BOY SCOUT screenplay sold for what was then a record-breaking $1.75 million and it’s strange to be talking about this film that celebrated its 20th anniversary last year (released 12/13/91—after all, some of the best cinematic Christmas gifts to the world are the most violent) like it’s a piece of ancient history now. The pairing of Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans did decent business—while never becoming the sensation that LETHAL WEAPON was it also didn’t fall as short commercially as what happened with Black’s next big spec sale THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT several years later. More than any number of films made around ’91-’92, THE LAST BOY SCOUT has survived because of its humor and action and just general over-the-topness and, yeah, I like it more than I did then. I probably laugh out loud sitting in my apartment watching this more than I do with some outright comedies and when things propel forward at a nonstop rate once we hit the hour mark the combination of humor, action and incessant nastiness (“Touch me again and I’ll kill you”) feels like it all mixes together in the right way more than it doesn’t. Sure, some of the most memorable touches have more to do with Shane Black’s dialogue and no surprise how quotable some of these lines still are--there are plenty of lines that I could single out but in context ‘we’re being beat up by the inventor of Scrabble’ might be my favorite.
Thinking about all this also reminds me that maybe, like BEVERLY HILLS COP II, THE LAST BOY SCOUT reveals that directing scenes for comedy wasn’t always Tony Scott’s strong suit—for that matter, I still can’t quite get onboard with the broad satire in DOMINO but I’m open to trying it again one of these days. Watching COP II and SCOUT close together, each film at the very least containing similar establishing shots of the Beverly Hills Police Department, actually reveals how much stronger he already he was by this point just four and a half years later, pushing both the actors and action in a way that just feels more ferocious, more energetic, not as fixed in to whoever the star was and willing to go more towards the absurdly profane world he wanted to present. It feels like he’s moving away from being so much under the thumb of Simpson-Bruckheimer towards using that visual style for his own purposes as well as being an early example of not only populating his films with the strongest actors possible whether the size of the part warranted it or not, he makes those moments pop in a way that other directors aren’t always interested in exploring. And it’s a nice, nasty look at L.A. as well—in addition to making it seem like cars blowing up or getting punched in the face are just normal, everyday events the light shining down during daylight hours always seems to be that of a Los Angeles that has just been rained on, making it not as welcoming as it often seems.
Its presentation of a Shane Black script also reveals some of which elements he was interested in when compared to other directors working with that material—Richard Donner in directing LETHAL WEAPON (as well as its sequels which Black stepped away from) seemed to think nothing of basically stopping the plot for extended periods for no reason other than to let us just enjoy the characters. There’s no equivalent of Mel Gibson trying to talk a jumper down from the roof of a building and I’ve never read Shane Black’s script for THE LAST BOY SCOUT but if such scenes were in there it feels like the sort of thing that Tony Scott doesn’t have much use for, instead continually insistent on propelling the plot forward as fast as possible (or at least giving the impression of this) which prevents it from ever being dull and works just great when it comes to the action scenes—the propulsive nature of the car chase to the Coliseum framed from mostly low angles moves so fast that it barely even has a chance to announce itself as ‘the car chase’—but also makes me wish there could have been a little more breathing room, at least to build the relationship between the leads. The notorious attention-grabbing opening sequence doesn’t do much for the plot beyond grab the attention of anyone watching (still, it certainly does that) and Taylor Negron’s Mr. Joshua-equivalent bad guy doesn’t even turn up until over an hour in—of course, he’s the voice heard on the phone in the opening and considering how Gary Busey and Mitchell Ryan were presented in a ‘introduce the bad guys’ scene in their movie I wonder if one was originally here too.
It could be said that until Joe Hallenbeck is captured leading to the events that quickly spiral into the climax plotwise the second act doesn’t consist of much beyond the two of them wandering around looking for clues, finally almost bonding in the requisite hanging out before the tension between the two boils over. In other words, it almost feels like not quite enough happens for the friendship to build to the fadeout, that Scott doesn’t have the patience to hold on the two stars just bickering with each other for a few minutes. Richard Donner wasn’t always the greatest at tonal shifts (his films also have an incessantly cheerful pop flavor that, truthfully, makes me wonder how well they’re going to age) but he at least knew that it was sometimes a good thing to at least do that. When you are going to provide that energy in your films at the expense of every single other element sometimes it’s a good thing, sometimes it isn’t. That’s just the way it is.
