Sunday, March 18, 2018

'Flamingo Road' Reunites Crawford with Curtiz

Joan Crawford wears a waitress uniform once again for 'Flamingo Road!'

Some say that studio head Jack Warner re-teamed Joan Crawford with Michael Curtiz, who guided her Mildred Pierce comeback, in 1949’s Flamingo Road because the star was slipping. Critics point to the box office returns of Crawford’s post-Mildred pictures as proof.
I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. While those films did about half the box office business of 1945’s Mildred Pierce, Crawford’s Oscar winning role as a waitress turned tycoon was a once in a life time blockbuster, her all-time highest-grossing movie. Joan’s first three post-Mildred movies all made it over the 100 million mark, in today’s dollars. And they were not typical Crawford films: in Humoresque, Joan was an alcoholic socialite; in Possessed, Crawford played crazy; and in Daisy Kenyon, she was a career girl at a crossroads.
This WB poster pushes the 'Mildred Pierce' connection and the star's still shapely figure.

Warner may have wanted to shore up Crawford’s continued popularity with a more commercial picture, which Flamingo Road certainly was. In fact, this was her last bonafide hit film for Warner Brothers. The noir southern soap opera was the beginning of a series of Crawford shady lady roles, and what followed was a case of diminishing returns. Next year’s stylish Crawford mashup, The Damned Don’t Cry, marked a huge drop off in Joan’s drawing power, and with a few exceptions, stayed that way from 1950 on.
Joan was born in a wagon of a travelling show... and yes, Crawford still has IT (look above her head!)

Flamingo Road is often described as campy Crawford cinema. Imagine my surprise to find that it was not—except for the hooty opening sequence, with Joan as a hoochie mama dancer in a travelling carnival show—complete with a veil. The scene hilariously shows Joan performing for a gaggle of gaga adolescent boys. Joan, who was officially 41—I’m of the school who think that Crawford was actually a few years older—either way, was too mature for this. When Joan’s Lane Bellamy falls for Zachary Scott’s deputy, her love rival is played by Virginia Huston, who was 24 here!
Joan with some of her favorite WB leading men, David Brian at left, and Zachary Scott on the right.

This film came out the same year that Bette Davis was trying to convince audiences she was a small town sex bomb in Beyond the Forest. Davis commented that WB should have had cast studio star Virginia Mayo in her role. The same thought crossed my mind when I first saw Joan here as Lane Bellamy—Mayo would have been a no-brainer. Whatever—let’s just say that Joan was MUCH better preserved in Flamingo Road than Bette was in Beyond the Forest.
Joan as Lane Bellamy, carny girl turned waitress, and on her way up!

Once that suspension of disbelief is dispensed with, Flamingo Road is a highly watchable melodrama that has a strong story, cast, production, and direction. Under Warners’ top director Michael Curtiz, Joan gives an intense, yet restrained performance as the ex-carny girl who wants to put down roots. Lane’s weak-willed beau Field Carlisle is under the thumb of crooked sheriff, Titus Semple, played by Sydney Greenstreet. The sheriff has political plans for the deputy. So, Zachary Scott’s weak charmer (did he ever play anything else?) marries the rich girl from Flamingo Road and immediately hits the bottle. Meanwhile, Titus does everything he can to run Lane out of town. Crawford’s character must really like the real estate in Boldon, because she will not leave. After release from a jail stint, railroaded by Titus, Lane goes to work at Lute Mae’s a “roadhouse.” Lute is played by the great Gladys George, the best wisecracking scene stealer since Thelma Ritter. Note all George’s world-weary talk of getting “old,” while Joan is constantly referred to as a “girl,” and they’re nearly the same age.
Joan Crawford gets great lighting as well as lines in 'Flamingo Road': "I'm not a carny girl anymore!" 

At Lute Mae’s, Lane meets Dan Reynolds, played by David Brian, who was also Bette Davis’ tough businessman lover in Beyond the Forest. This was the first of Brian’s several pairings with Crawford, who “discovered” him. As always, Crawford has men fighting over her. The thing is, the two leading men are only mildly appealing, so the real interest comes when Crawford and Greenstreet square off. As Sheriff Semple, Sydney Greenstreet is a worthy adversary for Joan, a forerunner to Orson Welles sweaty slob of a sheriff in Touch of Evil.
Sydney Greenstreet's crooked sheriff and Joan's former carny girl tussle at 'Flamingo Road's' climax!

