When Gloria Grahame won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her sub-ten-minute performance in Vincente Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful (1952), presenter Edmund Gwenn made a playful quip about the melodrama’s F. Scott Fitzgerald–inspired title: “I’m the bad; here comes the beautiful!”1

In fact, this choice of title had been rather contentious. The project originated with MGM producer John Houseman, best known for his collaborations with Orson Welles. In search of another Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941), Houseman settled on ‘Memorial to a Bad Man’: a short story by George Bradshaw concerning an actress, a writer and a producer reuniting to hear the will of a Broadway director whom they all despise. As in Welles’ film, the narrative unfolds through multiple-perspective narration.2

To write the screenplay, Houseman engaged Charles Schnee, co-writer of Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948) and Nicholas Ray’s They Live by Night (1948). Drawing from the basic structure of ‘Memorial to a Bad Man’ as well as Bradshaw’s earlier ‘Of Good and Evil,’ Schnee developed the 18-year backstory of fictional film producer Jonathan Shields, a hero-as-heel who would be played with formidable command by Kirk Douglas. With the story’s setting changed from Broadway to Hollywood, the inspiration for this part was shifted from theatrical producer Jed Harris to the likes of David O. Selznick, Welles and RKO’s Val Lewton.3 Shields’ ruthlessness is reflected in the film’s original title, Tribute to a Bad Man. However, Minnelli, then fresh from recent success with Father of the Bride (1950) and An American in Paris (1951), exerted his influence to also emphasise the character’s more amiable attributes: his persuasive charm and especially his genuine talent as a producer, termed “the Shields touch” within the film.4 It is this quality that allows the artists under his tutelage to reach the heights of their potential. 

In a delightful early sequence, Shields and his first protégé, director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), are assigned to work on B-grade horror film ‘The Doom of the Cat Man’ – an obvious allusion to the Lewton-produced Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942). Dismayed at the ridiculous cat costumes at their disposal, Shields proposes a simple but effective workaround: not showing the creatures at all. “Now, what do we put on the screen that’ll make the backs of their necks crawl?” he coaxes. “Two eyes, shining in the dark,” the director, now enlivened by the idea, exclaims in response.

Shields never appears in the film’s present scenes; rather, his character is revealed through the varying perspectives of the unassuming Fred, the emotionally vulnerable actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner) and the Southern novelist turned reluctant Hollywood writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) as they each reminisce about how he seduced and then betrayed them. It is the task of Shields’ long-time associate Harry Pebbel (Walter Pidgeon) to try to influence the three into conceding that the producer’s intervention into their lives and careers has helped and not hindered them, even if their anguish still lingers.

Turner’s performance is particularly strong. When Georgia is first introduced in flashback, she is drunk and embittered – a disembodied voice and a pair of dangling legs. In keeping with industry guidelines of the time, her perverse bond with her deceased father stops short of being explicitly incestuous, but is nevertheless debilitating.5 Shields, who has a likewise-unhealthy reverence for both his own father and for Georgia’s, sees that she can be influenced through the transference of her misplaced affections to him. When Georgia eventually learns of his infidelity and manipulation, she staggers, distraughtly, into her car. Sobbing as she drives, she loses control, along with any sense of regard for her own life. Headlights flash as Georgia screams – and then, miraculously, finds that she is safe. It is the single most striking image in the film, and Robert L. Surtees’ photography here deserves particular recognition.

After the film was shot, it was decided that the title Tribute to a Bad Man sounded too much like a western;6 so, at the behest of MGM’s head of publicity, Howard Dietz, it was changed to The Bad and the Beautiful. Houseman was greatly displeased; in a memo to the studio’s head of production, Dore Schary, he wrote, “I just want you to imagine … at the Academy Award ceremony, how you’ll feel if somebody nominates us for ‘The Bad and the Beautiful’? Won’t you really be ashamed?”7

The film’s eventual acting Oscar winner Grahame does not appear until late in the film, but as Southern belle Rosemary Bartlow, James Lee’s wife, she makes a lasting impression. Lively, mannered and hyper-feminine, Rosemary contains both delusion and self-awareness, earnest enthusiasm and calculating discernment. Her innate contradictions are perhaps best, and most comedically, encapsulated in her repeated line: “James Lee, you have a very naughty mind, I’m happy to say.” To Shields, however, Rosemary is merely a grating distraction to her unfortunately besotted husband – thus, she becomes collateral damage to his machinations.

