Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Boom! 1968

Elizabeth Taylor as the dignified, understated Flora "Sissy" Goforth!

"Boom! The shock of each moment of still being alive." So says Richard Burton’s Chris Flanders to Elizabeth Taylor’s Flora “Sissy” Goforth, explaining his repeated intonation “boom” to the sound of the ocean crashing against the shore of her fabulous estate.
I’m a huge fan of Elizabeth Taylor but there’s no denying that 1968’s Boom! was a commercial and critical bomb. By the film’s finale, all that most critics and cinemagoers felt was the shock of still being awake!
'Boom!' was the Burtons' big flop that signified they were over, suddenly that summer in '68.

When the film was dropped into theaters during the summer of '68, the blasting reviews and the empty theater seats confirmed that ‘The Burtons’ were no longer the box office sure thing. I won't fall into the revisionist trap that every famous past film flop is now a misunderstood movie masterpiece. But Boom! is not bottom of the barrel filmmaking, where it’s been relegated to since its release. Yes, this Tennessee Williams drama is wildly uneven. Yet, Boom! has some genuine merits, and also some myths that deserve to be dispelled. 

The kneejerk negative reaction to Boom! remains so strong that you may ask, what are its positive points? For starters, John Barry (of James Bond fame) composed a remarkable score that may be the best thing about this film. The Boom! soundtrack is wistful, haunting, romantic, menacing, melancholy, and most of all, gives this erratic film an emotional anchor. I own and love this soundtrack. A close second is the eye-popping set that depicts Mrs. Goforth’s luxurious white villa, backed by the stunning Sardinia scenery. The set design is by Richard MacDonald, which is beautifully and insinuatingly photographed by Douglas Slocombe. With these brilliant artists, director Joseph Losey brings the look and sound of this film together masterfully.
Music for lovers? Composer John Barry, of  James Bond fame,
delivers one of his best scores in 'Boom!'

I know this is second-rate Williams, but even second tier Tennessee is better than most. This was also a rare opportunity when Williams got to write the screenplay to his own work. There are some sharp lines and thoughtful musings on people, life, and mortality. Williams, who transferred his own feelings onto his female characters, had lost his longtime partner while writing this play, as The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. This was exacerbated by the playwright’s fears that after a string of hits, his time may have passed, just like that milk train. Five years later, writing the piece as Boom!, Williams was acutely aware that he was no longer in vogue. A shame, since the premise of Milk Train/Boom! is initially intriguing: One of the world’s wealthiest women, who appears to be terminally ill, is visited by a mysterious stranger, a poet who may be her next lover or really just an escort to her last hurrah.
The Burtons and Noel Coward on location.

Elizabeth Taylor once said that "nobody ever set out to make a bad movie." Even that quote gets mocked, but I think ET was sincere. Though the Burtons collected their usual million dollar fee, plus another quarter million each in overtime, in his later published journals, Richard wrote at length about Boom! From his entries, it was obvious that the Burtons thought this picture was worth doing and took it seriously.
It was Elizabeth's idea to wear nearly all white, as dying Sissy, like death shrouds, throughout 'Boom!'

Most critics cite that the biggest problem with Boom! is that the Burtons were miscast—Elizabeth far too young, and Burton too old—for their roles as the rich bitch and the ambiguous poet. Taylor certainly undercuts Flora “Sissy” Goforth by looking robust and radiant, since she's only got two days to live. When I read the play, I put Sissy somewhere in her 60s, whereas ET was then only 36. Yet, I can see why Elizabeth was chosen, beyond her box office allure. Taylor was prone to precarious health, and nearly died six years earlier, at age 29. Like Sissy, ET sported a string of husbands and gems. Also, Taylor was already a legend, with a fearsome reputation. But instead of aging up, as she did as Martha two years before, she looks like Mrs. Burton at a jet set ball. Taylor's played comic bitches well, and serious bitches with empathy. But Sissy Goforth is one bitch who becomes a bore fast.
And the blame for that goes to Tennessee Williams. He inadvertently pinpointed the biggest problem with this piece, namely, society types like the “heroine,” Sissy Goforth: “These are very tiring women, but fascinating.”  Well, fascinating for a while, anyway. Sissy is totally self-absorbed and doesn't offer a bit of sympathy to anybody else, interested only in her empire. And Sissy is just as much of an unrelenting bitch in the play as in the movie, that by the finale of both, you’re ready to scream, “Die, already!”
Richard Burton as Chris Flanders. Poet? Angel of Death? Hustler? Hard to say!

