Film Review: Boom! (dir by Joseph Losey)

“Boom!” says poet Chris Flanders (Richard Burton) in the 1968 film of the same name. Boom, he goes on the explain, is the sound of life being lived. Every minute that we’re reminded that we’re still alive is a “Boom!” It’s the type of thing that 18 year-old artists say to get laid, though the film treats Chris’s comment with an almost supernatural reverence.

Chris has just shown up on an island that’s owned by Flora Goforth (Elizabeth Taylor), who is the richest woman in the world and who is apparently dying of one of those diseases that makes you lie in bed and yell a lot. Flora lives on the island with an entourage that includes a secretary named Miss Black (Joanna Shimkus) and a head of security named Rudi (Michael Dunn). Rudi is a dwarf and he dresses like a Nazi and often does a stiff-armed salute, just in case we missed the fact that he’s supposed to be a fascist. Why exactly Flora, who were supposed to sympathize with, would employ a Nazi, we never really find out. The film seems to think that there’s something extremely daring about casting a person of short statue as the head of Flora’s security though, ultimately, it’s about as profound as uttering “Boom!” every few minutes.

Anyway, Flora is dying but she’s also dictating her autobiography. It turns out that she’s rich because she married a lot of wealthy men, all of whom died and left her all of their money. Flora’s always in a bad mood but things improve a little when Chris mysteriously shows up on the island and starts saying, “Boom!” all the time. Flora and Chris have several conversations about life and the meaning of it all, the majority of which are full of obscure statements and half-baked attempts at being profound. The dialogue is pretentious but it’s also not very memorable, which is a shame. One can survive being pretentious but being forgettable is simply unforgivable.

Eventually, a friend of Flora’s shows up. Famed playwright Noel Coward plays The Witch of Capri, a flamboyant friend to the rich and famous. He loves to gossip and has a bitchy comment for every occasion. One could argue that Coward is merely playing himself, though one imagines that the real-life Coward could have also come up with a few genuinely witty lines. The Witch informs Flora that Chris has a habit of showing up at the bedside of rich women right before they die. Some people think that Chris is a gigolo while others believe Chris to be …. THE ANGEL OF DEATH!

(Dramatic music)

Which is it? Don’t worry, the answer is revealed by the end of the movie. Of course, it takes a while to get to the end. Boom! is two hours long but it feels much longer. Storywise, Boom! feels like it would be ideal as a 30-minute episode of some old anthology show but director Joseph Losey keeps the story moving at a very slow pace and there are so many dramatic pauses and unnecessary zoom shots that the film itself becomes a bit of an endurance test. Just when you think the movie is finally going to get moving, Chris says, “Boom!” or there’s an extreme close-up of Flora’s ring and everything slows down again.

Boom! is one of the many films that Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made together in the 60s. Unfortunately, both actors are miscast in the lead roles. Flora is described as being old and sickly. Elizabeth Taylor was in her 30s and appeared to be in robust health during the shooting of the film. Chris Flanders is supposed to be in his 20s and a seeker of truth and enlightenment. Burton was in his 40s and looked like he was in his 60s. He spends most of the film looking and sounding as if he’s just come off a weekend bender, which makes him look all the more ludicrous when he hears the ocean and says, “Boom!”

On the plus side, the film is lovely to look at. Flora’s house is big and beautiful. The island scenery is gorgeous. Flora’s costumes are ludicrously ornate but still, they are what you would want to see an international movie star wearing in 1968. As such, the film is always nice to look at. In fact, perhaps the best way to watch Boom! is to turn down the sound so you don’t have to listen to any of the dialogue.

Boom! was based on a Tennessee Williams’s play called The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. The filmmakers decided to change the name to Boom! and I really can’t blame them for that. This was Elizabeth Taylor’s third film to be based on a Tennessee Williams play. Unfortunately, it matched neither the critical nor the commercial success of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof or Suddenly, Last Summer.


