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Book Review: The Bad and the Beautiful - A Chronicle of Hollywood in the Fifties.
by Matthew Bartley

There's a massive belief that todays culture is nothing more than sleazy tittle-tattle for columnists and gossip magazines. On more than one occasion I've heard people ask "Why are we obsessed with celebrities nowadays?". My reply to that would be to read Sam Kashner and Jennifer Macnair's book. The answer is that we've always had the gossip with us.

Just ask Louella Parsons, Hedda Hopper or Sheila Graham. Back in the 50's they were the human equivalent of gossip magazines. Never at a loss for a snide or bitchy comment, no-one was safe from their piercing glare. Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe...these and many others all fell to catty witicisms or withering put-downs.

And Kashner's and Macnair's book takes these columnists as just a snap-shot of what constituted Hollywood in the 50's. It's not just a historical piece, it's a gossip piece fillled with sex and scandal. But it's also a handy start for anyone interested in film studies. It may spare no details in reporting the scandalous affairs that director Nicholas Ray had with his three main actors on the set of 'Rebel Without Cause', but it's also an illuminating and thoughtful piece that examines the themes of disillusionment with family, evaluates the veiled seam of homosexuality that runs throughout the film and points just how detailed Ray's use of mise-en-scene and cinemascope is.

It's written in an unpretentious style that seeks to not criticise those whose behaviour was less than perfect, but not to shower anyone with unrestrained praise either.

It's an expose that revels in the salaciousness of the period, but is written with real heart and poignancy. They may enjoy reprinting the bitchery of the three above gossip columnists, but it also quite touchingly reports the love affair between Graham and F. Scott Fitzgerald and how it was never accurately represented in the film of his life, 'Beloved Infidel'.

The scandal of Kim Novak's affair with Sammy Davis Jr is reported not with childish glee, but with genuine sadness that Hollywood and its bigots would not let it be. It's an approach that's taken throughout with numerous stars commented upon (Lana Turner, Rock Hudson), with their inevitable fall from grace, treat with dignity and respect. Instead it's Hollywood that's treat with slight contempt as Confidential magazine is shown as being a pathetic, screeching rag intent on destroying people's lives and careers, if they dare to have privacy or - even worse - are homosexual. The Communist witchhunt is touched upon too, reminding us all of the human cost that it had.

Frankly, it's a book that anyone with just a slight interest in film should consider essential reading. It's not just sleaze and the fall of greats that are dealt with, there are chapters dealing with the (often fraught) production of such classics like 'Night of the Hunter' and 'The Sweet Smell of Success' and asking just why these highly regarded films were such big flops.

At a highly affordable price (I found it in a sale for 4), 'The Bad and the Beautiful' is by turn captivating, scintillating, incisive and tragic.

Go on, buy a book and educate yourself.

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originally posted: 11/06/04 01:38:08
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