Saturday, September 04, 2021

Elizabeth Taylor Answers BUtterfield 8's Call with Style

         An ideal example of what constituted a commercial property circa 1960, MGM knew exactly what they were doing when adapting John O’Hara famous 1935 novel BUtterfield 8 to the screen, forcing Elizabeth Taylor, their societal rule-breaking but major box-office draw/mega-star to play right into her current bad-girl image as the wayward Gloria Wandrous, who in one of the film’s more florid moments proclaims “I was the slut of all time” to her aghast mother, while still toning down the material enough to not make Gloria too controversial, in order to safely stay within the confines of the Production Code, even if as the decade turned the masses were starting to indicate a taste for more adult material onscreen, with sexy foreign fare such as La Dolce Vita as well as Psycho making a substantial impact with audiences. Although the throngs who turned out for 8 in late 1960 may have anticipated seeing a racier Taylor on film, MGM shrewdly crafted a star vehicle hinting at Taylor’s (at-the-time) scandalous off-screen exploits with Eddie Fisher (who the studio had no qualms casting in the film), while allowing their heroine to maintain an air of decency and class; in the film, the liberated Gloria’s been around the block, but is first hurt, then indignant by the notion someone might attempt to pay her for sex, as illustrated in the film’s memorable opening sequence.

         Ably directed by Daniel Mann, who wisely keeps his leading lady front-and-center in scenes throughout the movie, this introduction to Gloria also serves as a showcase star entrance for Elizabeth Taylor. Although Taylor (probably knowing what the studio was up to in using her scarlet reputation to help sell the film) hated the material and the resulting movie, she was possibly at her peak as far as “Elizabeth Taylor- Movie Star and Thespian” goes during the shooting, and you can’t keep your eyes off of her violet ones from 8’s first frame to its last. The leisurely outset of the film has Gloria rousing herself out of bed and, after calling out for her departed paramour, roaming around a luxury apartment, wherein evidence of the preceding night’s ribald events are discovered, before Gloria comes across a note with money left by her suitor, the affluent Weston Liggett, whereupon Gloria grabs a previously-inspected mink and heads uptown to Fisher. Throughout this passage, Taylor indicates Gloria’s every thought with straightforward, precise reactions and gestures, making it clear the romantic-yet-tough Gloria is no pushover or lady of ill-repute. As Gloria leaves the apartment in a huff, Taylor’s assured the audience is already firmly with her for the rest of the movie based on her smart, charismatic playing. Although Taylor in general (at the time and in retrospect) received greater plaudits for her impressive if more forced and obvious acting in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and the big revelation/breakdown scene during Suddenly, Last Summer’s jaw-dropping finale, she manages to achieve a maximum impact as Gloria without seeming to push the emoting as much- a more natural, relaxed and instinctive method of playing is in evidence throughout 8, and Taylor is ideally in tune with Gloria every step of the way.

        What Taylor pulls off in creating a full, wholly believable portrait of Gloria is no small feat, as the scriptwriters John Michael Hayes and Charles Schnee have trouble deciding exactly how to depict Gloria’s sexual liberation, painting her as both harlot and ultra-romantic heroine depending on whatever scene is unfolding. Therefore, you have moments such as Liggett’s creepy colleagues welcoming him to the “Gloria Club” as they talk about what a great lay she is mixed with one wherein Liggett states Gloria is good because she was seeking respectability despite her wild sexual nature (going by the mores of the times, a woman couldn’t simply have an active sex life outside of marriage and still be considered nice, additionally having to pay for her lusty behavior before the final fade-out- it’s amusing how often Code-area films appear to be completely obsessed with sex via constantly hinting at or suggesting ribald behavior as opposed to, for example, the casual, humorous and direct approach Mae West took to the subject in her pre-Code romps). 

       Despite contrivances surrounding the characterization, Taylor is in sync with Gloria’s passions and pitfalls, leading to the fantastic, emotionally-charged “I Was 13” confession, which certainly played into Taylor gaining her fourth consecutive Oscar nomination (this sequence would possibly raise even more eyebrows today, particularly when Gloria mentions she “loved it” despite clearly being taken advantage of by an older man after just entering her teens). Taylor pulls out all the stops as Gloria recounts her seduction at a tender age, and the dedication, conviction and professionalism Taylor demonstrates throughout the shocking speech is deeply moving and endearing.