Cleaning Out The DVR: The Comedians (dir by Peter Glenville)

Not to be mistaken for the Taylor Hackford-directed, Robert De Niro-starring disaster from a few years back, The Comedians is a film from 1967 that follows several different people as they attempt to survive day-to-day life in Haiti, back when Haiti was ruled by the dictator, Papa Doc Duvalier.

Richard Burton stars Mr. Brown (Richard Burton), a deeply cynical and world-weary Englishman who owns what passes for a luxury hotel in Haiti.  Though Mr. Brown hopes to be able to sell the hotel and get out of Haiti, he is also having an affair with Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the German wife of Pineda (Peter Ustinov), the ambassador from Uruguay.  Mr. Brown tries to avoid politics, which it turns out is not easy to do when you’re living under a murderous regime.

Complicating Mr. Brown’s life is Major Jones (Alec Guinness), a retired British army officer who has come to Haiti to do business but who is promptly imprisoned when it’s discovered that he was invited to come to the island by a minister who was subsequently declared to be an enemy of the state.  The fascist Captain Concasseur (Raymond St. Jacques) arrests Major Jones and Mr. Brown takes it upon himself to try to get Jones released.  Unfortunately, Major Jones doesn’t quite understand how serious his situation is and he’s convinced the Haitians that he’s not only a brilliant military leader but that he can also arrange for them to receive a cache of weapons, which he claims he has hidden in a Miami warehouse.

Meanwhile, Mr. and Mrs. Smith (Paul Ford and Lillian Gish) have also arrived on the island, hoping to set up a vegetarian center in Haiti.  (Mr. Smith even once ran for President of the U.S. as the candidate of the Vegetarian Party.)  In many ways, Mr. and Mrs. Smith serve as a stand-in for clueless American activists, obsessing over minor issues while ignoring the larger problems that are right in front of their faces.

From the start, The Comedians establishes Haiti as being a dangerous place, a country where the people live in fear of the brutal police and where the poor struggle to survive day-to-day while their rulers live a life of luxury.  It’s a place where political dissidents regularly disappear, though the police aren’t above murdering people in public as well.  It’s a country where the State rules supreme, controlling the citizens through both fear and a fierce cult of personality.  Rebels like Dr. Magiot (James Earl Jones) only want the country to be free but they know that, as long superpowers like America are supporting the regime, there’s little that the rebels can realistically hope to accomplish.

A major theme running through The Comedians is that the real suffering of the Haitian people is often overshadowed by the strategic concerns of the United States.  Unfortunately, pretty much the same thing happens within the film itself.  While there’s several black actors in supporting roles, the story focuses on the white characters and, as a result, it sometimes feels like the film’s message is less about the people being oppressed and more about how unfortunate it is that people like Brown, Jones, and the Smiths are being inconvenienced by it all.  Like many similarly well-intentioned political films from the late 60s, The Comedians get so bogged down in all of the personal dramas that it loses sight of what’s actually the important part of the story.  The film is often seems more interested in Brown and Martha’s affair than in the conditions that would lead to people like Dr. Magiot risking their lives to bring about change.

For the most part, it’s a well-acted film.  Richard Burton’s natural self-loathing is put to good use and Alec Guinness has a few poignant scenes as a pathological liar who doesn’t realize how much trouble he’s actually in until it’s too late.  (Guinness also has a scene where he wears blackface and pretends to be Burton’s maid.  He does this in order to escape from the secret police and the film doesn’t treat it as being a joke but it’s still rather cringey to watch.)  Elizabeth Taylor is miscast as Martha and her German accent comes and goes but Paul Ford and Lillian Gish do a good job playing clueless Americans.  Perhaps the film’s strongest performance comes from Zakes Mokae, who doesn’t say much as a member of the secret police but who exudes menace every time that he’s on screen.  Still, as well acted at it may be, the film is slowly paced and always seem hesitant about taking any position beyond a general sense that dictatorships are bad.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with reminding people that dictatorships are bad.  That’s especially an important message today.  The past few years have left me convinced that a lot of people secretly yearn for a dictatorship and would be willing to trade their freedoms for a false sense of security.  Though the film may struggle dramatically, it’s still works as a warning about what true authoritarianism actually is.