Grahame’s behaviour after winning her Academy Award was considered odd – in the midst of filming The Big Heat (Fritz Lang, 1953), she refused to give any interviews, and it was reported that she had given the trophy to her young son to keep as a toy.8 After a prolific period between 1952 and 1955, in which she appeared in 14 films, the actress was exhausted. By the mid-1950s, Grahame’s reportedly erratic on-set behaviour had caused her to be labelled ‘difficult’ and offers dwindled. In considering The Bad and the Beautiful, biographer Robert J. Lentz writes that Grahame’s success had “catapulted her into stardom, which was also meteorically brief.”9

A year after his Oscar-winning film, Minnelli would direct the classic musical The Bandwagon (1953), featuring Jack Buchanan as a flamboyant director sometimes read as a “fictional synthesis” of Welles and Minnelli himself.10 Houseman and Minnelli would make three more films at MGM together, two starring Douglas: the painterly Lust for Life (1956); and a darker spiritual successor to The Bad and the Beautiful, Two Weeks in Another Town (1962).

At the end of The Bad and the Beautiful, Pebbel reasons that, on every list of “the ten best pictures ever made, there are always two or three of … [Shields’] on the list”. In this, it is intimated that the greatness of the producer’s output has justified the exploitation through which it was brought into existence. The film’s memorable final moment sees the trio of Fred, Georgia and James Lee engaged by Shields’ latest pitch, in spite of their earlier resolve to walk away. There is definite optimism in Minnelli’s ode to disillusioned dreamers, veterans still not immune to being romanced by the magic of the movies. However, it might also be said that the film is, somewhat inadvertently, signalling how abuses of power are so routinely excused in the industry. In his 1974 autobiography, Minnelli wrote that “all that one hated and loved about Hollywood was distilled” in the narrative of The Bad and the Beautiful.11

The Bad and the Beautiful (1952 USA 113 mins)

Prod Co: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Prod: John Houseman Dir: Vincente Minnelli Scr: Charles Schnee Phot: Robert L. Surtees Ed: Conrad A. Nervig Mus: David Raksin Cos Des: Helen Rose

Cast: Lana Turner, Kirk Douglas, Walter Pidgeon, Dick Powell, Barry Sullivan, Gloria Grahame, Gilbert Roland, Leo G. Carroll, Vanessa Brown


  1. Oscars, “Gloria Grahame winning Best Supporting Actress,” YouTube (3 August 2011): https://youtu.be/DNdmGqLMqE4?si=UIrLKzjyfSSIQ-Y9. Filmed 19 March 1953 at RKO Pantages Theatre and NBC International Theatre.
  2. James Naremore, “Citizen Shields” in The Films of Vincente Minnelli (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 112-113.
  3. Naremore, p. 118.
  4. Emanuel Levy, “Minnelli’s Masterpieces: The Bad and the Beautiful and The Band Wagon” in Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2009), p. 223.
  5. Vincente Minnelli and Hector Arce, I Remember It Well (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1974), p. 255.
  6. In fact, the title Tribute to a Bad Man was later used for a 1956 western directed by Robert Wise.
  7. Stephen Handzo, “John Houseman: The Producer’s Signature Interview” Film Comment, Volume 11, Number 2 (March-April 1975): p. 18-21.
  8. Robert J. Lentz, Gloria Grahame, Bad Girl of Film Noir: The Complete Career (Jefferson and London: McFarland & Company, 2011), p. 120.
  9. Lentz, p. 5.
  10. Levy, p. 224.
  11. Minnelli and Arce, p. 251.

About The Author

Grace Boschetti is a Melbourne based writer on film.

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