The indomitable Lane is at first unnerved by sweaty, sinister Titus, but quickly asserts herself—after all, she is played by Joan Crawford! Flamingo Road’s most famous line comes after Titus Semple says he never forgets anything. Joan’s Lane Bellamy replies: “You know, Sheriff, we had an elephant in our carnival with a memory like that. He went after a keeper that he'd held a grudge against for almost 15 years—had to be shot. You just wouldn't believe how much trouble it is to dispose of a dead elephant.”
Gladys George is great as Lute Mae, wondering if new hire Joan Crawford will be worth the trouble.

Coming from a campy ‘50s Crawford vehicle, Joan would have dropped this line like a piano from a twenty story building. Here, the star’s delivery is snapped, but simply said. Director Curtiz was able to keep Crawford as understated here as he did in Mildred Pierce. Oh, occasionally the MGM “English” creeps in, especially once Lane becomes a “lady,” but here it works. I always thought that Joan more fun as a working class girl, which is where she came from in real life. At the Flamingo’s early scenes, Joan sports dishwater blonde hair and curls. Her clothes are tight and manner plain-spoken. Crawford’s demeanor as Lane is no-nonsense but game, with her vulnerability just below the surface. Crawford is actually most appealing when her characters are on their way up, as in Mildred Pierce, as opposed to later scenes, when she’s suffering in mink.
For Joan Crawford, guns and minks go together like Pepsi and vodka!

While Flamingo Road is pure melodrama, from Written on the Wind author Robert Wilder, there’s a real story to hold audience interest. Michael Curtiz elevates the book’s atmospheric world of a southern town and its class system. Curtiz and cinematographer Ted McCord bring great visual style to the storytelling and the scenes at Lute Mae’s roadhouse especially pop. McCord’s deep focus photography is reminiscent of Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Little Foxes).
Once JC's a stylish "lady," she gets to wear some swanky duds by Travilla.

Caricature for Crawford was just around the corner in the ‘50s. But here, in Flamingo Road, Joan goes from cheap to chic, and is framed throughout in soft lighting and deep shadows. Travilla, who famously dressed Marilyn Monroe over at 20 Century Fox, and later infamously overdressed those Valley of the Dolls, creates Crawford some sexy frocks as the waitress and sleek outfits as the wealthy wife. Whatever age Joan was, she is in super-fine form here, and wears it all with her usual aplomb.

Warner Brothers made many film noir soap operas with their female stars in the last half of the ‘40s, but most were dark and dreary. Joan Crawford moved mountains to elevate hers, while holding her ground for better roles. In my research, I was amazed at how many Warner Brothers’ female stars were suspended for turning down bad movies, and some even sued: Bette Davis, Olivia de Havilland, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, and even sweet Joan Leslie!

After leaving long-time studio MGM, Joan Crawford was off-screen for two years after signing with WB, waiting for a proper comeback vehicle. While none of Joan’s WB films topped Mildred Pierce, Flamingo Road is a finely crafted, fun film that crosses several genres, and provides Crawford with a worthy vehicle.
Just a reminder, 'Flamingo Road' is by the same folks who brought you 'Mildred Pierce!'

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Suddenly, Last Summer 1959

What happened Suddenly, Last Summer? An aging southern socialite wasn’t able to accompany her son on their travels, so he took his beautiful young cousin instead. The poet son died under mysterious circumstances, and the girl has suffered a mental breakdown. The rich aunt now wants extreme measures to quiet her niece. A doctor, at the institution where the young woman is held, fights to find out the truth. That’s the short take on the over-the-top 1959 film, taken from Tennessee Williams’ one-act play, which is still riveting as hell.
"Truth is the bottom of a bottomless well."

