Have you ever felt cheated, jilted or swindled by a ploy so evasive that it left you virtually blindsided? Where the enemy cajoled you in a manner so cunning that you practically signed away on your very own dignity? In these times of reflection – where people look back with bewilderment upon the 2008 elections – new questions have arisen over the spread of misleading, nuanced vocabulary in our culture. How long has this sort of thing been going on?
As far back as 1952, concerns over stealth coercion were brought to the big screen in Vincente Minnelli’s MGM melodrama The Bad and the Beautiful, in which Kirk Douglas stars as Jonathan Shields, the scheming son of a late filmmaking pariah. Opening onto a present-day summons of Shields’ core associates from the past eighteen years, we learn that he has indeed been a man of inexplicable guile. His dossier reads like a textbook in the dark art of disingenuity: where negatives are flipped into positives via circular logic; where wrongdoing is portrayed as benevolence by means of inappropriate analogy; and where guilt is transferred onto the aggrieved through use of shifty, phony high-grounds.
Calling forth this meeting is middleweight film exec Harry Pebbel, to whom Shields had once deliberately lost $6,351 in a poker game. The intent was to finagle a seat in Pebbel’s unit as a means of payoff, whereby Shields would earn his industry foothold. Shields pried upon the malleability of Pebbel with smiling shrewdness, fearlessly stating:
You don’t run this studio, Harry… you are an executive producer… of B-pictures, it’s true… you have four producers in your unit; why not five?
Pebbel caved according to plan, expressing his desperation for scripts and – conflating job vigor with gambling fear – his urgent need for Shields to produce stories with the same “sweat” that he’d broken over that poker money. Basically, the circular logic ploy had conned Pebbel into thinking that his grounds for a ‘contract’ were actually grounds for a… contract. When brazenness gets you ahead this easily, who cares about ethics?
Next we’re given the history between Shields and his primary stepping-stone, Fred Amiel. An aspiring director, Amiel worked the studio trade with Shields whilst developing a film project, which Shields then pitched to the studios. Shields betrayed Amiel in the process of signing a deal, however, for Hollywood green-lighting required an established director; a detail which Shields ran right past Amiel whilst listing all the features of the deal. As Amiel grew enraged, Shields twisted the state of demotion into an act of inclusion, telling Amiel that his “name will be on the screen, assistant to the producer.” Unmoved, Amiel asserted that his picture, his “idea”, had been stolen; words which Shields spun into a verbal irony: “without me, it would have stayed an idea.” It was becoming apparent that no one could possibly level with Shields; the man was a seething vortex of spin.
To the burned and swindled souls left in Shields’ path, the heartbroken and jilted could be added in the person of Georgia Lorrison, a floundering actress whom Shields mentored. Though sensing her attraction, he kept stoic whilst guiding her with a mixture of nonchalance, tough love and chivalry. But when a studio exec phoned Shields with talk of replacing Lorrison for an upcoming role, Shields passionately kissed her in the hope that it would summon her acting vigor. Later, following her star-making premiere, she paid an impromptu visit to his home, only to find him messing with her understudy. Now in all fairness, Shields had rarely reciprocated any of Lorrison’s romantic interest. But the way in which he spun her heartbreak into another phony high-ground for himself was just beyond evil:
You couldn’t enjoy what I made possible for you… NO, you’d rather have THIS! Well congratulations, you’ve got it… all laid out for you so you can wallow in pity for yourself! Maybe I like to be cheap once in a while, maybe everyone does!
(Kudos to Douglas for his frightening performance in that scene; he conjured Shields’ misanthropy with such psychotic intensity; you’d think both actor and character were possessed.)
The last tale to be told was that of Professor Jim Bartlow, author of a bestselling book which Shields wanted to turn into a movie. Though disinterested, Bartlow caved at the urging of his wife, Rosemary, who was ironically deemed a distraction by Shields once the couple had settled into Tinseltown. Covertly, Shields urged a studio Casanova by the name of Gaucho to keep Rosemary occupied; and the two perished en-route upon an illicit tryst. Unaware of Shields complicities, the widowed Bartlow grew ever fond of his Hollywood benefactor, extending an invite to his writing cabin for inspiration. Carelessly, Shields rambled on about Sebastion – a character in Bartlow’s book – with comparisons to Gaucho; slipping into an ad-lib over how he “begged him not to take that plane.” Upon the sudden, violent end to their partnership, Shields heaped an endless, cold-blooded torrent of indignation upon Bartlow’s late wife:
Whether you like it or not, you’re better off. She was a fool! She got in your way! She interfered with your work! She wasted your time! You’re better off without her!
Malignance aside, this rant was but one more affectation from Shields; a circular ploy to turn love into hatred, much like he had turned debt into deed long beforehand.
For Amiel, Lorrison and Bartlow, the film ends on a somewhat happier note, as their older and wiser selves decline to revisit the world of their bête noire. In parting, however, they overhear Pebbel getting lured into further shenanigans with Shields, as if the blue pill had never worn off on the lowly B-exec. Which is why The Bad and the Beautiful – a film of study if not entertainment – should serve as a cautionary tale to anyone who’s recurrently fallen prey to the gambits of a master manipulator.