Callum Nelmes’s review published on Letterboxd:
I'm currently trying to write my MA dissertation on Hollywood films about Hollywood. More specifically, I'm examining the myth of Hollywood, with all the evocative imagery that evokes in both the good and the bad - the Dream Factory, the capitalist system of chewing up and spitting out, the dimness of fame and fortune, the making and unmaking of a star, the impossible American Dream - and just how the filmmakers who compose the industry depict the system they're a part of.
Do they continue to propagate its glamour and glory, arguing that all that happens in both the good and the bad is in service to the final picture - the cost of great art? Or do they attempt to deconstruct the system and its symbols, seeing it for the hotbed of corruption, greed, ugliness and vices that it is? More importantly, is the myth of Hollywood so built up at this point that it can actually pierced and unravelled, or will all of that critical analysis likewise help to reassert the industry as a mythologised space? Though I'm struggling to find my case studies, mostly due to there being so many Hollywood-on-Hollywood films to pick from, being limited by word count and desiring to retain focus, The Bad and the Beautiful excellently puts all these questions into the lens.
I was surprised to find this absurdly similar to Damien Chazelle's recent Babylon in its recognition of the pain that comes with making great art, of having a vision. Babylon, in its own fascinatingly radical way, suggests this to be a transcendence of film and the image, a way of becoming part of something bigger than yourself beyond all your pains. The Bad and the Beautiful seems to be pointing its finger to something more intrinsic and systematic: though it's similar initial agreement that pain pushes artists to reach greater success seems a troubling point, it expands upon this in its final moments when the three hurt by Shields' listen in on the call, unable to escape the temptation of another film, another collaboration. It points out how much Hollywood forms a kind of ouroboros with itself, with these people hypocritically remaining entrenched in the industry and helping propel the system forward.
Its a pretty vicious way of framing the Hollywood system, and yet what is so interesting is that it conflicts and aligns somewhat with the rest of the film. All things considered, TBaTB is a conventionally structured film, with a standard narrative structure (particularly the actresses' section, by far the longest of the three) and classical Hollywood formalism. It abides by the kinds of rules the film is pointing out to be problematic, and this is not even to mention the uncanny behind the scenes behaviour from Minnelli that echoes Shields. One of the most intriguing details here is the film's opening title beginning on the Shields' crest, which we see adorning the start of one of the film's within the film. Is it a suggestion by Minelli that we are watching something as if Shields was responsible for it? If so, it makes its self-devouring denouement all the more interesting yet dangerous; as if it were justifying Shields behaviour and therefore the system at hand, signalling a belief in the transcendence of the film over the reality. Its an uneasy denouement, one largely left up to the viewer to decide for themselves.
There is certainly a grain of truth to the idea of the image's transcendence, the potential of becoming individual and separated of context, overwhelming all and everything just as it does with myth. Does that mean we should always let it be separate from everything? Is the simulation of something better, healthier, more powerful, valuable or more truthful etc. than the truth or the true thing itself? Whatever way you think, it seems like Minnelli believes in both. As it's title promises, this is about the bad and the beautiful. And, really, are the two contrasts really all that mutually exclusive? Can't Hollywood be both simultaneously? If it is, then that's surely more indicative of the system as a whole. It seems at least clear to me that to disentangle the two from one another - reality and fantasy, and therefore the image, the myth, and reality - is almost entirely impossible. This might not be one of the films I choose to do a critical commentary on, but it's worthy in its own right for further analysis and at least got my mind jumping for the big ideas. This is easily one of Minnelli's most complicated and accomplished works, and an essential viewing for the era of classic Hollywood regardless.