Of the many facets of Suddenly, Last Summer that fascinate, it’s Tennessee Williams’ subliminal self reflection on his life and career that resonates for me. The film and its source material have been criticized for gay self-loathing. True, but it was reflective of what many gays experienced during his era, and shouldn’t be forgotten. The playwright also addresses his eternal struggle, to write about often painful things, countered with anesthetic but counterproductive partying with booze, boys, and drugs. Fading youth is a frequent Williams’ lament. The civilized world versus the more base elements of life is another. Williams’ commentary comes through in some of my favorite lines in Suddenly, Last Summer.   
As I get older, this has become my favorite line from 'Suddenly, Last Summer.'

Wealthy New Orleans matron Violet Venable was the lone unsympathetic role in Katharine Hepburn's long career—and she hated playing the part. Why? Speculation ran the gamut. A few naïve souls said that Kate didn’t realize this was gay material—this seems absurd, as Hepburn worked with gays her whole career, and was most likely a lesbian herself. Others said that while Hepburn strongly wanted to work with Williams, but regretted playing the villain, and she preferred to be the headstrong but likeable heroine.
Still, some thought it was simply ego. Hepburn, accustomed to being the star attraction, was now playing second lead to a younger actress, Elizabeth Taylor. Adding insult was the film’s climax, when Elizabeth is shown in flashback in all her sexy swimsuit glory, contrasted with cruel close-ups of Hepburn’s unfiltered face and wrinkled hands, to emphasize that Aunt Violet’s illusions are shattered.
Hepburn was furious after seeing these shots.
Mankiewicz shot Kate unfiltered at 'Summer's' end.

Hepburn was famous for spitting at director Joseph Mankiewicz on the last day of shooting Summer, allegedly over his treatment of troubled co-star Montgomery Clift. For many years, this was the story told by Hepburn and others. Much later, Kate said it was over the director’s above-described treatment of her. It’s noteworthy that Joe was Kate’s producer on two of her biggest MGM hits, The Philadelphia Story and Woman of the Year. Given their history, Kate was unpleasantly surprised that he favored 27-year-old Elizabeth over her 52-year-old self.
For most of the movie, Hepburn was photographed as a mature beauty, easy to accomplish with her slim figure and still-striking bone structure. But Kate, who liked to give the impression that she had no time for Hollywood glamour, was just as fussy as Joan Crawford or Lana Turner over how she appeared onscreen.
Thankfully, Hepburn, with her distinctive staccato vocals, does not attempt a southern accent. The dragon dowager who wants to shut up a “babbling” young woman with a new “operation” is basically Williams’ mother and his emotionally fragile sister, Rose, who was given a lobotomy to control her outbursts. Hepburn’s natural authority as Violet is combined with a cool charm that barely conceals her rage at a niece whom she blames for her son’s death. Hepburn blazes through Williams’ long monologues as though she wants the promising doctor to bear witness to her pain. As Violet, Hepburn gets to lament life’s unfairness, charm the young doctor, insult her greedy family and most of all, confront her young niece, played by Taylor.
Director Joe Mankiewicz with his star. Notice "Mank" is wearing gloves, due to a skin condition exacerbated by stress!

On Hepburn, Joe Mankiewicz later opined in the early ‘70s that Hepburn was “the most experienced amateur actress in the world…whose performances, though remarkably effective, are fake.” Interestingly, critic Pauline Kael echoed the same sentiments later, on Kate’s TV version of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. I think there’s truth in that statement, regarding Hepburn’s latter day performances, but here, Kate’s larger-than-life persona fits Violet Venable perfectly. And for the record, “Mank” thought Kate was “damn good” in Suddenly, Last Summer.

With Tennessee Williams, it's a thin line between love and hate!
Tennessee Williams wrote in Life magazine that he thought Elizabeth Taylor was too mature and worldly as Catherine Holly, though he did say her acting was a triumph over miscasting. Williams’ take was understandable. Starting with his Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Taylor was on the tsunami ride of her femme fatale image. Patricia Neal, who played the role on stage in London, wrote in her memoirs that she desperately wanted the movie role. Neal was six years older than Taylor, and if you wanna talk about mature and worldly, Pat was your gal. Like Lansbury and Bacall, Neal always seemed older and world weary before her time. And just two years later, Patricia Neal was playing the aging housekeeper in Hud. Age-wise, I think newcomer Lee Remick would have looked the part—Catherine Holly’s age isn’t given, but I always assumed that she was in her early ’20s. Remick was sly that same year in Anatomy of a Murder, but I don't think she was ready yet for such a demanding role. 
Yes, please!

