With the fading of summer and kids back at school, in our own heads we all return to work (even if we never left), so it seems timely to explore how great films portray the business world which fuels our economic engine.
Hollywood itself is big business, of course, and though it sells fantasy, its behind-the-scenes reality is often more interesting. Case in point: Vincente Minnelli’s “The Bad and the Beautiful”(1952). Here, ruthless, down-on-his-luck producer Jonathan Shields (Kirk Douglas) desperately needs a blockbuster to keep his studio afloat, and knows he can get one if he signs up actress Georgia Lorrison (Lana Turner), director Fred Amiel (Barry Sullivan), and writer James Lee Bartlow (Dick Powell), all of whose careers he helped launch. Trouble is, they all hate Shields for turning his back on them on his way up. In this sharp, stylized melodrama, Minnelli draws top-flight turns from his powerhouse cast (also featuring Walter Pidgeon and a personal favorite, Gloria Grahame). All these years later, “Bad” remains a Hollywood voyeur’s dream.
Across the country, in Manhattan, lies the epicenter of the glossy, gritty world of advertising, where writer/director Nunnally Johnson set his memorable drama, “The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit” (1956). Tom Rath (Gregory Peck) is a rising ad-man with a lovely wife, Betsy (Jennifer Jones) and a new home, yet nothing seems exactly right. It turns out his World War II experiences are coming back to haunt him. Though Betsy and workaholic boss Ralph Hopkins (Fredric March) want to help, Tom starts to doubt his chosen path and priorities. For its time “Man” was a surprisingly frank, adult treatment of the messy business of career, marriage, and life in general. Peck’s natural inwardness suits him well as Tom, who struggles with memories and feelings he’d like to be rid of. Jones is solid as Betsy, but veteran March nearly steals the picture playing Hopkins, a man who built his life on his business, and regrets, too late, what he sacrificed for it.
Meanwhile, the campy, colorful Japanese comedy, “Giants and Toys” (1958) suggests the advertising business was not much different half a world away. Charged with mounting a gimmicky new campaign to outsell two rival candy manufacturers, young ad exec Nishi grooms the unlikely Kyoko, a nutty female cab driver with rotten teeth, to be their company’s caramel-eating cover girl. While Kyoko becomes a huge star, Nishi is humiliated by the cutthroat tactics of his business opponents. An acid satire on Japan’s bustling, postwar business ethic, where Western-style capitalism meets traditional notions of collective duty, “Giants and Toys” is both humorous and harrowing. Actor Hitori Kawaguchi aces the tricky role of Nishi, who by turns seems bewildered and disgusted by the nature of his work, while Hitori Nozoe is also indelible as Kyoko, a lower-class naif who morphs into a puckish celebrity. Smart, raucous, and fast-paced, “Toys” is an outlandishly savage look at Japan’s corporate rat race.
Even drier, more traditional industries, like insurance, have their own little intrigues, as evidenced by my favorite Billy Wilder film, “The Apartment” (1960). C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is an unassuming junior executive computing mortality tables among a virtual army of fellow workers. But when Baxter innocently starts lending out his conveniently located apartment for the assignations of his superiors, he swiftly vaults the corporate ladder. Complications begin when Baxter falls for elevator girl Fran Kubelik ( Shirley MacLaine), who is also the former girlfriend of the big boss, J.D. Sheldrake (a venomous, pre-Disney Fred MacMurray). Wilder works at the top of his game here, seamlessly blending comedy, romance and pathos in the story of a lonely man whose first love only points up the emptiness and corruption in his own life. With career-making performances by Lemmon and MacLaine – and a priceless script by Wilder and regular collaborator I.A.L. Diamond-this truly wondrous film deservedly won Best Picture of 1960.
Musicals have also spoofed the vagaries of big business-witness the buoyant “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying” (1967). The plot centers on one J. Pierpont Finch (Robert Morse), a young window-washer intent on scaling the heights of corporate life. Before long, he’s working in the mailroom of the Worldwide Wicket Company, even hobnobbing with the company’s starchy president J.B. Biggley (Rudy Vallee). It seems there’s nothing young Finch can’t do, but he does hit a couple of bumps on his way up. He also falls in love with adorable secretary Rosemary (Michelle Lee), who believes in him. This infectiously amusing, energetic outing was based on the Tony winning Broadway production, complete with Frank Loesser songs, Bob Fosse dance numbers, and a sixties palette of vibrant color. Morse is appealing as the elfin Finch, and former crooner Vallee is perfectly cast as the pompous Biggley. “How To Succeed” is about as subtle as the Fourth of July, and just as much fun.
For more recent titles, we turn to documentaries. Profiling the heady world of the Internet boom, “Startup.com” (2001) records a pivotal year in the life of two college friends, ambitious Kaleil Tuzman and mild-mannered Tom Herman, who collaborate on an Internet start-up called Govworks.com that consumes their every waking hour. Practically overnight, their venture goes from a one-room office to a multimillion-dollar enterprise, but can they maintain, much less build upon, their initial success? Film-makers Chris Hegedus (“The War Room”) and Jehane Noujaim (“Control Room”) were lucky enough to capture the full dramatic arc of Tuzman and Herman’s venture, from the height of the Internet frenzy to the dot-com bubble’s big burst. “Start-up” demonstrates how the merciless rules of modern entrepreneurship can transform human ambition into nerve-shredding obsession.
Finally, one company’s spectacular rise and fall is charted in the spellbinding “Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room” (2005), as we delve into the labyrinthine schemes and self-deceptions that helped line the pockets of Enron’s top management, while hoodwinking Wall Street with spectacular short-term results built on what was essentially an elaborate Ponzi scheme. Based on the best-seller by Fortune Magazine writers Bethany McLean and Peter Elkind, director Alex Gibney’s documentary is an unblinking chronicle of rampant larceny and greed, focusing on the three players who loomed largest in the debacle: the late Chairman Kenneth Lay, CEO Jeffrey Skilling, and CFO Andrew Fastow. When Enron’s accounting house of cards finally fell, so did the fortunes of many innocent employees, along with a company that only recently had been the darling of investors. This shocking, sobering expose would seem unbelievable were it not also true.