Richard Burton is always described as too old for poet Chris Flanders, which is not quite true. In the play, Flanders is 35, “hardly a chicken,” as Sissy wryly notes, when she finds his passport after rifling through his belongings. Burton was 43 but not aging well—still, Chris wasn't a twink. Perhaps this perception started when boyish Tab Hunter played him on Broadway. The play’s notes describe Chris as looking like an embattled boxer. Does Burton fit the description, or was he merely punch drunk? Burton seems restrained, but compared to the howling tornado that is Taylor, who wouldn't? He has some sly moments and gives an intelligent reading, but somebody menacingly handsome, like Terence Stamp, would have been marvelous. Burton seems a bit weary at times, but the accusation of being drunk or hung over is just a cheap shot. For those who think Burton was on alcohol-induced autopilot, compare his performance in Boom! with Hammersmith is Out or Bluebeard five years later.
The other big problem with Boom! is that the story expires long before Mrs. Goforth. Once the Witch of Capri leaves and Sissy realizes the end is near, it's not exactly a race to the death... more like a caterwauling crawl to the crypt. It also doesn’t help that Williams had reduced himself from intoxicating rhetoric to intoxicated repetition, with too many lines like: "What's human or inhuman is not for human decision!"
Tennessee Williams and Elizabeth Taylor  on the set of 'Boom!' This was a career crossroads for both of them.

Williams was facing his unhappy fifties during the ‘60s, which he called his ‘stoned age.’ Famed stage actress Marion Seldes, who played Sissy’s secretary, Blackie, in the original Broadway version, said, “It's an imperfect play, but it's beautifully imperfect.'' Ah, Tennessee couldn’t have put it better himself!
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore’s title didn’t have that late ‘60s film pizzazz. So the movie’s opening title became Boom. When the film was released, the posters added boundless excitement by calling it Boom! My suggestion: Suddenly, Sissy's Last Summer!
Gossip has had it that everyone involved was bombed on Boom! These tales are often repeated by film writers or Internet talking heads with no real proof or even a sense that they have actually seen the movie. The film’s history is not helped by John Waters, who has made a cottage industry with his fatuous comments on the film, such as Elizabeth was so drunk that she didn't realize that the Boom! set was not a real house. I realize there are people who truly want to believe this kind of nonsense. Come on—Elizabeth had been making movies for 25 years, I think she could tell a set from a home—no matter if Taylor was tipsy or not. I'm not saying that what went on the leisurely Boom! shoot was like bible school, but Taylor’s performance is too sharp to be called drunken bumbling. Gossips cite ET's stumble while telling Coward's Witch of Capri about a typhoon benefit as she performs some kabuki moves, saying tycoon instead, while stumbling slightly. The word switch was probably a fluffed line, but the stumble is straight out of the original play, a signal to the Witch of Capri that the rumors of Sissy’s ill health are true.
No, that's not Audrey Hepburn showing pal Elizabeth some exercise moves. ET's getting kabuki instruction, really!

Other critics have seized on Taylor's grand accent that occasionally slips into bellowing broad when barking orders. Again, this is right out of the play: Sissy is a swanky dame who likes to give the airs of a great lady. Mrs. Goforth came from poor white trash from Georgia when she met her first millionaire hubby, as a chorus girl. She has married and buried a string of tycoons, and is now a world-famous, wealthy widow. Sissy grandly recites her memoirs to Blackie, which sounds like a cross between Patrick Dennis’ Little Me and Joan Crawford’s A Portrait of Joan.
I'm hardly saying this is a great Taylor performance—while energetic, it's ultimately one-note. ET’s Boom! broad is too broad. Sissy Goforth is hell on wheels and could use some typical Taylor empathy. One quiet moment occurs when Sissy tells Blackie what she really needs is some summer lovin', and Elizabeth is amusing, droll, world weary, and a bit sad. 
My favorite scene and quote from 'Boom!' And I dig those shades, especially indoors!

Taylor biographer Alexander Walker wrote that director Losey had a London doctor write up a diagnosis for Sissy Goforth’s illness, so that Taylor could gradually depict her decline. Sissy’s malady was a form of leukemia, with symptoms of euphoria intermingled with depression, exacerbated by the shots and booze that she constantly intakes. Mrs. Goforth’s circumstances—"Urgentissimo... like everything else this summer!"—were not unlike those of Vivien Leigh, who long suffered from tuberculosis (and later leukemia complications), along with manic depression, and had recently died. Taylor, a huge admirer of Leigh, was said to have been inspired by her later unhappy years as Sissy.
"Husbands...lovers...everything...a memory!" Noel Coward, the world weary Witch of Capri, looks on.