For Bruce Willis I suppose this film was considered a minor comeback after the response to HUDSON HAWK earlier in the year but since that film has a villain who proclaims “I’m the villain” and THE LAST BOY SCOUT has a bad guy who announces “I am the bad guy” so maybe they’re not that different after all. Either way, Willis slips into Hallenbeck with every ounce of contempt for everyone oozing through his stubble with a bitterness going beyond his smirk, a decent guy who’s lost his faith in a cynical world where heroes don’t matter anymore. I can appreciate an action movie hero who looks at himself in the mirror and says, “Nobody likes you. Everybody hates you. You’re gonna lose.” Just like I do every single morning. He makes it work. He and Damon Wayans play off each other all right but never seem to fully click, maybe because Wayans doesn't quite have the right weight for the part. This time around I found myself wondering how this would have played with Eddie Murphy sticking to the Shane Black dialogue. Chelsea Field of Blake Edwards’ SKIN DEEP and Danielle Harris of HALLOWEEN 4 & 5 spar well with Willis as Hallenbeck’s wife and daughter, each seeming more than willing to get in his face with their insults, but of course they’re now overshadowed by Halle Berry as Jimmy’s ill-fated girl Cory who’s in and out in just a few scenes. She’s raw in some of her line readings, but looking absolutely gorgeous she’s already clearly got something. Taylor Negron oozes his way across the screen as ‘the bad guy’, pulling off just the right balance of making it seem like he’s enjoying playing the bad guy and making it genuinely seem like he’s thinking the most vicious thoughts imaginable. It’s also fun to see some of the familiar character actors who turn up throughout like Bruce McGill, Clarence Felder and Joe Santos as Hallenbeck’s cop nemesis. He isn’t playing his ROCKFORD FILES character but, even so, I’m not quite sure what the difference is.
I think I could have had more fun back then. I’m referring to the first time I saw THE LAST BOY SCOUT on opening weekend but probably also to a lot of things as well. I’m more willing to now, especially because I’m all too aware of how much of a schmuck I am. Not to mention that it’s also nice to be reminded of an action movie that really is a fucking action movie. As well as being a movie that says you shouldn’t let the good part of you die in a cynical world. It’s a message that rings true today since, as Hallenbeck says at the end, ol’ Satan Claus is still out there. But thinking about it now I do wonder how those involved with THE LAST BOY SCOUT felt about the finished film. Tony Scott didn’t work with Joel Silver again, not to mention either of the stars—at that point he was still a few years away from hooking up with Denzel Washington for five movies. Silver and Bruce Willis, who struck gold with DIE HARD 1 and 2 then had to deal with all the HUDSON HAWK brickbats earlier in ‘91, apparently parted ways after this. Damon Wayans never became the big time movie star he seemed like he might for about five minutes and several years later co-starred with Adam Sandler in BULLETPROOF, definitely one of the worst buddy action movies of any kind ever made. THE LAST BOY SCOUT deservedly has its fans but maybe has fallen through the seat cushions a little as if it was a film made by certain people when they badly needed a hit and afterwards just moved on to other things. When Edgar Wright attempted to program the film at a festival and get Scott come to discuss it the director convinced him to change the selection to TRUE ROMANCE which, it should be remembered, features a Joel Silver-like producer played by Saul Rubinek. Maybe THE LAST BOY SCOUT is meant to be kind of the ugly stepchild of all this but it wears that badge with violently profane pride, an admirable and valuable piece of Tony Scott’s cinematic legacy. One that I may not always be able to embrace, but deep down have a certain amount of love for anyway.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Love Is For The Very Young

I don’t know anymore. I don’t have any answers. If I did, I’d have an idea of what to do. At one point in Vincente Minnelli’s MGM opus TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN several of the main characters sit down in a Cinecittà screening room to see a film made by legendary filmmaker Walter Kruger (Edward G. Robinson) and starring the recently arrived Jack Andrus (Kirk Douglas), a washed-up movie star who’s been flown in to Rome by his old director to help out on a troubled project. What they’re viewing is never named but the scenes we see are from THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL made a decade before also for MGM, also starring Douglas and also directed by Minnelli who is clearly engaging in a game of mirrors by using clips from this particular film, one that is extended through how both movies are themselves about the movies, the various array of mirrors that exists within them and whatever state the people working in that industry find themselves at that point in time. Released in 1952 in glorious black & white THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is the one that seems to have been officially sanctioned by the world as a classic but 1962’s TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN is the one I find myself continually drawn to, almost feverishly so.
