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Sly Precursors to Gay Liberation: "Born to Be Bad"

Born to Be Bad plays as part of a 15-film Nicholas Ray retrospective on July 27th.

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Born to Be Bad (1950) is the bitchier, far less-well-behaved sister of All about Eve, which just so happened to come out the same year. The film also happens to be one of Ray’s least interesting efforts, one in which traces of his style emerge to the surface, only to be drowned out by a limp script and unimpressive performances.

Christabel Cain (Joan Fontaine) has to be the most passive-aggressive Social Climber (a popular role for women in 30s and 40s cinema) to ever grace the screen. Mooching off her rich uncle’s secretary (Joan Leslie) only to steal the secretary’s man (Zachary Scott) and her future social position, Christabel lazily and not-so-subtly demands that the universe should revolve around her. A tryst with volatile writer Nick Bradley (Robert Ryan, in his first of four roles with Ray) only makes her deceptions deepen. It would be one thing for Ray to cynically cast all of these high-society vampires—including Nick and Leslie’s barely veiled ambitions—as just that; however, the film seems to identify with anyone who is victimized by Christabel, even though their attitudes toward those in power are just as vampiric as hers.

Dave Kehr defends the film, and to a certain extent, he is correct about the stylistic flourishes that Ray imbues the material. Interior spaces resonate with Ray’s typically enclosed, stifling qualities (The camera is often placed behind the head of a character, with one or two others in deep focus with Ray’s echoing sound techniques.) The dramatic material itself is so lurching, so lacking in any real tension that the volatility Kehr points to unfortunately gets lost.

The reason to see Born to Be Bad is Mel Ferrer. As Gobby, the portraitist of the rich and famous, he represents not only a wise Greek chorus figure standing outside much of the intrigue, but also a radical depiction of a gay man in early 50s Hollywood. His sexuality is not stated explicitly, of course, but the pithy quips, the body language, and his “creative” temperament are all the codes one would need. The difference is just how Gobby breaks the rules of homosexuality in Hollywood cinema at the time. He is not a limp-wristed queen, nor is he an ashamed closet case. He is a confident, self-defined outsider looking in, amused by the drama that unfolds. He also gets some of the most suggestively quotable lines in any Nick Ray movie. If most Ray films have a Ray figure in them, Gobby fits the bill. It is natural that Ray could have seen himself in a witty, self-consciously ambitious, confident, uncompromising character like Gobby; the fault of Born to Be Bad, however, is the relative lack of Ray’s presence anywhere else.

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Homes for Strangers: The Cinema of Nicholas Ray is an on-going series of articles covering the 2009 retrospective on Nicholas Ray, running from July 17th to August 6th—with a special bonus on August 16th & 17th at the Anthology Film Archives—at New York's Film Forum.

I trust you know that Nick Ray was bisexual and for many years carried on an affir with Gavin Lambert — who wrote many of his scripts. He also had an affir with Sal Mineo during the shooting of “Rebel Without a Cause” AND deflowered natalie Wood. But he didn’t nail Dean cause Dean was a Top.
I did know about Ray’s fluid and promiscuous sexuality, which only seems to confirm Gobby as the Ray figure in “Born to Be Bad.” Shame about Dean, though.
What do you mean? A shame that Ray didn’t nail him? Read the great book “Live Fast Die Youg — The Wild Ride of the Making of Rebel Without A Cause.” It’s one of the very best books about Ray, and it’s got tons of stuff about Dean and his boyfriend Jack Simmons (who had a small role in “Relebel” — he hands Dean the knife in the Griffith observatory fight scene) who one night tried to pick up Jack Larson for a three-way.
That is what I meant, but intended as a pithy aside. I’ve heard that the book is great, but I’ve avoided it just because of an attempt to see the film afresh this time around, without the history of its “significance” attached to it. After your recommendation, David, I will certainly take a gander!
It’s most defintiely worth reading, cause “giss” aside t has tons of information about the way Ray worked. He had the cast over to his bungalow at the Chateau Marmont when the film was still in pre-production to rehearse and improvise scenes — the better to get in touch with their characters. Also the film was shot in black and white for several weeks before the studio stepped in and decreed that it was to be done in scope and color. “East of Eden” had just come out and was a monster hit to “Rebel” was no longer a B film.
I did know abou the improv’d rehearsals, as well as the original plans for black-and-white. Apparently much of the cast and crew thought it had to be in b&w on aesthetic level. Looking at it now, one can hardly believe what the film may have been like had it not been in lurid color!
A fairly smug damnation with faint praise, Mr Davis. “It’s just a sex attraction.” This movie is classy unapologetic melodrama and the auteur conceit doesn’t work as a critical paradigm here. In a savory twist Robert Ryan and Zachary Scott play the saps to Joan Fontaine’s charming gold-digger, who gets away clean in a new sports sedan with a pile of furs on the back seat. Me, I have a crush on the luminous Joan Leslie as the good girl. Fluid cinematography from Nicholas Musuraca, sumptuous art direction by Albert S. D’Agostino, and Friedrich Hollaender’s elegant score add value.
Apologies about the smugness, Mr D’Ambra. There are things about the movie I like, and seeing it again at Film Forum last night confirmed them. However, I find Fontaine less than charming, and the idea that Scott could fall in love with Fonatine pretty unconvincing. Ray made worse films than this one, to be sure (“Flying Leathernecks” and “A Woman’s Secret” come to mind), but I find the dramatic material Ray had to work with here unworthy of him.
Just read in Geoff Andrew’s book that there is a scene between Christabel driving away from the mansion and Gobby’s upping the price on her portrait. She gets into a car wreck, and seduces her divorce lawyer. In other words, this is the “one more little scandal” Gobby wants from her. Why this was not in the print that Film Forum showed, nor in the TCM broadcast version, is unknown to me.

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