Though Hepburn and Taylors's first monologues are terrific, the film comes to life when Mankiewicz stops treating the movie like a filmed play. The climactic scene, where Catherine is induced with ‘truth serum’ to recall what happened last summer, is visually brilliant. Some unkind souls at the time felt the recreation of events were designed to bolster Elizabeth’s emoting. Later, a few film buffs have sneered that her performance is simply over-acting. I think Taylor’s performance is the right balance between naturalistic and theatrical, which is perfect for Tennessee Williams. Taylor’s exchanges with Montgomery Clift’s doctor are sly and subtle. Later, Catherine’s sedated by the blonde male nurse, as Taylor sleepily recalls her and Sebastian’s next destination—“We’ll fly north, little bird.” Elizabeth is understated, yet powerful here. The camera goes in for a gradual huge close-up of her face, and it is mesmerizing.
Katharine Hepburn & Elizabeth Taylor square off as the the forbidding aunt & the fiery niece, debating Sebastian's memory.

It’s been condescendingly said that Elizabeth Taylor is only good when she has a great director. My response is that’s true with pretty much ALL actors. Hepburn, Davis, and Crawford all benefited from directors who didn’t let them steamroll through movies with their diva personas. Even Meryl Streep is a better actor when she has a great director and material. Plus, Elizabeth Taylor demonstrated that she was able to carry inferior vehicles, like BUtterfield 8.
Hepburn’s cool, steely demeanor and Taylor’s fiery emotionalism makes a fascinating acting counterpoint and is the foundation of Suddenly, Last Summer.
Elizabeth Taylor and best friend Montgomery Clift on the set of 'Suddenly, Last Summer.'

Montgomery Clift was nearly replaced with newcomer Peter O' Toole, by producer Sam Spiegel, due to Monty’s drug and alcohol problems that accelerated after his famous car accident two years prior. Best pal Elizabeth Taylor's response to Spiegel and Mankiewicz, who both wanted him replaced: “Over my dead body.”
While Monty seemed sedated, his intelligence and intensity still shines through. Especially when compared to Rob Lowe's single dumbfounded expression in his amateurish performance as the doctor in the 1993 BBC remake. I’ll never forget when Rob was on Live! With Regis & Kathy Lee, promoting his version of Suddenly, Last Summer. Kathy Lee, like Catherine Holly, was given to “babbling,” and kept interrupting to talk about the Elizabeth Taylor version. Lowe pompously commented that the BBC version, with Maggie Smith as Aunt Violet and Natasha Richardson as Catherine, wasn’t like “the glossy Hollywood version.” And Kathy Lee just went right on talking about how haunting the original version was!
Monty, Mank, Kate & Liz prove there's no problem on this set!

 I’ve seen the ‘93 version again recently, and it is indeed a faithful adaptation of Williams’ one-act play. Yet, the Rob Lowe remake is also dull as dishwater. The wonderful Maggie Smith is dotty right from the get-go as Violet, in a surprisingly one-note, shrill performance. While Richardson is naturalistic and appealing as Catherine, she is often whiny and dull. The dramatic tension between the two women here is zilch. It reminded me a great deal of the TV remake of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The ‘91 TV version had two great actresses who were actually sisters, Vanessa and Lynn Redgrave, and yet the more “natural” version had absolutely zero tension.

The 1959 version of Suddenly, Last Summer has been praised, condemned, deemed dated, called camp, and everything in between. The two hour expansion of a one-act play, filmed during the last gasp of Hollywood censorship, is not perfect. Yet, it was groundbreaking and a sign of things to come in ‘60s cinema. Watching Hepburn and Taylor share the screen, speaking some of Tennessee Williams’ most memorable lines, guided by one of Hollywood’s most literate directors, is something to behold.

Catherine finally remembers what happened to Cousin Sebastian last summer.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Dangerous 1935

A ‘Dangerous’ Bette works up a lather in this dull soap opera.

