In 2002, the United States Library of Congress deemed the film "culturally significant" and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. The theme song, "The Bad and the Beautiful", penned by David Raksin, became a jazz standard and has been cited as an example of an excellent movie theme.
In Hollywood, director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), movie star Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), and screenwriter James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) each refuse to speak by phone to Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) in Paris. Movie producer Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) gathers them in his office and explains that Shields was calling them because he has a new film idea and he wants the three of them for the project. Shields cannot get financing on his own, but with their names attached, there would be no problem. Pebbel asks the three to allow him to get Shields on the phone before they give their final answer.
As they await Shields' call, Pebbel assures the three that he understands why they refused to speak to Shields. The backstory of their involvement with Shields then unfolds in a series of flashbacks. Shields is the son of a notorious former studio head who had been dumped by the industry. The elder Shields was so unpopular that his son had to hire "extras" to attend his funeral. Despite the industry's ill feelings toward him because of his father, the younger Shields is determined to make it in Hollywood by any means necessary.
Shields partners with aspiring director Amiel, whom he meets at his father's funeral. Shields intentionally loses money he does not have in a poker game to film executive Pebbel, so he can talk Pebbel into letting him work off the debt as a line producer. Shields and Amiel learn their respective trades making B movies for Pebbel. When one of their films becomes a hit, Amiel decides they are ready to take on a more significant project he has been nursing along, and Shields pitches it to the studio. Shields gets a $1 million budget to produce the film, but betrays Amiel by allowing someone with an established reputation to be chosen as director. The film's success allows Shields to start his own studio, and Pebbel comes to work for him there. Amiel, now independent of Shields, goes on to become an Oscar-winning director in his own right.
Shields next encounters alcoholic small-time actress Lorrison, the daughter of a famous actor Shields admired. He builds up her confidence and gives her the leading role in one of his movies over everyone else's objections. When she falls in love with him, he lets her think that he feels the same way so that she does not self-destruct and he gets the performance he needs. After a smash premiere makes her a star overnight, she finds him with a beautiful bit player named Lila (Elaine Stewart). He drives Lorrison away, telling her that he will never allow anyone to have that much control over him. Crushed over being jilted by Shields, Lorrison walks out on her contract with his studio. Rather than take her to court, Shields releases his rights to her, freeing her to go to another studio, which makes a fortune from her films as she becomes a top Hollywood star.
Finally, Bartlow is a contented professor at a small college who has written a bestselling book for which Shields has purchased the film adaptation rights. Shields wants Bartlow himself to write the film's script. Bartlow is not interested, but his shallow Southern belle wife, Rosemary (Gloria Grahame) is, so he agrees to do it for her sake. They go to Hollywood, where Shields is annoyed to find that her constant distractions are keeping her husband from his work. He gets his suave actor friend Victor "Gaucho" Ribera (Gilbert Roland) to keep her occupied. Freed from interruption, Bartlow is able to make excellent progress on the script. Rosemary, however, runs off with Gaucho and they are killed in a plane crash. When the script is completed, Shields has the distraught Bartlow remain in Hollywood to help with the production as Shields takes over directing duties himself. A first-time director, Shields botches the job, which leads to his bankruptcy. Then Shields lets slip a casual remark that reveals his complicity in Rosemary's affair with Gaucho, so Bartlow walks out on him. Now able to view his late wife more objectively, Bartlow goes on to write a novel based upon her (something Shields had previously encouraged him to do) and wins a Pulitzer Prize for it.
After each flashback, Pebbel sarcastically agrees that Shields "ruined" their lives, making his true point that each of the three, despite feeling betrayed, is now at the top of the movie business, thanks largely to Shields. At last, Shields' telephone call comes through and Pebbel asks the three if they will work with Shields just one more time; all three reject the plea. As they leave the room, Pebbel is still talking to Shields. Out of Pebbel's sight, the three eavesdrop using an extension phone while Shields describes his new idea, and they become more and more interested.Lana Turner as Georgia Lorrison
Kirk Douglas as Jonathan Shields
Dick Powell as James Lee Bartlow
Walter Pidgeon as Harry Pebbel
Barry Sullivan as Fred Amiel
Gloria Grahame as Rosemary Bartlow
Gilbert Roland as Victor "Gaucho" Ribera
Paul Stewart as Syd
Ivan Triesault as Von Ellstein
Leo G. Carroll as Henry Whitfield
Sammy White as Gus
Elaine Stewart as Lila
The film was based on a 1949 magazine story Of Good and Evil by George Bradshaw, which was expanded into a longer version called Memorial to a Bad Man. It concerned the will and testament of a New York theatre producer who tried to explain his bad behavior to three people he had hurt, a writer, actor and director. MGM bought the film rights and originally Dan Hartman was to produce it. Hartman left for Paramount.
