I recorded The Sandpiper that last time that it aired on TCM. This 1965 film is one of the many films that Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made together after they fell in love during the making of Cleopatra. And while it’s true that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? won Taylor an Oscar and probably should have won one for Burton as well, the majority of the Taylor/Burton films were overproduced melodramas that often seemed as if they’d been rushed into production in order to capitalize on the couple’s tabloid popularity. Unfortunately, Virginia Woolf aside, neither Taylor nor Burton seemed to bring out the best in each other as actors.
The Sandpiper finds Taylor playing Laura Reynolds, an artist who lives in a California beach house with her young son, Danny (Morgan Mason). Laura is a free spirit who believes that everyone, including her son, should have the freedom to make their own choices. She is resistant to any and all authority. She’s a bohemian, a rebel, the type who doesn’t care what society has to say and who flaunts her refusal to follow the dictates of respectability. Good for her! However, she’s also Elizabeth Taylor, which means that she’s impossibly glamorous and even her “cluttered” beach house looks like it’s a hundred times more expensive than anything that anyone viewing the film will ever be able to afford. Though Taylor tries hard, there’s nothing convincingly bohemian about her.
Richard Burton plays Dr. Edward Hewitt, who runs the nearby Episcopal school. Dr. Hewitt is not a free spirit. Instead, he and his wife, Claire (Eva Marie Saint), very much believe in structure and playing by the rules. They believe in a traditional education and, when a judge orders Danny to be enrolled at their school, that’s what Hewitt plans to give him. This, of course, brings Hewitt into conflict with Laura. Both of them have differing ways of looking at the world and Laura is not a fan of religion in general. However, since they’re played by Burton and Taylor, they’re destined to fall in love and have a scandalous affair.
Dr. Hewitt is one of the many religious figures that Burton played throughout his career. In fact, Burton played so many alcoholic priests that I spent most of the movie assuming that Hewitt was an alcoholic as well. However, he’s not. He’s just Episcopalian. That said, Burton delivers every line of dialogue in his trademark “great actor” voice and every minute that he’s onscreen just seems to be full of self-loathing. Even before he cheats on his wife, Hewitt seems to hate himself. Of course, once Burton does start cheating on his wife, it only gets worse. The film presents Hewitt as being something of a hesitant participant, someone who knows that he’s doing the wrong thing but he simply cannot stop himself. Laura, meanwhile, is presented as being someone who is fully willing to break up a marriage to get what she wants. One gets the feeling that 1965 audiences probably just assumed they were watching the true story of how Taylor and Burton fell in love during the making the Cleopatra. That said, it’s all pretty tame. Just like Taylor, director Vincente Minnelli was too much of a product of the old Hollywood to truly embrace this story for all of its sordid potential.
If you’ve ever wanted to watch Charles Bronson debate religion with Richard Burton, this is the film for you. Bronson plays a sculptor and an atheist who upsets Hewitt by calling him “reverend.” Bronson is actually more convincing in the film than either Burton or Taylor, bringing a rough authenticity to his role. Whereas Burton and Taylor both seem to be going through the motions, Bronson comes across as if he actually has a personal stake in the film’s story. It’s not enough to save the movie, of course. Fortunately, a year later, Liz and Dick would be used to better effect in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?