Cleaning Out The DVR: The Sandpiper (dir by Vincente Minnelli)

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?


Cleaning Out The DVR: The V.I.P.s (dir by Anthony Asquith)

The 1963 film, The V.I.P.s, is about a group of very important people who have all shown at Heathrow Airport at the same time, all in an effort to get the Hell out of England.  They’ve all got their own individual reasons for wanting to leave the country but the important thing is that they all want to leave.  Unfortunately, a fog has rolled onto the runway and the plane can’t take off.  Because this film was made in 1963, all the passengers are allowed to leave the plane and wait, overnight, in a hotel.

Among the Very Important People:

Flamboyant film producer Max Buda (Orson Welles, playing a version of himself) needs to leave London before he receives a gigantic tax bill.  Accompanying him is his latest discovery, Gloria Gritti (Elsa Martinelli).  Max is the type who does things like barging into the plane’s cockpit and demanding to know why the pilots aren’t willing to risk crashing the plane.  That may sound self-centered on Max’s part but Welles is such a charmer that you forgive him.  Add to that, he’s trying to avoid paying taxes and that’s something that I can definitely get behind.

The Duchess of Brighton (Margaret Rutherford) is an eccentric but impoverished noblewoman who is going to lose her home if she doesn’t fly to Florida and take on a somewhat demeaning job.  The Duchess is the type who struggles to find room in the overhead compartment for her ludicrous oversized hatbox.  She’s never really been out in the real world before.  Margaret Rutherford won an Oscar for her performance, which is occasionally amusing but never particularly subtle.  (Have you seen Airport?  Rutherford has the Helen Hayes role, basically.)

Lee Mangrum (Rod Taylor) is a businessman who is on the verge of losing his business.  Miss Mead (Maggie Smith) is his secretary.  Miss Mead is secretly in love with Lee, who somehow hasn’t noticed.  We’re supposed to sympathize with Lee but he’s so incredibly clueless that it’s hard not to feel that Miss Mead could do better.

Finally, we have Frances Andros (Elizabeth Taylor).  Frances is one of the most popular film stars in the world.  She’s married to Paul Andros (Richard Burton), who is very wealthy and who, like most Burton characters, is also very moody.  Frances has decided to leave Paul and go to America with her lover, Marc Champselle (Louis Jourdan).  However, the fog gives Paul a chance to come to the airport and try to talk Frances out of leaving him.

Make no mistake about it, Liz Taylor and Burton are the main attraction here.  Welles, Rod Taylor, Rutherford, and Smith all get plenty of scenes but it’s obvious that the people behind The V.I.P.s understood that most of the audience would be there to watch Liz and Burton acting opposite each other.  This was, I think, the first film that they made together after falling in love on the set of Cleopatra.  Due to Cleopatra’s legendarily difficult production, it was released around the same time as The V.I.P.s, despite going into production years before the latter film.  Audiences could go watch Liz and Dick fall in love in Cleopatra and then head over to a different theater and watch the two of them fight in The V.I.Ps.  Elizabeth Taylor may be playing Frances Andros and Richard Burton may be playing Paul Andros but they really might as well be playing themselves.

The V.I.P.s is a big and glossy film, the type of movie that the Hollywood studios used to make as their way of saying, “See!  You won’t get this on TV!”  It’s frequently silly but it’s also undeniably watchable.  While Burton and Taylor’s later films tended to feature the two of them at their worst, they’re both actually really good in The V.I.P.s and the scenes where they argue have an emotional heft to them that, with the exception of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woof?, wasn’t found in their other films.  For once, you watch the film and you really do hope that Liz and Dick will work things out and stay together.  The V.I.P.s may be dated (just try to chase someone through an airport or get off a delayed flight now) but it’s still entertaining.

