A Letter to Three Wives (1949) and The Bad and the Beautiful (1952)

Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz. Starring Ann Sothern, Linda Darnell, Jeanne Crain

Dir. Vincente Minnelli. Starring Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Walter Pidgeon

In the wake of film noir, which used voiceovers and flashbacks to greater effect than ever before, A Letter to Three Wives and The Bad and the Beautiful are logical conclusions outside the genre. A Letter to Three Wives is pure domestic drama, the kind of thing one could imagine Douglas Sirk sinking his teeth into a decade later. The Bad and the Beautiful is showbiz melodrama, which reached its apex in 1950 with All About Eve and Sunset Boulevard, and certainly Minnelli owes a debt to Mankiewicz and Wilder alike for his own take on the cutthroat aspects of stardom. Wherever they got their ideas from—a novel, a short story, noir—Mankiewicz and Minnelli’s movies, separated by only three years, have identical structures. Three parties are haunted by a single specter who wants to inflict him- or herself on them one more time, and who represents an enormous coercive power.

In The Bad and the Beautiful, that specter is producer Jonathan Shields (Douglas), on the horn from Paris. He’s had his top executive, Harry Pebbel (Pidgeon) call a top director, a top star, and a top writer into the office in the middle of the night to pitch an idea for his latest film. Each of the three has good reason to feed a personal vendetta against Shields, as we find out in flashbacks prompted and finished by Pebbel. Each one begins a little differently, but they all end in the same way. No matter what terrible thing Shields has done, each of the three has reached unthinkable heights because of their association with him. Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan) has won two Oscars for directing and become a preeminent figure in his field; Georgia Lorrison (Turner) is the best-loved and best-reviewed star in American cinema; James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell) is Hollywood’s highest-paid writer and a recent Pulitzer winner to boot. Oh yes, Pebbel says, he really hurt you three. Pebbel willingly ignores the human cost of their relationships with Shields; he knows how Jonathan has damaged them as well as anyone else.

A Letter to Three Wives has a better setup because it is miles more subtle. Three nice housewives in a nice community go out one morning for a charity function on a boat; just before they embarked, they read a letter addressed to them stating that its writer, Addie Ross, has run off with one of their husbands. Addie declines to say whose husband she’s taken. Jonathan Shields is the engine of The Bad and the Beautiful. Addie Ross, voiced by an unseen Celeste Holm, is an invisible hand. According to the men of this town, Addie is probably the most perfect woman around, Jackie Kennedy while she was still Jacqueline Bouvier of George Washington University. As it happens in The Bad and the Beautiful, the river scales back into three tributaries. Deborah Bishop (Crain), now the wife of one of the burg’s leading men despite her humble rural origins, remembers her first appearance at the country club. Rita Phipps (Sothern), a radio writer who is outearning her teacher husband, George (Kirk Douglas again), is brought back to an ill-fated dinner party. Lora Mae Hollingsway (Darnell), who is born poor, flashes back to her entire courtship with her now-husband, successful entrepreneur Porter (Paul Douglas); it is the only one of the flashbacks which takes place across the space of more than one day. Because of its scope, the Lora Mae sequence is something of a letdown. Deborah’s awful dress and Rita’s corporate sellout can all happen in a single day, and their effects are more powerful because of their concentration. Lora Mae’s courtship of Porter, the hunt of the older and richer by the younger and poorer, is by the book; even the revelation that the two of them really love each other is by the book.

What really shines through in A Letter to Three Wives is as clear a statement as you’ll find about suburban femininity before the Second Wave; the hooks in Deborah, Rita, and Lora Mae are still in women of their station today. Addie is, by her absence from the screen, transformed into an ideal of womanhood. Lora Mae notes that Addie Ross is beautiful when she sees a photograph of her on Porter’s piano. She is single, but that’s because her husband, universally recognized as a heel, left her years ago. She is cultured and tasteful; the word “class” is bandied about her again and again. Worse still: each of the men in the story is somehow tied to her. Brad (Jeffrey Lynn) was the odds-on favorite to marry her before the war came and he met Deborah. (On the day that the wives get their letter, Deborah has a quarrel with Brad about a dress  George gets a birthday present from her (while Rita, bound up with her dinner party with the boss, forgets that it’s George’s birthday entirely): it’s a symphony of Brahms, perfect for the professorial schoolmaster, with a note attached reading, “If music be the food of love, play on.” And Porter sees her as nothing less than a feminine ideal, although his low self-esteem makes it impossible for him to believe that he might ever really receive such attention from her.