I’m not saying that it’s better (although the presence of Daliah Lavi certainly helps) and if pressed I’ll admit to a few apparent flaws but there have been occasional stretches where I’ve found myself repeatedly returning to this film. Recently has been one of those periods, if that’s what you want to call watching it three times over the course of a week. I’m not even sure I can say why. Maybe part of it is wish-fulfillment, a fantasy of Rome and Cinecittà in the early 60s as seen through the Technicolor CinemaScope phantasmagorical eye of Vincente Minnelli. And from that eye is the fateful stare-into-the-abyss-the-abyss-stares-back-at-you delirium with the logic of a drunken party that you’ve stayed at way too long until suddenly discovering that you’re the only one left. Maybe that’s how I feel a lot of the time lately. The two films have a great deal in common in some surprising ways and if Jack Andrus had been paying more attention to watching what he starred in all those years ago—if it’s even the same film, which doesn’t really matter—then he might have noticed more than a few similarities in the rhyming nature of how some of it corresponds to what eventually happens to him during those two weeks in a faraway city. Films that aren’t sequels generally don’t acknowledge each other as much as BAD and TWO WEEKS do with even composer David Raksin getting into the game with a score that is at times so close to what he did years earlier it’s as if he was never told that it wasn’t really a direct follow-up. Whichever one I prefer, THE BAD AN THE BEAUTIFUL in all its height-of-studio-system glory is no slouch, not at all and I should probably admit that it’s ‘better’ even if the one that I really love is still the one that I really love.
But truthfully, I’m still not sure if THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is a classic that deserves to be ranked among the greats. Even compared to other films that mine the depths of Hollywood despair it never really gets under my skin like SUNSET BLVD. or IN A LONELY PLACE. It’s a tribute to Hollywood, after all, not an indictment and maybe it’s the soap opera feel to it all, maybe it’s the undeniable MGM sheen of prestige and quality hanging over the whole thing which, at the risk of having the Self-Styled Siren throw something heavy at me, keeps me at some kind of distance aware of how perfectly in place everything is, how calculated every single gesture and emotion seems to be impeccably rehearsed well ahead of time. But regardless the full power of the film is so engrossing and so entertaining even if it all is in a trashy, faux-prestige nature it’s the sort of film that sticks in the brain enough in a CASABLANCA sort of way with scenes, performances, moments, lines, glances, that make me feel like I’ve seen the whole thing 25 times even though I know that I haven’t. But even if THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is more sumptuous than nutritious it still plays as the sort of rich, juicy meal that could only be prepared by MGM back in the day with all the best filmmaking talents and facilities in the world at their disposal. So I guess it is a classic. Nothing wrong with that, not at all.
Successful Hollywood director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) and movie star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) all refuse to take phone calls from Jonathan Shields, someone they all clearly have a past with, resulting in the three being summoned to the office of studio executive Harry Pebble (Walter Pidgeon) to try to convince them to hear Shields out on a new project. Pebble recounts to each of them through flashbacks the tales of their relationships with Jonathan (Kirk Douglas)—how Amiel rose up with him through the B-movie ranks and then was tossed aside after developing his own passion project, how Georgia was single-handedly turned into a star by him then cruelly abandoned and the bestselling author Bartlow who came to Hollywood with starstruck wife Rosemary (Gloria Grahame) and thanks to Shields suffered the greatest tragedy of all.