Cleaning Out The DVR: BUtterfield 8 (dir by Daniel Mann)

“Mama, face it,” Gloria Wandrous (Elizabeth Taylor) announces in the 1960 film, BUtterfield 8, “I was the slut of all time!”

Personally, I think Gloria is being a little bit too hard on herself. Certainly the film suggests, in its 1960 way, that she’s promiscuous and that she only sleeps with men for money but that doesn’t necessarily make her the slut of all time. For one thing, I would think that the slut of all time would have more options than just a wimpy pianist played by Eddie Fisher or a depressing, self-absorbed businessman played by Laurence Harvey.

“I still say it stinks,” Elizabeth Taylor said, almost immediately after winning her first Oscar for her performance in BUtterfield 8 and she’s kind of right. BUtterfield 8 is not a particularly good film, though not quite as bad as Taylor seemed to believe it to be.

Taylor won the Oscar after suffering a near fatal bout of pneumonia and having to undergo a tracheotomy. Along with saying that the film stunk, Taylor also often said that she only won her first Oscar because she nearly died. That may or may not be true but the thing is, Taylor’s the best thing in this overwritten and overheated mess of a movie. She certainly gives a better and more sympathetic performance than Laurence Harvey, who is cast as her married lover, Wilson Liggett. We’re meant to sympathize with Ligget but Harvey plays him as if he’s in a permanently sour mood and, after just a few minutes of listening to him bitch about every little thing, the viewer will get sick of him. It’s hard to really see what Gloria Wandrous sees in this whiny alcoholic.

Then again, the only other option that the film gives Gloria is Steve Carpenter, the pianist played by Eddie Fisher. Steve can’t decide if he’s in love with his boring girlfriend, Norma (Susan Oliver) or if he’s in love with Gloria. However, Steve has no problem letting Gloria borrow one of Norma’s dresses so that she can wear it when she goes home to visit her mother and I have to say that if I was Norma, Steve would be finding a new bed to sleep in after that. Gloria tells Steve that he needs to decide who he’s in love with but Steve jut can’t do it. Of course, in real life, Eddie Fisher left Debbie Reynolds so that he could marry Elizabeth Taylor. (A year or so later, Taylor left Fisher so that she could marry Richard Burton.)

BUtterfield 8 is one of those films that was undoubtedly considered to be daring when it was first released, seeing as how it acknowledged that people had sex without getting married first. (GASP!) Of course, though the film acknowledges that people have sex, it still makes sure to let us know that no one’s happy afterwards and that promiscuity eventually leads to death. (I mean, BUtterfield 8 may have taken risks but it still knew better than to defy the production code.) Seen today, the entire film is rather tame, talky, and slow but the star power of Elizabeth Taylor still comes through. The film opens with a lengthy sequence of Gloria getting ready for her day and, as you watch it and, more importantly, as you watch Elizabeth Taylor, you find yourself thinking that this is what a movie star is supposed to be. She dominates the film and she manages to credibly deliver even the most overheated pieces of dialogue. (Just try to imagine Jennifer Lawrence delivering the “slut of all time” line and you’ll immediately understand the difference between the movie stars of the past and the movie stars of the present. Of course, you could also say the same thing about trying to imagine a young Elizabeth Taylor in Silver Linings Playbook or The Hunger Games.) In fact, one could argue that Taylor’s performance is almost too good for the material. The film, in its 1960 way, suggests that Gloria would be better off if she just settled down but it’s impossible to imagine Taylor’s Gloria Wandrous settling for the stiffs played by Laurence Harvey and Eddie Fisher.

Though Elizabeth Taylor was correct about BUtterfield 8‘s overall quality, it’s still a good example of what star power can do for an otherwise mediocre film.

