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.

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