The Bad and the Beautiful may be the best movie about movies made during the era of the Studio System. Balancing reality with romance, Vincente Minnelli’s film is a perfect example of how Hollywood could make itself look good even when it was being bad. The framing narrative of the three point-of-view characters – also used to great effect in Citizen Kane and All About Eve – is key. However, The Bad And The Beautiful is not only three different views of one character (Kirk Douglas, as the bad and beautiful producer Jonathan Shields) it’s also three different stories of one industry: the business of moviemaking (through the director), the business of star creation (through the actress), and the business of the movie business (through the writer). I’m going to focus on the actress because, as Kirk Douglas himself says early on, when Lana Turner is on screen, you can’t tear your eyes away. That’s star quality, and that’s what her story – in the film and out of it – is about.
In LA Confidential, Detective Exley sneers that “a hooker cut to look like Lana Turner is still a hooker,” but the opposite is true as well: Lana Turner, even when she plays trash, is still Lana Turner. This holds especially true in The Bad And The Beautiful; when Turner’s character, Georgia Lorrison, is introduced, she’s supposed to be the drunk, easy actress who lives in squalor. Instead she is Lana Turner: icy, glamorous, with perfect hair and (to borrow a line from The Women) those eyes that go up and down a man like a searchlight.
The reason for this is twofold: First, as previously mentioned, Lana Turner is never not Lana Turner, and second, it was apparently impossible for Vincente Minnelli to make his leading actresses look anything less than glamorous. Judy Garland was never lovelier than she was in Minnelli’s movies, but Lana Turner needed no such help (though she got it anyway). Because of this, when Turner goes through the requisite showbiz makeover scene in the film, the only thing the makeup artist can do is outline her already perfect eyebrows.
However, though both Minnelli and Turner are incapable making Lana less than Lana, one element of Turner’s image is conspicuously absent from the first half of her story: that dangerous sexuality, born of knowing too much and growing curves too early. What makes Turner brilliant in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Ziegfeld Girl, and Peyton Place is that she shares the one part of herself that doesn’t fit into the Hollywood Ice Queen image: her sexuality. It’s what kept her from being a straight ingenue when she was still the Sweater Girl; not only did she fill out that cardigan in sinful ways, she knew that she did. It was easy to believe that she could make scandals with gangsters or be mistaken for a hooker, this too-trashy-for-the-Ivory-Tower element to Lana that stood out like a sexually-charged beacon. Through her first scenes, she’s been tragically trashy, but not smoldering. The first appearance of that Lana isn’t until midway through Georgia’s story, when she’s asked to perform for the camera a second time.
This is Georgia’s first big film role: one line about a book. The first take, she plays the scene straight (and dull), asking her lead if he’s read a book as if she’s asking him about the weather. Then, Douglas whispers something in her ear, and in the second take she’s transformed. She whispers her line in a low voice, barely looking at Gaucho. Like the audience, he is drawn to her, and she acknowledges her victory with the ghost of a knowing smile. The implication is this: that raw sexuality, that seemingly untamed element of Lana Turner that could slay mobsters and shatter censors is an act. Somebody somewhere — maybe a producer whispering to her on a set, maybe a publicity agent spinning stories about Schwabs and sweaters, or maybe a horny newspaper with eyes for busty blonde teenagers — taught her the act of seduction. It sounds sleazy because it is.
The Bad And The Beautiful is, in many ways, the anti-A Star Is Born. If there’s one lesson to be taken from the Lana Turner/Georgia Lorrison story, whether onscreen or off, it’s this: stars are not born; they’re made. Even the sharpest edge of a star’s image has been honed by the studio. Georgia, Lana, and Minnelli show you only what they want you to see. But then again, that’s what you want to see too.