The ghost of CITIZEN KANE hovers over THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL (screenplay by Charles Schnee, based on “Tribute to a Bad Man” by George Bradshaw) all the way through, playing as a more streamlined version of depicting the fall of a great man shifting it from a tycoon to a Sleznic-Thalberg type and considering John Houseman produced the film, references in dialogue referring to Shields as “Genius Boy” probably mean there’s a little bit of Welles also. He’s a bastard, but one with his own reasons and ultimately one who wants to rule the industry not change it. Even the flashback structure is smoothly linear, simply moving from one person to the next and even keeping others alive both before and after their individual stories have been told. And there’s also the reliable presence of Paul Stewart as press agent Syd about as blatant a KANE nod you could make, playing a vaguely similar character and his very demeanor is such that you believe he’s someone who really does know where all the bodies are buried.
I don’t know if THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL is really an incisive view of the industry either then or now in the way it pulls away the curtain at all the backstabbing. In fact, I’m going to guess that it isn’t even if it once may have seemed so to audiences who only knew what they read in fan magazines. He’s definitely no Sammy Glick since Jonathan Shields’ ambitions actually include making good movies in addition to the power that comes from selling himself and the people screwed over by the title character of Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” were forever damaged by his actions—the ones hurt by Shields instead thrive so even if he’s abandoned them he’s put them in positions to be able to thrive. And nothing that happens is ever seamy enough for the Hays Office to object so there’s nothing like abortions, drug addiction, not to mention how for what’s supposed to be a biting look at the industry for the most part everyone who works there seems pretty supportive of each other, happy to let extras go a little early in the day to audition for a bit part across town with their ever-loyal agent, one the struggling actress stays with even after she becomes a star, no less.
But through every juicy behind the scenes business is a romance of old time Hollywood of up-and-comers desperately trying to scrape together a movie with nothing, with a card game, rushing the reels over to a test screening before waiting for the cards to come back so you know if the movie will be a hit. Looking up the film reveals a few of the real-life inspirations for its characters even down to the early bit Lana Turner’s Georgia Lorrison plays set in a drugstore playing off of the legend of being discovered. The most obvious would be the creation of the Val Lewton style of not showing very much of the horrors being depicted—a film called DOOM OF THE CAT MEN isn’t a reference that’s too hard to get but it also very obviously doesn’t have much to do with the filmmaker in question—in this tale making that kind of trifle is just a rung up the ladder to getting to the point where you can finally make a film out of that book you’ve been carrying around dogeared for years while crashing ritzy Hollywood parties that are strictly black tie. Through it all the film gets us to taste the addiction that comes from being part of this world, through the silvery eye of cinematographer Robert Surtees and Jonathan Shields remains an enigma, maybe one all the more fascinating in this glossy Hollywood, determined to throw the past as represented by his father and how Hollywood forgot him back in its own face while at the same time never forgetting it—if he sees a kindred spirit in hard drinker Georgia Lorrison’s own obsession with her father he never says so and Jonathan, whose one weakness seems to be the booze he almost never touches, never quite says everything that would completely explain him and his behavior, right to the very end of each of his relationships.
THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL presents a Hollywood that has (seemingly) always been there and presumably always would be, just as the 1954 version of A STAR IS BORN depicted the town only a few years later. By the time of TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN a decade on everything is falling apart—the likes of Louis B. Mayer are for the most part dead and gone, the studio system is in its death throes and the money man in charge of what’s being shot cares even less about the quality of the end result than the “Give me a picture with a kiss in the end and black in the ledger!” exec Jonathan Shields had to deal with on DOOM OF THE CAT MEN. The town has been rendered so unimportant as filmmakers flee to far-off places in Europe that none of the film is even set there, only spoken of as a place where the past happened.
In some ways TWO WEEKS thematically picks up where BEAUTIFUL left off with a presumed reconciliation based on the excitement of a new project but the later film reveals the various emotions involved to be more complicated than that—loyalties aren’t always what they seem like they will be and parts, whether whole scenes or even brief dialogue exchanges, continually recall what has come before. A jovial scene on a beach where the leader of the gang seemingly orchestrates a marriage proposal for two lovers becomes a wistful musing on what never really was in the second film. The torch song “Don’t Blame Me” turns from an upbeat singalong by friends on the way home from an all-night party to Leslie Uggams sadly belting it out at a Roman gathering somewhat more unseemly (apparently presented as more of an orgy in the original cut) and a desperate, possibly suicidal drive through the Hollywood Hills filmed entirely from the inside of the car becomes a desperate careen willingly attempting to replicate another such drive as Cyd Charisse screams endlessly next to the frenzied Douglas, with a blatantly fake use of rearscreen projection that becomes genuinely hypnotic in its own unreality. Even the very first on-set encounter Lana Turner’s Georgia Lorrison has with Jonathan Shields in BEAUTIFUL is essentially what happens to her later on after he’s turned her into a star—the seduction followed by the abandonment. For Shields, it’s the only way to live. For Jack Andrus in TWO WEEKS his entire life is taking place after that final abandonment as he finds himself in another town searching for redemption from a father figure who may never have been able to offer it in the first place until he finally discovers that it doesn’t really matter. After all, if you do attach yourself to someone the only thing that can happen is getting hurt and in the end you’re just left there, all by yourself next to a phone that doesn’t ring. In the dead of night, drunk or sober, all you’re left with is yourself and that’s what you have to come to terms with if you’re going to come up with a decent reason to get up the next morning.