I watched 1935’s Dangerous recently, which I haven’t seen since the afternoon movies of the ‘70s. Last year, I saw Bette Davis' career breakthrough in ‘34’s Of Human Bondage, for the very first time. Davis gives her all in both, but the difference is in the material she’s working with.
Even at the time, Davis acknowledged that her Oscar win for Dangerous was a consolation prize for when she was conspicuously passed over for Bondage. That's putting it mildly. As with Elizabeth Taylor's sympathy win for1960’s BUtterfield 8, Davis victory over strong competition like Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams was all about compounding a previous cinematic slight. 
Bette Davis and Jack Warner with a 'Dangerous' Oscar. Not feeling the love!

At first, Davis turned down Dangerous, as it was a schlocky attempt to cash in Bette's turn as Mildred Rogers in Bondage. All very ironic, since studio boss Jack Warner told her to go hang herself for even wanting to play such a role. Davis starred in the Maugham classic on loan out and got rave reviews for her groundbreaking portrayal. Warner Bros gave her no support with the studio’s voting block, even they had no best actress nominee in the hopper. The next year, Jack Warner turned around and wanted Bette to basically repeat her Bondage performance in Dangerous, a cobbled together soap about a washed up actress. Warner was cashing in on Davis on the way up, whereas MGM cashed in on Elizabeth Taylor on her way out, in BUtterfield 8. Ironically, both actresses ultimately toiled at their home studios for 18 years. 
Bette Davis got star billing at last in 'Dangerous.'

Dangerous is an "original" script that played off the recently deceased stage legend Jeanne Eagels. An exciting talent, Eagels was a fiery talent who succumbed to alcohol and hard drugs, flamed out, dead at 35. Davis plays Joyce Heath, a once in a lifetime talent who is a jinx to every man she meets. Now a derelict alcoholic, Heath catches the eye of famed architect Don Bellows (Franchot Tone), who seeks to rehabilitate her for the noblest and most unbelievable of reasons—he adored her interpretation of Juliet. To this hogwash, scriptwriter Laird Doyle added several shrewish scenes, where Bette lashes out at her male co-stars, exactly as Davis did to Leslie Howard in Bondage. Of course, Davis and Tone’s characters fall in love. But bad girl Bette can’t have the hero, so just like BUtterfield 8 there’s a car crash that solves everything. That's the plot, in a nutshell.
Bette Davis was the first film actress who dared to look unglamorous. In 'Dangerous,' she was a drab drunken actress.

Davis was not impressed, but intrigued by playing the Eagels-esque legend, as she admired the late actress. Davis also realized it was better than anything else Warner was offering.
Even BUtterfield 8 had the framework of John O’Hara’s novel to work off of. Dangerous scraps sewed together for a very flimsy vehicle for new star Davis. If it wasn't for Bette's dynamic new style of acting, Dangerous would be an instantly forgotten Warner Brothers’ “B” movie.
Franchot Tone and Margaret Lindsay as a happy couple...before Bette comes along!

As Bette’s embattled leading man, Franchot Tone is far more engaging than Leslie Howard, who apparently was bored by film acting. I’m not sure why the popular MGM leading man was loaned out to WB for this B+ movie, but Franchot is at the height of his appeal and attractiveness here. Tone’s warmth and charm is an audience buffer to Bette's shrewish drunk. 
Once again, an aristocratic brunette is (temporarily) thrown over by the leading man, who is ensnared by neurotic Bette. In Bondage, lovely Frances Dee waits for Leslie Howard to come to his senses. In Dangerous, that task goes to beautiful Margaret Lindsay, who played the dutiful second fiddle to Bette in other WB films, like Bordertown and Jezebel.
The great Alison Skipworth, as Tone’s housekeeper, heaves her mountainous bosom with disapproval at dipsomaniac Davis, and their scenes offer some comic relief.
Bad girl Bette redeems herself by reuniting with an ex-husband that she just tried to that's love!