In short, women may make the rules, but it is the men who enforce them with both hands. One hand holds kindness, as they simply see Addie as a lovely woman who happens to go to the same country club and travel in the same circles. The other holds cluelessness, for in Brad and George’s cases particularly they cannot understand why their own wives should be jealous of this goddess down the road. Brad likes a dress that Addie was wearing; he buys it for Deborah. George gets a gift he’ll cherish from Addie; it is placed in stark contrast with the empty romance programs Rita writes. Porter keeps a framed portrait of Addie on his piano; Lora Mae knows, as she cozies up to Porter on their first dates, that she may never rate that highly. Addie sets the tone almost innocently, and the other housewives endeavor—and of course fail—to measure up to it. Deborah and Lora Mae can’t match Addie’s perfect social background. Rita, probably the most interesting character in the film (or maybe Sothern just acts her part better than everyone else), does not conform to the gender role society has planned for her. As an anthropological document, A Letter to Three Wives proves that teachers’ status and their pay are much the same then as they are now; George would live in relative penury with his wife and twins if Rita weren’t bringing in an income more sizable than his own. The intimation is that Rita and her career are an obstacle to her family’s happiness (meaning George’s), and that her inability to sway her husband to a more profitable line of work is a defect that Addie Ross certainly doesn’t have. Across three stories which could each function as their own film if given the time, Addie is a whispering inadequacy. After all, not one of the women to whom the letter is addressed says to herself, “Well, it certainly isn’t my husband!” Each one is half-convinced that her husband won’t be home when she gets back. There’s such a masterful touch here: A Letter to Three Wives emphasizes that the true coercive power herding these hausfraus is fear, and that fear sounds suspiciously like Celeste Holm murmuring, “Get in line or lose your man.”

In contrast, there’s nothing particularly subtle or quiet about the way Jonathan Shields does his business. His “legend,” according to Bartlow, is that he will “do anything to get what he wants.” He finds out what people want, gives them an opportunity to have it, and then retracts that opportunity when it no longer suits him. The Shields model of coercion is always to have the first turn, even if that means he must begin playing the game before his mark realizes that the Douglas plays Shields with such amiability and energy—in many ways this feels like the Kirk Douglas role—and in Amiel’s story, the first of the bunch, one almost forgets that Shields must betray him at some point. In alternating lines of dialogue they throw out ideas which will make their B-movie with catmen actually frightening. (The Bad and the Beautiful is not shy about teasing out its recent past. It’s not exactly roman à clef territory for David O. Selznick, partly because it throws in bits like this parody of the Val Lewton-Jacques Tourneur joint Cat People. Mostly I was tickled by Bartlow, who was like a dollar store Faulkner with some well-placed tragedy to go alongside him.) It certainly looks like the two men have made a partnership for themselves, with Shields the Pressburger to Amiel’s Powell. But what Amiel doesn’t realize as he opens his heart to Shields is that Shields can count exactly how many dollars he can squeeze from that heart. Amiel has a screenplay in his back pocket for a book that no one has been able to successfully turn into a film, one that he dreams of making a deeply personal movie. Shields and Amiel agree to take the screenplay to Pebbel, demand to be given the chance, and go from there; what Amiel doesn’t know is that Shields has already got a director in mind, and that director is not Fred Amiel. Rather like the great Deborah Dress Debacle which fills us with pity for poor overmatched Jeanne Crain, this first moment of coercion is the most effective one the movie has. In both cases (I’m sorry for what you’re about to read), the first cut is the deepest. There’s more red meat in the second subplot of The Bad and the Beautiful, even though if it were a steak I think it would have come out blue. The movie shows us the exact instant that Shields realizes that the way he’ll get the budding star out of Lorrison that he wants in his film is to make her believe he loves her. And so during filming, they have a romance, and her performance comes out exactly as he wants it to. What the movie recognizes about the Shields method of making people do what you want is that having the first turn is no guarantee that one will have the last turn. After filming has been completed, Lorrison seeks out Shields at his home only to find that he has run out on her as soon as got the chance. A younger starlet is waiting upstairs, saying the words that will splinter the Shields-Lorrison connection for good: “You’re business. I’m company.”

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