Sissy to the Witch of Capri: "Has it ever occurred to you that life is all memory? Except for each present moment that goes by so quickly you can hardly catch it?" Director Losey suggested Taylor play the scene where she’s dictating memories of her many husbands for laughs, and Elizabeth snapped back, “I do not find such a life funny.” Taylor reconsidered, because Sissy reciting her list of hubbies is grandly campy. Despite Losey’s tips, it doesn't seem he was a strong director of star actors. Some humor—and humanity—might have lightened this role, because the character is just as churlish on the printed page as in Taylor’s performance.
Elizabeth Taylor, like Sissy Goforth, shared memories of her favorite late husbands. ET appeared on TV shortly after 'Boom!,' in a special marking the 10 year anniversary of Mike Todd's death in a plane crash. Taylor was subdued and slightly melancholy here. Toward the end of her life, ET's memories became nearly as dramatic as Mrs. Goforth's.

Elizabeth was then coming up on the ten year anniversary of third husband Mike Todd’s death in a plane crash, and he was very much on her mind during shooting Boom! And some of Williams’ lines echoed at least the tabloid version of Taylor’s life: “Well, well. I've escorted six husbands to the eternal threshold and come back alone without them. Now it's my turn. I've no choice but to do it, but I want to do it alone. I don't want to be escorted. I want to go forth alone. And you... you counted on touching my heart because you knew I was dying. Well, you miscalculated with this one. The milk train doesn't stop here anymore.”
Given that Taylor was plump pretty much after 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,' I think ET looks stylish here, a decade later.

There were a lot of knocks on Taylor's weight here, but frankly she doesn't look overly heavy, no more than she had in her last few movies, including the early scenes of Virginia Woolf. Her weight problem showed in her fabled face soon after, in Losey's Secret Ceremony. Aside from her crazy kabuki getup—again from the play—Taylor's clothes suit her full figure and are quite simple. Karl Lagerfeld was the lead designer for Tiziani of Rome, who John Waters laughingly “wondered” who or what the heck that was. Waters should have tried Google.
ET's motto: More is better!

I found it amusing that the dying Sissy changed her costumes and hair in nearly every scene. This is certainly how Cher would ‘go forth’ into the good night! For those who think Taylor's look was over the top, think late '60s Priscilla Presley, Ann-Margret, Raquel Welch, Valley of the Dolls, or Monica Vitti in Losey’s previous camp fest, Modesty Blaise.

Elizabeth Taylor at this point reminds me of Bette Davis in Beyond the Forest. Both were in their late 30s, both were miscast, both working with cerebral directors in their baroque phase. Both are playing full blast, with nary a nuance, to overcompensate. Ironically, Taylor had recently played Martha, a role that parodies Davis in Forest. The difference was that while both were overweight, over-made up and wigged out, Taylor was supposed to be older and Davis younger. The other difference was that Taylor, despite her weight, still looked lovely, whereas Davis looked prematurely aged. Both roles set them firmly on the path of caricature forever after.
"I don't bray!" Whoops, wrong movie! 

The supporting cast is negligible. Noel Coward is just as one-note campy here (in reverse gender casting) as the Witch of Capri as he was in Bunny Lake is Missing. I kept thinking how wonderful Bette Davis would have been as the Witch of Capri. Hell, she would have been a great Sissy Goforth, and the right age! Joanna Shimkus is bland as long-suffering secretary Blackie and the most interesting thing about Michael Nunn as sadistic guard Rudy is that he’s short.
"We've got Virginia Woolf in color!" crowed one Universal executive at the time. Not quite! After the unlikely hits of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Taming of the Shrew, more than a few critics were waiting for them to fail. Boom! provided the perfect vehicle.
"The sea is full of medusas...and film critics!"

Richard Schickel fired the opening volley that the Burtons were over. Life magazine’s Schnickel claimed that their clout as superstars caused arrogance to set in: “They get to thinking, perhaps unconsciously, that they can dare us to reject anything they feel like shoveling out. The Burtons are particularly afflicted with this malaise… There is a slack, tired quality to most of their work that is, by now, a form of insult. They don’t act so much as deign to appear before us and there is neither dignity nor discipline in what they do. She is fat and will do nothing about her most glaring defect, an unpleasant voice which she cannot adequately control. He, conversely, acts with nothing but his voice, rolling out his lines with much elegance, but no feeling at all. Perhaps the Burtons are doing the very best they can, laden as they are by their celebrity.”
But the critics had a point. Here's the Burtons partying with
Claudia Cardindale. Note ET's wearing a Boom! costume.