As for the man who stars in both films, watching Kirk Douglas as Jonathan Shields is most rewarding during those moments when we can watch the gears in his brain turn, showing the genius that makes him a success. On the other there are those over the top moments where we essentially see him as Kirk Douglas doing Kirk Douglas (making me think of the long ago “Kirk’s Greatest Kirks” sketch on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE). Top-billed Lana Turner, her eyes bugging out as he screams at her, maybe becomes better the more I see the film with the layers of what remains with her during her low points through the time when she’s a full-fledged movie star. The calmer portrayals of Dick Powell, making some of the best use of a pipe in screen history, and Barry Sullivan balance out well with them as does the forever memorable Gloria Grahame in her Oscar-winning performance as the always-interrupting Southern belle Rosemary. It’s a wonderful cast, also including Paul Stewart as Syd, the infectious enthusiasm of Gilbert Roland as Latin lover Victor Ribera (“Gaucho?” everyone in the world seems to reply when his name is spoken) to, Ivan Triesault as Von Ellstein whose lecture on making every scene in a movie a climax has sadly mostly been forgotten by filmmakers today. Even the bit players stick out particularly Kathleen Freeman, Barbara Billingsley and Ned Glass trying to push those damn cat men costumes on Fred and Jonathan. The ferociously beautiful Elaine Stewart shows up for only a few scenes but gets some of the best lines in the film—“Thought you were swell” is a pretty great kiss-off and her “There are no great men, buster. There’s only men.” is the sort of line which seems designed to be nothing more than a great line but that’s what most of the dialogue seems meant to be anyway which, considering how this movie trumpets each star as loudly as possible during the opening credits, is appropriate. It’s a film that seems designed to be great and important, or at least possess the illusion of that, in the tony style that only the finest artisans at MGM could provide filled with dialogue that feels like it’s trying to be great, memorable dialogue in all the best ways.
And just as appropriate as the proclamation “Filmed in HOLLYWOOD USA” that accompanies the end title card which seems a point of pride like never before in any other film released by MGM. It’s all about selling the illusion. Midway through the film as Jonathan takes an important phone call it’s made clear that he knows Georgia is listening in on another line. She picks up again on another call at the very end, joined by Fred and James Lee this time around and though we never cut to Jonathan in Paris it’s easy to believe that he once again knows very well that she, as well as the others, are listening in. It’s the thrill of wanting to hear what his surefire idea is, of course, but it’s also all about the seduction. We know it’s going to continue. That’s the way it always is. Until it isn’t and the film they made years later where that’s what happens only serves to make the final shot of THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL all the more complex. I can daydream of a third part to all this coming another ten years later—Kirk playing a mogul losing his grip in the EASY RIDER era. That old MGM didn’t really exist anymore by that point and Minnelli certainly didn’t have the same sort of power he used to so maybe that’s best left as a daydream. And since my general daily mindset lately is that of the desperation of Joe Gillis in the first ten minutes of his own movie these are the sort of things that stay with me. Is there anything to do once you feel nothing but that emptiness? Is there anything to do once that loneliness is staring you in the face? Is there anything to do to bring back that feeling of hope, that feeling that you really can accomplish something? Should I watch TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN yet again tonight? Or should it be THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL? And, maybe most importantly, does anything that happens in Hollywood ever really happen? Even after living in this town longer than I probably feel like admitting, I’m still not sure.