Bette's bad girl atonement means going back to a dopey ex-husband, who she just tried to kill in the prior scene. Talk about a tacked-on ending. Director Alfred E. Green, one of WB’s “studio” directors, who specialized in B+ pictures, does what he can in telling this thin tale. Screenwriter Laird Doyle, whose job it was to whip up this vehicle for Bette, was one of WB’s prolific screenwriters. Sadly, Doyle died at age 29 in 1937, while taking flying lessons.
There is no reason to watch Dangerous except to see Bette Davis in action when she finally got a star role at Warner Brothers. It took three years, two dozen mostly bad movies, and another studio for Warners’ to get a clue in what they had in Bette. A lawsuit by their star a year later, over the lack of good roles, proved that Bette Davis meant business.
Once Bette Davis won her first Oscar, she began to make hay in Hollywood.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Best 'BUtterfield 8' Moments Because of Taylor and O’Hara

If Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t the star, would 1960’s BUtterfield 8 be worth watching at all? While the sexy soap opera has curiosity value, the movie was made for one reason—MGM wanted to cash in on its star, before Taylor checked out of her long-time studio.
BUtterfield 8 isn’t a great movie—or even a good one, in reality. The slick saga of a sinner has been routinely scorned, with no revisionist reappraisals. Elizabeth Taylor’s performance, though mostly praised upon its release, has since been overshadowed by her sympathy Oscar win, for nearly dying of pneumonia that year. Even the John O’Hara novel gets a knee jerk reaction as trashy, though it’s one of his best books.
A rare happy moment between the happy couple of 'BUtterfield 8.' Even then, Harvey's Weston Ligget has a pouty moment!

Despite controversy and criticism, BUtterfield 8 is worth watching: as a look at sexual attitudes of the Playboy generation; as how morally two-faced filmmaking was in mid-century Hollywood; and especially, as proof of star power, pulling in audiences with a weak vehicle.
MGM playing up the connection between O'Hara's Gloria Wandrous and Hollywood's Elizabeth Taylor to sell the movie.

The back story to BUtterfield 8: Elizabeth had shot to superstardom with WB’s Giant in 1956, but was still working off a measly contract with MGM. When Taylor married showman Mike Todd, they forced Metro to agree that 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof would be her last film for them. Todd famously died in a plane crash that year—and guess what? The gentleman’s agreement between Mike and Metro went poof! MGM let Taylor make Suddenly, Last Summer as a freelancer, but when she started negotiations for Cleopatra, Metro reminded Taylor that she owed them one more film for $125,000—not quite the million she was angling for Cleo. When Elizabeth asked MGM head of production Sol Siegel if this was anyway to end an 18 year relationship, he famously replied, ‘Fortunately, or unfortunately, Miss Taylor, sentiment went out of this business a long time ago.’ That quote illustrates why Taylor became such a tough customer to studios, as an independent star.
Elizabeth Taylor's message to MGM for being forced to make 'BUtterfield 8,' or to sit off-screen for two years?

Another reason MGM was so hot to get another movie out of Taylor is because she had become a bigger star than ever, with the legendary Liz-Eddie-Debbie scandal. I once read that MGM offered Elizabeth three scripts in a row for that last film role—all prostitutes. If you look at Metro’s miniscule 1961film releases during this time, it’s not hard to figure out the other two flicks: Ada was a southern hooker who ends up a politician’s wife. This epic would surely have come back to haunt Elizabeth when she later became a Republican senator’s wife! Susan Hayward, 15 years older than Taylor, played the tough hooker. The other, demurely titled Go Naked in the World, went to Gina Lollobrigida as a hooker who falls for prodigal son Tony Franciosa, only to find out blustering Greek tycoon Ernest Borgnine was one of her best customers! For those who think BUtterfield 8 was bad, just imagine Elizabeth stuck in one of these clunkers.
John O' Hara's second novel captures an era.

What’s a pity was that BUtterfield 8 is based on one of John O’Hara’s most praised novels. Set in early ‘30s New York City, post-stock market crash era, looks at the last days of a notorious party girl, Gloria Wandrous. And if you think Gloria’s name is a bit much, she was based on Starr Faithfull, who died young, under mysterious circumstances. The story is surprisingly sympathetic toward the heroine and is a sharp snapshot of an era.
Gloria Wandrous from the BUtterfield 8 novel and her real-life inspiration Starr Faithful are routinely described as a call girl, prostitute, or nymphomaniac. There is no evidence that Starr Faithful was a prostitute; nor is Gloria Wandrous described as a call girl in the novel. Starr and Gloria were both promiscuous, stemming from issues of molestation as a child. I’m no sex therapist, but female promiscuity isn’t the same as nymphomania, is it? The movie is ambiguous over Gloria’s morals and how she makes a living. She fusses over “taking money” for a torn dress. Her character is unashamedly sexual, so she must be a nympho, right?

