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.|