4 Shots From 4 Elizabeth Taylor Films: A Place In The Sun, Suddenly Last Summer, Boom!, Night Watch

4 Shots From 4 Films is just what it says it is, 4 shots from 4 of our favorite films. As opposed to the reviews and recaps that we usually post, 4 Shots From 4 Films lets the visuals do the talking!

Today is the birthday of one of the greatest films stars ever, Elizabeth Taylor!  And you know what that means.  It’s time for….

4 Shots From 4 Elizabeth Taylor Films

A Place in the Sun (1951, dir by George Stevens)

Suddenly, Last Summer (1959, dir by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Boom! (1968, dir by Joseph Losey)

Night Watch (1973, dir by Brian G. Hutton)

Book Review: Giant — Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Edna Ferber, And The Making Of A Legendary American Film by Don Graham

Wow, that Edna Ferber sure was a bitch.

That was my first thought as I read Giant, Don Graham’s history about the making of the film of the same name.  In the early 50s, Edna Ferber, a writer who was born in Michigan, raised in Wisconsin, and lived in New York, wrote a novel about Texas.  The novel was called Giant and it told a story of ranchers, oilmen, and casual racists.  It was meant to be an attack on Texas, a warning to the rest of the country to not allow itself to turn into Texas.  Ferber presented Texas as being a land where everything was big and everyone owned a jet and an oil well and all the rest of the usual stereotypes.  When Ferber’s novel was turned into a movie, she was apparently not happy to discover that the film was not the vehement denunciation of the state and its citizens that she wished it to be.  In Don Graham’s book, Edna Feber often seems to be hovering in the background of every scene, throwing a fit about every detail of the movie.  She comes across as a certain type of character that every Texan has had to deal with: the angry Northerner who can’t understand why we’re not as impressed with them as they are.

That’s not to say that Giant, as a film, was blindly pro-Texas.  The film featured a subplot that deal with the prejudice that Mexicans faced in Texas.  But the film also indicated that things could change and that people could grow and that was something that Ferber apparently did not agree with, at least as far as Texans are concerned.

If Graham’s entire book was just about Ferber’s displeasure with Giant, it would make for a fairly tedious read but, fortunately, Edna Ferber is just a minor part of the sprawling story that Graham tells.  Instead of worrying too much about Ferber, Graham focuses on the filming of Giant and how it not only brought Hollywood to the citizens of Marfa, Texas but also what it meant to George Stevens, the film’s director and it’s three stars, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, and James Dean.  Giant was the film that proved that Elizabeth Taylor could act.  It was also the film that brought Rock Hudson some rare critical acclaim.  And, perhaps most importantly, it was the last film that James Dean made before his death.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the book is at its most interesting when it deals with James Dean.  Graham does not make the mistake of blindly idolizing Dean.  Indeed, Dean often comes across as a brat.  Graham writes about Marlon Brando’s well-known dislike of Dean but he also shares anecdotes from the set that reveal that Dean was incredibly talented but also very self-destructive.  Reading about Dean’s behavior and his frayed relationship with George Stevens, one gets the feeling that, even if he had survived the car accident, Dean’s acting career probably would never have survived his own self-destructive impulses.  Graham celebrates Dean’s talent without idealizing his character.

Much as in the movie, Rock Hudson is frequently overshadowed by Dean.  In the book, Hudson comes across as being …. well, he’s come across as being a bit of a jerk.  Elizabeth Taylor, on the other hand, comes across as being driven, fragile, and committed to her stardom.  She also comes across as possessing an unexpectedly sharp wit.  If both Dean and Hudson were both a bit too self-impressed, Taylor possessed the knowledge of someone who had spent her entire life in the film industry.

Don Graham’s Giant is an entertaining book. Full of anecdotes and more than a little bit juicy speculation about what went on behind the scenes, Giant is a great read for Texans and film fans alike!