Taylor & Harvey laugh with director Daniel Mann. It's been said ET didn't like Mann, but I've lots of happy shots like these. 

However, the script Elizabeth received was modernized and turned into a voyeuristic soap opera that capitalized on her own personal scandal. Taylor’s defiance at being forced to perform in BUtterfield 8 actually worked for the role of wild child Gloria. Long-time MGM producer Pandro S. Berman made Elizabeth a star in National Velvet 15 years prior.  Berman knew that despite her threats, Taylor’s professionalism had been drummed into her head starting at age 10 by Metro and Sara, her stage mother. Berman told ET: “Play this and you’ll win the Oscar.”
I recall watching the Oscars back in ’77, when Berman was given the honorary Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award, they ran clips from the producer’s long career. When snippets of BUtterfield 8 with Taylor were shown, there was a ripple of laughter from the audience—that’s how legendary the feud between the producer and his star had become. Ironically, the big winner of the night was Network’s Paddy Chayefsky, a friend of Elizabeth’s who did some rewrites for BUtterfield 8 as a favor. When Taylor presented the revisions to Berman, he tossed them in a waste paper basket without even looking. According to the producer, Taylor flew off the sofa, ready to claw his eyes out. Personally, I think Pandro saw their prior collaboration, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a few too many times!
Elizabeth Taylor as the bad brunette and Dina Merrill as the pure blonde at odds over bad boy Laurence Harvey.

What’s amazing is how the MGM script throws Elizabeth’s tabloid notoriety in her face under the guise of Gloria getting flack. In the novel, the other characters do not insult Gloria for her supposed lack of morals. And in the text version, Gloria knows she is deeply troubled, but she’s not teary and ashamed, like Taylor’s Wandrous in the last half of the film.
Like so many movies from the first half of the ‘60s, BUtterfield 8 has one foot stuck in the fuddy-duddy ‘50s while trying to swing with the ‘60s. The film feels contradictory because it’s hypocritical. First, BUtterfield 8 salivates over Gloria’s “sinning” and later slams her for it, by humiliating and punishing her. Once Gloria falls in love, she’s in misery. The screenwriters are forced by the censors to fall back on the old cliché: once a whore, always a whore.
No sale! This was how MGM was selling ET post Liz-Eddie-Debbie scandal.

As for Taylor’s “sympathy” Oscar, won after having almost died six weeks prior to the ceremony— obviously the star won out of sentiment. What’s been forgotten: Elizabeth was nominated for playing Gloria Wandrous before she was near death. And that BUtterfield 8 was MGM’s biggest grossing movie of 1960. The Academy, especially then, liked nominating box office hits. Also, Elizabeth got mostly good personal reviews—and it was widely known that Taylor was forced to play her part. This was Taylor’s fourth consecutive Oscar nomination, after career-changing Giant: Raintree County; Cat on a Hot Tin Roof; Suddenly, Last Summer; and now BUtterfield 8. Maybe Shirley MacLaine should have won for The Apartment, but Taylor’s win wasn’t a total head scratcher. Robert Osborne compared Taylor’s win to when Bette Davis won a consolation Oscar for 1935’s Dangerous—anyone remember that classic?—when Davis was famously overlooked for her career-defining Of Human Bondage. Davis put over Dangerous, much like Taylor enlivens BUtterfield 8.
Shaky Elizabeth Taylor accepted her Oscar only six weeks after nearly dying.

A testimony to Taylor’s drawing power was that—despite people who wrote to fan mags, columnists, and MGM, swearing they’d never see an Elizabeth Taylor picture again—moviegoers flocked to her films. It didn’t matter whether it was artistic fare like Taylor’s Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee, or Shakespeare adaptations, or sudsy cinema that played off her personal life, like BUtterfield 8, The VIPS, or The Sandpiper. In that sense, the public was just as hypocritical as MGM.

