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

Evan Davis

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.

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Homes for StrangersNicholas Ray
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