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (dir by Mike Nichols)

I’ve starred in a production of Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

That’s right.  I’ve played Martha, the heavy-drinking and dissatisfied wife of a burned-out English professor named George.  Yes, I’ve played the same role for which Uta Hagen won a Tony and Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar.  Among the other actresses that have played Martha on stage: Colleen Dewhurst, Meg Tilly, Diana Rigg, and Kathleen Turner.  And, of course, me.

Now, I should admit that I was only 16 when I played Martha so I was perhaps a bit too young for the role.  Fortunately, my friend Erik — who played George — was only a year and a half older so he was just as miscast as I was.  (It was, at one point, suggested that I should try to put some gray in my hair but I pointed out that, as a redhead, I would never have to worry about that.)  On Broadway and film, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? runs for over two hours.  The production in which I starred only had a running time of 13 minutes.  Also, the version in which I starred did not feature the characters for Honey and Nick.  I mean, who needed them when you could just watch Erik and me yell at each other for ten minutes straight.

And that’s pretty much what we did.  When we told our drama teacher that we would be doing a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for our “Dramatic Duet,” I’m pretty sure that I saw her roll her eyes.  I imagine that’s because she knew that both of us had a tendency towards the dramatic and that the main we picked the play was so we could compete to see who could be the first to go hoarse from yelling.  She was right, of course.  There was no nuance to our performance, largely because neither one of us really understood what the play was about.  We just thought it was funny that some of our classmates covered their ears while we were loudly insulting and taunting each other.  (For the record, I went hoarse before Erik did and I spent the next two days receiving compliments about my new sexy voice.)

Now that I’ve grown up a little, I think I have a better understanding of what Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is actually about.  At the very least, I now understand that the story is about more than just two burn-outs yelling at each other while a younger couple awkwardly watches.  I now understand that the game that George and Martha play over the course of the night is not a game of hate but instead a game of a very dysfunctional but also rather deep love.  If anything, I now have more sympathy for George and Martha and far less for the play’s judgmental younger couple, Nick and Honey.

Of course, it helps that I’ve seen the 1966 film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  Directed (in his directorial debut) by Mike Nichols, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? features Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as George and Martha and George Segal and Sandy Dennis and Nick and Honey.  All four of them were Oscar-nominated for their roles, making Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? one of the few films to see its entire cast nominated.  Elizabeth Taylor and Sandy Dennis both won in in their categories but it really is Richard Burton (who lost to Paul Scofield) who dominates the film.

Burton was a performer who could be shameless in his overacting.  (Just watch his performance in The Exorcist II if you need proof.)  And really, one would expect that the role of George would appeal to all of his worst instincts.  Instead, Burton gives a surprisingly subtle performance.  He growls when you expect him to yell and he delivers the majority of his lines not with fury but instead with a resigned and rather sardonic self-loathing.  He’s actually less showy than Elizabeth Taylor, who gives an overall good performance but still sometimes comes across like she’s trying too hard to convince the audience that she’s a 50 year-old drunk and not one of the world’s most glamorous film stars.  Throughout the film, Burton seems to be digging down deep and exposing his true self to the audience and, watching the action unfold, you can’t take your eyes off of him.  Everyone in the cast does a good job with their roles but Burton is the one who keeps the film moving.  Just as George is ultimately revealed to be stronger than he originally appears, Burton also reveals himself to be a far more compelling actor than you might think if you just knew him from his lesser roles (and performances).

Admittedly, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is not my favorite of the many films that have been nominated for best picture over the last 90 years.  Even when the characters are inhabited by skilled performers, a little bit of George and Martha goes a long way.  That said, this is a historically important film.  The film’s language may seem tame today but it was considered to be shockingly profane in 1966.  The fact that the National Legion of Decency declined to condemn the film despite the language was considered to be a major step forward in the maturation of American cinema.  In fact, it can be argued that the MPAA rating system started as a way to tell audiences that a film like Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? was not morally objectionable but that it was still meant for adults.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? received thirteen Academy Awards nominations.  It was nominated in every category for which it was eligible.  It won 5 awards but ultimately lost Best Picture to rather more sedate theatrical adaptation, A Man For All Seasons.


Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Ivanhoe (dir by Richard Thorpe)

Welcome to England in the 12th century!

That’s the setting of the 1952 best picture nominee, Ivanhoe.  It’s a green and healthy land, full of chivalrous knights and corrupt royalty and outlaws who steal from the rich and give to the poor.  King Richard the Lion Heart (Norman Wooland) left on a crusade and he hasn’t been seen for a while.  Richard’s evil brother, the cowardly King John (Guy Rolfe), rules the country and has little interest in making sure that Richard returns.  Even when Wilfred of Ivanhoe (Robert Taylor) discovers that Richard is being held for ransom, John declines to do anything about it.

Ivanhoe is determined to raise the money to pay the ransom and restore Richard to the throne of England, even if he has to secretly compete in a tournament to do it.  Of course, before he can do that, he’ll have to buy a horse and some armor.  Fortunately, he comes across Isaac (Felix Aylmer) and his daughter, Rebecca (Elizabeth Taylor).  Isaac and Rebecca give Ivanhoe the money necessary to purchase a good horse and equipment.  Rebecca falls in love with Ivanoe, despite the fact that Ivanhoe is in love with Rowena (Joan Fontaine, who spends most of the movie looking rather bored).

Speaking of love, the king’s favorite knight — the hot-headed but honorable Sir Brian De Bois-Guilbert (George Sanders) — has fallen in love with Rebecca.  That, of course, complicates matters when the anti-Semitic King John attempts to have the Jewish Rebecca burned at the stake for witchcraft.  When Ivanhoe invokes the “wager of challenge,” in an effort to save Rebecca’s life, Sir Brian is chosen as the court’s champion.  Needless to say, this leads to some awkward moments….

Listen, I would be lying if I said that it was easy for me to follow the plot of Ivanhoe.  It seemed like every few minutes, someone else was plotting against either Ivanoe or King John and it got a bit difficult to keep track of what exactly everyone was trying to accomplish.  By the time Robin Hood (Harold Warrender) showed up, I have given up trying to make sense of the plot.

Instead of worrying about the exact details of the plot, I decided to just enjoy the film as a spectacle.  If nothing else, Ivanhoe is gorgeous to look at.  The colors are lush and full and the costumes and the sets are all wonderfully ornate.  Apparently, 12 Century England was a very colorful place.  There’s a lot of battles and jousts and sword fights.  I couldn’t always keep track of who was fighting who but at least the film moved at a steady pace.

Robert Taylor and Joan Fontaine make for a dull leading couple but a young Elizabeth Taylor is stunning in the role of Rebecca and George Sanders transforms Sir Brian into a truly tragic figure.  Guy Rolfe is memorably evil as King John, though he’s perhaps not as much fun as Oscar Isaac was in Robin Hood.  Everyone in the movie looks good in their period costuming.  Really, that’s the most important thing.

Ivanhoe was nominated for Best Picture but lost to The Greatest Show On Earth.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (dir by Richard Brooks)

The 1958 best picture nominee, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, opens with a 30-something Paul Newman doing something stupid.

It’s a testament to just how incredibly handsome Paul Newman was in the 1950s that he can still be sexy even while he’s stumbling around in a drunken haze and attempting to jump over hurdles on a high school football field.  Newman is playing Brick Pollitt, youngest son of the wealthy cotton farmer Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives).  Brick was a star athlete in high school but now, he’s a drunk with an unhappy marriage and a lot of bitter feelings.  When Brick attempts to jump over the hurdles, he breaks his ankle.  The only thing that keeps Brick from being as big a loser as Biff Loman is the fact that he looks like Paul Newman.