I’ve always heard that the movie version of BUtterfield 8was totally different from O’Hara’s novel. Frankly, in an era when the studios bought novels for their premise only or a Broadway musical for a couple of hit songs, I was surprised that even the framework of the novel made onscreen. Aside from the updated era, the movie’s attitude is what’s so different from the novel. It’s too bad the 1935 book feels more mature and three-dimensional than the 1960 film.
The dense atmosphere of the novel is lost in the film update, yet BUtterfield 8 offers a glossy snapshot of sex in the Playboy era. Participants play like they’re swingers, but there’s lots of ‘50s Hollywood guilt attached, especially for the woman. Gloria’s married lover Weston Liggett comes off like a sourpuss version of Mad Men’s Don Draper, jealous, judgmental, and berating Gloria for her behavior, which is the same as his—except she’s not judging. BUtterfield 8 now seems ironic, since this was how Elizabeth Taylor was judged at the time. Everyone in the movie takes potshots at Gloria/Elizabeth, with the cast voicing what a segment of the audience was probably thinking about the star. Taylor was routinely referred to as a home wrecker, but Eddie Fisher, who left his wife and children, was just viewed as helpless.
'Peyton Place' stars Mildred Dunnock and Betty Field spend most of their time in 'BUtterfield 8' gossiping about Gloria.

As for the acting, Elizabeth is especially zingy as the unrepentant party girl. When the script has Gloria go from lust to love, the movie becomes a sappy soap opera. Taylor tries to inject pathos into the part, but she must contend with the scriptwriters making Gloria character traits change on a dime. BUtterfield 8 has a terrific supporting cast, but they’re all archetypes or stereotypes: Dina Merrill as Emily Liggett, a nicer Betty Draper; Susan Oliver as Norma, the jealous girlfriend; Mildred Dunnock as Gloria’s mother in denial; Betty Field as Mrs. Wandrous’ snarky best friend; and Kay Medford as “Happy,” the one hour motel owner.
Laurence Harvey as married cad Weston Liggett, played with the charm that made Larry the ideal 'Manchurian Candidate.'

The two men in Gloria’s life are hopeless. Laurence Harvey was a charming party boy off-camera and became instant friends with Elizabeth Taylor. In his heyday, Harvey always played the sneering heel. As Weston Liggett, Harvey looks sleek as the rich ne’er-do-well, but his supercilious disposition becomes borderline psychotic. Why a fiery, fun girl like Gloria would give the film Weston the time of day, much less her phone number, is beyond me. Harvey always seemed to be rehearsing for The Manchurian Candidate! Eddie Fisher, whose character was named Eddie in the novel, is changed to Steve for the film. Either way, Fisher is lethargic and dour, and hard to imagine why Gloria has remained life-long friends with this lackluster pal.
Elizabeth as Gloria Wandrous getting some advice from 'Happy' the motel owner, played with zest by Kay Medford.

As for the film itself, Daniel Mann directs competently if not excitingly. For those who say that BUtterfield 8 is a bore, I’d say that’s half true. The film has some memorable moments, mainly in the first half: the opening near-silent scenes of Gloria’s ‘morning after’; Gloria scrawling ‘No Sale!’ in lipstick on her lover’s mirror; Taylor in a slip, covered only by a mink; Wandrous and Liggett’s sparring in a cocktail lounge, capped by her grinding a stiletto into his instep; Gloria’s repartee with her pal’s fiancée and her mother’s best friend; Gloria and Mrs. Wandrous’ confrontation, capped by Taylor crying, ‘Face it, Mama. I was the slut of all time!;’ Liggett’s nasty showdown with Gloria in the bar over the mink coat; Gloria’s childhood confession to pal Steve; and of course, Gloria’s red sports car crashing over an embankment.
Yes, the film drags once Gloria finds love, but not happiness. The movie’s muddled morals make for confusing character development. Blame MGM and the censors for that.
 BUtterfield 8 may not be great, but not because of Elizabeth Taylor or John O’Hara. Taylor’s herculean efforts and O’Hara’s intriguing heroine makes BUtterfield 8 worth a watch.
Eddie and Elizabeth to Susan Oliver: Did anyone ever tell you that you look like Debbie Reynolds?!