        Regarding the famous Oscar win, it’s part of pop culture history that Taylor won the award for 8 simply because she nearly died during the voting process, leading to the Academy granting her the Oscar while Hollywood and the world simultaneously forgave her for any past discretions. Taylor herself supported this notion, while also stating (regarding the merits of 8) something to effect of “I still think it stinks” after winning the golden statue. Although Taylor faced quality opposition, particularly in the case of Deborah Kerr in The Sundowners and Shirley MacLaine’s seminal work in The Apartment, either of which could have also merited the award, it bears mentioning Taylor was nominated before any ill-effects entered the picture and, watching that climatic revelation speech, it’s difficult to place Taylor’s acting abilities below her contemporaries in the race, whatever the rest of the film’s assets or liabilities may be. Taylor was in peak form as both star and performer in 8 and, rather than merely a sympathy award, the win may more accurately fall in the category of exceptional work in a formulaic picture, which should possibly be recognized by the Academy more often, not less, as it might be harder to pull off great acting without much in the way of A-one support to be found elsewhere in the movie.

       It’s also wonderful to see Taylor given an opportunity to play some lighter material in 8. Taylor has a gift for putting over low-brow humor onscreen with great aplomb, witnessed by her lively work as the vain Amy in Little Women or Fred Flintstone’s haranguing mother-in-law, Pearl Slaghoople and, especially, in her robust work as X, Y and Zee’s free-spirited protagonist. However, based on her beauty and position as one of the cinema’s top female stars throughout her career, Taylor more typically was held to portraying more traditional, serious-minded leads. In 8, Taylor really comes alive whenever Gloria is afforded a good comeback line, and she’s great at sarcastic, wide-eyed reactions after a disrespectful barb is thrown Gloria’s way, conveying the idea Gloria would be a great gal to hang out with for lunch or a night out on the town based solely on her good-natured sense of humor, as opposed to the more evident sex appeal sought by men in the film, which the movie showcases via lush, glamourous MGM close-ups of Taylor, wherein Gloria appears to be a sensual icon for the ages.

      Concerning other 8 players Laurence Harvey, on a high after breaking through in the previous year’s Room at the Top, is a fairly good fit as Weston, the cool, somewhat oily 5th Avenue businessman who, in the manner of Top’s on-the-make Joe Lampton, has risen through the ranks based mainly on marriage to an affluent society girl. Although Harvey’s trademark stoicism and stiffness is well-placed as Weston (although not nearly as impactful as when utilized in his indelible, masterful work in The Manchurian Candidate) and he’s unafraid to depict the sometimes unhealthy nature involved in his attraction to Gloria, Harvey works at the romantic angle proficiently, showing Weston is torn by his desire for Gloria and guilt for straying from his compassionate, beautiful wife. In the other main male role Eddie Fisher, as Gloria’s lifelong friend, the composer Steve Carpenter, clearly was cast for his name value in connection with Taylor, featuring in scenes wherein she playfully attempts to flirt with and (at least in a pseudo sense) seduce the unwilling Steve, who is attracted to Gloria but, with his girlfriend Norma often in mind and in tow, is determine to nobly remain just friends. Fisher’s low-keyed, unenergetic playing tends to not linger in memory, but it’s intriguing to see maybe the world’s most infamous couple of the time onscreen; regarding the Taylor/Fisher notoriety, MGM unsurprisingly plays up this art-imitating-life angle, with the somewhat unadorned Gloria (clad in only a tight white slip) standing over Steve asking if she can do anything for him in teasing, mock-serious fashion, and the nature of the triangle existing between Gloria, Steve and Norma given considerable play during the film.