Brick is married to Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor), a beautiful woman who may have grown up on the wrong side of the tracks but who has married into money.  The only problem is that it doesn’t seem like Brick is ever going to get that money.  With Big Daddy getting older, everyone in Mississippi is wondering which Pollitt son will inherit his fortune.  Will it be drunken, self-pitying Brick or will it be Goober (Jack Carson) and his wife (Madeleine Sherwood)?  One point in Goober’s favor is that he and his wife already have five rambunctious children while Brick and Maggie have none.  In fact, gossip has it that Brick and Maggie aren’t even sleeping in the same bed!  (While Maggie begs Brick to make love to her, Brick defiantly sleeps on the couch.)  The other problem is that, for whatever reason, Brick harbors unending resentment towards … well, everything.  Perhaps it has something to do with the mysterious death of Brick’s best friend and former teammate, Skipper…

Brick, Maggie, Goober, and the whole clan are in Mississippi to celebrate Big Daddy’s 65th birthday.  Big Daddy is happy because he’s just been told that, despite a recent scare, he does not have cancer.  What Big Daddy doesn’t know is that his doctor (Larry Gates) lied to him.  Big Daddy does have cancer.  In fact, Big Daddy only has a year to live.

Whenever I watch Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, I find it’s helpful to try to imagine what it would have been like to watch the movie in the 1950s.  Imagine how audiences, at a time when married couples were still regularly portrayed as sleeping in separate beds and when men were naturally assumed to be the kings of their household, reacted to seeing a film where Elizabeth Taylor was literally reduced to begging Paul Newman to make love to her while Newman hopped around on a crutch and continually found himself getting stuck in embarrassing situations.  Though it may seem tame by today’s standards, the film was undeniably daring for 1958 and watching it is like stepping into a time machine and discovering that, yes, there was a time when Elizabeth Taylor wearing a modest slip was considered to be the height of raciness.

Of course, the film itself is quite toned down from the Tennessee Williams’s play on which it was based.  Williams reportedly hated the changes that were made in the screenplay.  In the play, Skipper committed suicide after confessing that he had romantic feelings for Brick, feelings that Brick claims he did not reciprocate.  That was glossed voter in the film, as was the story of Skipper’s unsuccessful attempt to prove his heterosexuality by having sex with Maggie.  By removing any direct reference to the romantic undercurrent of Brick and Skipper’s relationship, the film also removes most of Brick’s motivation.  (It’s still there in the subtext, of course, but it’s probable that the hints that Newman and Taylor provided in their performances went straight over the heads of most audience members.)  In the play, Brick is tortured by self-doubt and questions about his own sexuality.  In the film, he just comes across as being rather petulant.

And again, it’s fortunate that, in the film, Brick was played by Paul Newman.  It doesn’t matter how bitter Brick becomes or how much he whines about not wanting to be around his family.  One look at Newman’s blue eyes and you understand why Maggie is willing to put up with him.  In the role of Maggie, Elizabeth Taylor gives a performance that manages to be both ferocious and delicate at the same time.  Maggie knows how to play the genteel games of the upper class South but she’s definitely not going to let anyone push her around.  It’s easy to see why Big Daddy prefers the company of Maggie to his own blood relations.  It’s not just that Maggie’s beautiful, though the implication that Big Daddy is attracted to her is certainly present in the film.  It’s also the she’s the only person around who is as strong and determined as him.

Indeed, seen today, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof‘s main strength is that it’s a masterclass in good acting.  Williams’s dialogue is so stylized and his plot is so melodramatic that one bad performance would have caused the entire film to implode.  Fortunately, Newman and Taylor make even the archest of lines sound totally natural while Burl Ives and Judith Anderson are both the epitome of flamboyant charisma as Big Daddy and Big Mama.  It takes a lot of personality to earn a nickname like Big Daddy but Ives pulls it off.

Along with being a huge box office success, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof was nominated for best picture of 1958.  However, it lost to Gigi.