I think Schickel’s criticism was actually more apt in regard to the last lap of their first marriage, during the Divorce His/Divorce Hers and Hammersmith is Out era. But Boom! certainly marked the beginning of the Burtons’ decline.
Judith Crist, who made her name as a critic blasting Cleopatra as “a monumental mouse,” continued to carp on the Burtons non-stop. About Boom!, Crist critiqued: “Taylor is 20 years too young and 30 acting eons away from the role.” The acerbic film critic also razzed Richard Burton, citing he looked more like “a bank clerk on a campy holiday, kimono and all, than a poet.”
As far as ET was concerned, Crist was wrong on both counts. Sissy is well into her 60s, which would make Taylor 30 years too young; however, Elizabeth had triumphed in two prior Tennessee Williams roles, plus ET had just played a 52-year-old alcoholic shrew in Virginia Woolf. Aside from age, Sissy Goforth was not outside Elizabeth Taylor's range. She is indeed too young and there's no attempt made to hide the fact. The real problem with casting ET was that she had a weak acting director in Joseph Losey. Taylor had subtlety and variety when working with Richard Brooks, Joseph Mankiewicz, and Mike Nichols in theatrical-originated roles. But here, Taylor turns up the screen diva stereo up full blast, with no filter.
Wilfred Sheed wrote a huge Esquire piece titled “The Burtons Must Go!” Though “LizandDick” gave them plenty of ammo, some critics were also self-serving, making a name by tearing down the Burtons.
A then fledgling Roger Ebert wrote at the time, perhaps the most accurately: “There are different kinds of bad movies. Some are simply wretchedly bad, like well, you know. Others are bad but fascinating and Boom! is one of these.”
One of the film’s many cuckoo moments includes just how many times Mrs. Goforth orders people off her patio. Even her pet gets banished in a key moment, with the much quoted line: “Monkey…off…balcony!”
Another running gag is that Sissy is so self-absorbed that just because she can't eat, never offers anybody food, and what is offered by others, she orders to be taken away. This could be taken as symbolic of Boom!, a film that promises a feast, but doesn’t deliver. Boom! is ultimately a failure but still fascinating to watch, whether as camp or as fans of the film’s participants.
The shock of that moment when they realized 'Boom!' was going to bomb?
ET looking very chic and casual, while visiting with Burton, who's in costume as Chris Flanders.


  1. This was a fascinating read! I did see this once, quite a few years back and recall being bored and confused. Maybe I need to see it in its widescreen high-def glory and see if I can enjoy the setting and the music (and the other things you've mentioned.) It's rather rarely shown, though! Elizabeth, in this period at least, is usually worth watching just to observe her face and take in those incredible features. (Love the quote by "Meryl" you posted.) I think one of the problems with The Burtons was their relentless need to work together when many of the roles they chose to play were wrong for one or both of them, this being a chief example. I, for one, would have preferred a little beefcake from the stranger versus someone on his way to seed. Sometimes skin can help get us over the rough spots! LOL (I bet Terrence would have obliged!) Thanks. Oh, also, I appreciate you clearing up some of the misconceptions about this movie and the relationship to the original play!

    1. Hey Poseidon, it's no misunderstood masterpiece, but as I said, there are some nice elements that defy the diss that Boom! is totally worthless.

      ET, especially, turned down some good roles to be at Burton's side constantly. Admirable, but the movie fan in me wishes she would have watched her figure and career instead!

      It's actually a shame that Vivien Leigh didn't live long enough to play Sissy Goforth. And actually, it would have been right up Ava Gardner's alley if she hadn't been so insecure about her talent and aging.

      But there are some fascinating moments, and the first half is at least watchable.

      PS, that's ET's brother Howard, as the boatsman who throws Burton overboard at the beginning of the movie!

      Cheers, Rick

  2. Hi Rick! Your beautifully written and lavishly illustrated essay on this mess of a film is far far better than the movie itself!! But you are right...there are a few delicious moments provided by the "original game girl" herself Elizabeth Taylor, who as usual approaches her role with gusto. ("Pain!! Injection!!)

    I first saw this one years ago before it was available on DVD at a theater in South Beach where it was hosted by John Waters of Pink Flamingos fame. His unique perspective on the camp value of the film enhanced the experience immensely.

    I also agree with Poseidon that the first half of the movie is far better than the second!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Chris! This was my first piece after a rather hectic late summer/early fall. This piece has been kicking around for awhile because I was always taken by all the knee jerk criticism of the film after all these years. And it's a pretty hard film to defend, since it is so wildly uneven. But there are things about it that are intriguing. I think if Joe Mankiewicz or Mike Nichols had directed, it would have been a much better film...
      Cheers, and hope you are well!