         The ladies in the cast often tend to have more fun than the guys, and make strong impressions in the process. Mildred Dunnock, who had thrived throughout the 1950’s with a number of key roles in important films and a couple Oscar nominations after starting her career with an ignoble boost down a stairway by Richard Widmark in Kiss of Death, is in fine dramatic form as Gloria’s understandably jittery, in-denial mother, and in her reliable fashion Dunnock manages to mine some pathos and individuality out of the part, resulting in some touching mother-daughter connections with Taylor. As Steve’s perturbed-yet-patient and remarkably understanding girlfriend (given Elizabeth Taylor is often lounging around Steve’s apartment whenever Norma shows up) Susan Oliver does alert, solid work and has a chance to engage in a little lively, catty repertoire with Taylor, while Betty Field as Mrs. Thurber, the knowing, caustic best-friend of Mrs. Wandrous, is given even more ample opportunity to spar with Gloria regarding her unconventional lifestyle, and her wry, acerbic exchanges with Taylor account for some of the film’s most entertaining moments; in addition, Field is able to enrich her role by emphasizing the great compassion Mrs. Thurber displays towards Gloria’s sensitive mother (there’s a wonderful moment wherein Gloria and Mrs. Thurber agree to bury the hatchet in order to appease a weeping Mrs. Wandrous, who’s been disturbed by their casually off-handed, not-so-good-natured digs at each other).

        As Weston’s wife Emily, Dina Merrill makes an entertainingly unorthodox entrance in the film via a skeet-shooting contest with her husband, but this gun-toting Mrs. quickly falls into the understanding-wife mode to even a greater degree than typically found in films at the time, with Emily forgiving her meandering husband anything, conveniently putting blame elsewhere; however, the lovely Merrill plays the role with grace and dignity, allowing Emily to be more believable in her convictions than might have been the case with just about any other well-breed leading lady in the role. Rounding out the cast, Kay Medford provides some additional and welcome comic relief as Happy, the proprietor at the motel wherein Weston and Gloria tryst their best, while also using her wonderful world-weariness to fine dramatic effect in her sole monologue wherein she recounts to Taylor her not-so-happy life’s misfortunes.

MGM got what they were after upon BUtterfield 8’s release as, regardless of reviewers’ responses, which garnered some praise for Taylor amid largely unimpressive reactions to the film’s other aspects, the film became the biggest box-office hit for the company since the mammoth returns of Ben Hur. Taylor also gained release from her MGM contract by fulling her obligations via 8, returning to the studio in triumph and on her own terms via 1963’s The V.I.P.s, which provided another financial lift to the studio as Fox’s Cleopatra loomed very large in the wings, thereby allowing MGM to beat Fox to screen with the first profitable Burton-Taylor pairing. 8 served as a fitting end to Taylor’s lengthy initial tenure at MGM, which spanned her initial rise to stardom via her wonderful work as Velvet Brown to a place at the top of the Hollywood hierarchy, with Taylor named the #1 box office draw by the renown Quigley poll the year following 8’s release (and with no 1961 release to her credit, the success of 8 must have factored heavily in Taylor’s #1 ranking); the film also offered its star the chance to pull off an indelible, substantive performance that ranks among her best, single-handedly pushing the movie outside of the realm of trashy melodrama (as phenomenally entertaining as that genre can be) into something considered worthy of more serious merit, at least in the case of Taylor’s distinctive work as Gloria.

And a fond adieu to Michael Nader, who passed away August 23rd at 76. Nader became well-known during the 1980’s via his work as Farnsworth Dexter on the smash Dynasty and on All My Children thereafter (after his introduction to soaps via As the World Turns in the 1970’s), but for at least one classic movie buff it’s his early cinematic work as possibly the most dashing and charismatic surfer boy in films (as Mike Nader, following his uncle George into the movies) via 1963’s Beach Party and several follow-up offerings of the same ilk that assures him a place in memory. I happened to watch Party, Muscle Beach Party and the all-time classic Beach Blanket Bingo just before Nader’s passing, and it was endearing to see how impressively Nader, although usually featured as one of the crowd of kids surrounding Frankie and Annette, stood out in these lighted-hearted excursions. It doesn’t hurt that, with his perfect tan and mega-watt smile, he could serve as the blueprint for the dreamy teen beachcomber of Gidget’s dreams (a role Nader went on to play on television opposite Sally Field), but Nader also invests a considerable amount of energy and focus into his scenes; whether he be interacting in flirtatious fashion with the girl he’s paired with (working especially well with Donna Michelle in Bingo), twisting, shaking and go-go-ing his way through any number of Dick Dale (and others) tunes, or doing a daring in-air flip into the sand in Muscle Beach Party, Nader is the emblem of carefree youth during the glorious days of summer.