Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Born to Be Bad (1950)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Nicholas Ray Blogathon: Born to Be Bad (1950)

by Tony Dayoub

A lot of the fun found in Born to Be Bad, a minor film by Nicholas Ray to be sure, is in watching Joan Fontaine subvert her sweet screen persona to play the manipulative Christabel Caine. From the moment she bursts into the life of her publisher uncle's employee, Donna (Joan Leslie)—the jaded city girl Christabel is staying with until she gets her footing in San Francisco—small-town Christabel's default mode of advancing in society is a sort of clumsy, saccharine method of laying love-traps around vain, rich men whose latent attraction to her blinds them to her motives. What else can explain how Donna's fiance, Curtis (Zachary Scott), is the only one to fall for the excessively honeydrippy Christabel?

Scott—a virtual lookalike of RKO head Howard Hughes—can also be seen as a stand-in for the studio chief, who may have been vicariously playing out his real-life wooing of Fontaine through the actor. So does that make Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan) an onscreen double for Ray? Like Nick Ray, Nick Bradley is a temperamental artist (a novelist in the film), who cuts through the bullshit as he simultaneously courts and dresses down the two-faced Christabel for her malicious ambition. Christabel manages to steal Curtis away from Joan and marry him, not for his money, but for all of the social clout that comes with it. She avoids making love to Curtis as much as possible because it is Ryan's Bradley (seeing her for who she really is) who she holds the "sex attraction" for. But despite Bradley's penetrating insight into Christabel, he is surprisingly docile (at least for a Ryan performance) in his attempts at restraining her from wreaking emotional mayhem amongst their friends.

Far more cutting is the film's other moody artist, Donna's painter friend, Gobby (Mel Ferrer). As Gobby tells Christabel, who seems flummoxed by the painter's lack of sexual interest in her, "My dear girl, apart from painting, my major occupation is convincing husbands that I'm harmless." As overtly homosexual a character as any I've seen in films of that period, could Gobby represent the side of the bisexual Ray that wished he could do completely without women? Ray's marital troubles with actress Gloria Grahame (In a Lonely Place), were raging right about then. Perhaps the romantically disillusioned director identified with Gobby and Bradley, both artists, two sides of the same coin; one who sees nothing worth coveting in duplicitous women, and the other who, despite that, can't help falling for them. Gobby is certainly not the prototypical Ray outsider one would expect him to be (the way Mineo's gay character would be in Rebel Without a Cause). The movie tries valiantly to place Christabel in that role. But perhaps because of Ray's natural cynicism towards the opposite sex at the time, it is Ryan's Bradley who one could argue is left out in the cold at the end.

Joan Fontaine, as sister Olivia de Havilland always pictured her.
Despite being found out by Curtis, shunned by Bradley, and cut off by the opportunistic Gobby, Christabel—an increasingly expert maneater—lands on her feet. When last seen, she is starting her climb to the top all over again, this time with her divorce lawyer, who invites her out for drinks to discuss her separation and tells his secretary to lie to his wife if she calls looking for him. Gobby profits from all the scandal, as the price of a portrait he painted of Christabel rises each time she breaks the heart of another upstanding citizen. Donna goes back to Curtis (in a bizarre aviation scene that reinforces the connection to Hughes). And poor Nick Bradley is left heartbroken, bitter and alone, a precursor to the haunted screenwriter Humphrey Bogart would play in the next picture Ray filmed, In a Lonely Place.


randomcha said...

Mmm I would love to see this. There are still so many Robert Ryan movies that are hard to find!

Anonymous said...

I am a Nicholas Ray fan and want to share his final resting place in LaCrosse Wisconsin. You can go to findagrave and his memorial # is: 6896636. There are a few photos of him, and is grave markers. Rebel Without a Cause was my favorite Ray Film. What a talent he had to bring out the best in Actors!!!

Tony Dayoub said...

Randomcha, it's not hard to find online. I just can't post it here.

R. D. Finch said...

Tony, I saw this many years ago on TV when I was a child--probably the first movie directed by Ray I ever saw, although at the time I had no idea who he was. I'd never seen Joan Fontaine in anything else either, yet what most struck me about the movie was Fontaine's two-faced character--sweet and innocuous on the outside, an emotionally manipulative, gold-digging predator on the inside. Now, years later, I can see the additional pleasure in watching her "subvert her sweet screen persona." An unexpected bit of casting that bears out your insightful observation about how her character suggests Ray's ambivalence towards women. Speaking of impersonations of Howard Hughes, have you ever seen "Caught"? I thought that in that picture Robert Ryan--with his pencil mustache, playing a neurotic, reclusive, and possessive millionaire--bore a clear resemblance to Hughes.

Tony Dayoub said...

R.D., I must admit I was prepared for the worst with BORN TO BE BAD. Since it is out of circulation, I just assumed that meant it was bad. But, though unassuming for a Ray film, it was one of the most rewarding of the Rays I finally caught up with.

Jake Cole said...

I'm glad you focused more on how it leads to later Ray narratives, especially IN A LONELY PLACE. I was bowled over by the sophistication of the direction, which is pure technique even if it sacrifices the poetry and passion of other Ray movies. The editing rhythm, shadow work and framing are just immaculate, and I was pleasantly surprised by this movie.