The project was assigned to John Houseman and was to be called Memo to a Bad Man. Houseman decided to change the milieu from New York theatre to Hollywood because he felt after All About Eve that a Hollywood setting would have more novelty. Clark Gable was originally attached to star; then Spencer Tracy. Eventually Kirk Douglas signed to play the lead. Vincente Minnelli was to direct.
"People who read the script asked me why I wanted to do it," said Vincente Minelli. "It was against Hollywood, etc. I told them I didn't see the man as an unregenerate heel - first because we find out he has a weakness, which makes him human, and second, because he's tough on himself as he is on everyone else, which makes him honest. That's the complex,wonderful thing about human beings—whether they're in Hollywood, in the automobile business, or in neckties."
Douglas later recalled shooting Francis X. Bushman, who had a small part. He says Bushman told him his career faded away because "at the height of his fame, he inadvertently offended the all-powerful Louis B. Mayer by keeping him waiting a few minutes. Mayer, in turn, banned him from MGM and blackballed him in the industry. This was his first time on the lot in 25 years. Bushman’s story gave me some useful insight into the ruthless, selfish character I was playing — still another tough-guy antihero. I was doing well with these roles."
There has been much debate as to which real-life Hollywood legends are represented by the film's characters. At the time of the film's release, stories about its basis caused David O. Selznick—whose real life paralleled in some respects that of the "father-obsessed independent producer" Jonathan Shields—to have his lawyer view the film and determine whether it contained any libelous material. Shields is thought to be a blending of Selznick, Orson Welles and Val Lewton. Dore Schary, head of MGM at the time, said Shields was a combination of "David O. Selznick and as yet unknown David Merrick."
Lewton's Cat People is clearly the inspiration behind the early Shields-Amiel film Doom of the Cat Men.
The Georgia Lorrison character is the daughter of a "Great Profile" actor like John Barrymore (Diana Barrymore's career was in fact launched the same year as her father's death), but it can also be argued that Lorrison includes elements of Minnelli's ex-wife Judy Garland. Gilbert Roland's Gaucho may almost be seen as self-parody, as he had recently starred in a series of Cisco Kid pictures, though the character's name, Ribera, would seem to give a nod also to famed Hollywood seducer Porfirio Rubirosa. The director Henry Whitfield (Leo G. Carroll) is a "difficult" director modeled on Alfred Hitchcock, and his assistant Miss March (Kathleen Freeman) is modeled on Hitchcock's wife Alma Reville. The James Lee Bartlow character may have been inspired by Paul Eliot Green, the University of North Carolina academic-turned-screenwriter of The Cabin in the Cotton.
According to MGM records, the film earned $2,367,000 in the US and Canada and $1,006,000 elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $484,000.Awards
Best Supporting Actress: Gloria Grahame. Her screen time of just over 9 minutes was at the time the shortest performance to ever win an Academy Award for acting, a record she held until 1977 when Beatrice Straight set a new record (of five minutes and forty seconds).
Best Art Direction (Black-and-White): Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Edward Carfagno; Set Decoration: Edwin B. Willis, Keogh Gleason
Best Cinematography (Black-and-White): Robert Surtees
Best Costume Design (Black-and-White): Helen Rose
Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay: Charles Schnee
Best Actor: Kirk Douglas
David Raksin wrote the theme song "The Bad and the Beautiful" (originally called "Love is For the Very Young") for the film. Upon first hearing the song, Minnelli and Houseman nearly rejected it, but were convinced to keep it by Adolph Green and Betty Comden. After the film's release, the song became a hit and a jazz standard, and has been widely covered.
A number of film music experts and composers, including Stephen Sondheim, have highly praised the theme. In a Chicago Tribune article about the theme entitled "Anatomy of a Great Movie Theme", critic Michael Phillips wrote, "Its hypnotic way of combining dissonance with resolutions that never quite resolve when, or how, you expect them to, keeps a listener perpetually intrigued. The bittersweet quality proves elusive and addictive. It's perfect for the Douglas character, and for what Minnelli called the Hollywood-insider script's alternately 'affectionate and cynical' air."
The Bad and the Beautiful was released to DVD by Warner Home Video on February 5, 2002 as a Region 1 fullscreen DVD.