Sunday, April 13, 2014

Butterfield 8

Ah, Butterfield 8. Much as Bette Davis was ashamed of Beyond the Forest, Elizabeth Taylor was embarrassed by this movie. Even though it won her an Oscar. (Although the tracheotomy and the widow-ing and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof helped.) And, really, she's made worse films than this -- Butterfield 8 is just an over-the-top melodrama that she carries on beauty and star power.
The novel by John O'Hara is actually an interesting work, the heroine is something of a cross between a female Gatsby and a self-sufficent Sister Carrie. It was based on the true story of Starr Faithfull, a socialite who committed suicide (or didn't) in 1931.
The movie pulls the story out of it's jazz age/Depression milieu and sets it vaguely in the fifties, which removes the context and relevance to its times but does provide some lovely Helen Rose sheath dresses and fabulous Hollywood Regency interiors.
The opening is classic -- a hungover Liz awakens in a strange apartment, hollers for the man who's just leaving, then rolls out of bed to pour herself a Scotch and figure out what to do next. It's just like the beginning of a Bukowski novel, except the apartment is a palatial six-bedroom on the Upper East Side, the man is walking into his private elevator, the Scotch is in a Baccarat crystal decanter and the drunk is Elizabeth Taylor in her prime, lush curves packed into a silk satin slip, hair tousled but eye makeup flawless.

La Liz discovers her gown torn in half on the floor, but this does not bother her in the least. but then she finds a note with a check for $250 and flies into a rage. This makes no sense for two reasons. One, i'd consider it payment to replace my trashed frock, plus a little something for my trouble in the form of accessories. Two, even if Liz -- here called Gloria Wandrous -- is taking it as payment for services rendered, she is a freaking callgirl fer chrissake. Hence the generous amount of ennui that accompanies her glamor. She tears up the check, yanks a mink coat from a closet full of furs and struts out into the New York City morning. Attagirl!
She goes to see Eddie Fisher. Liz was married to him at the time and insisted he be cast in the film. He can't act for shit -- turn off the cameras and he's jacked up on speed, playing Vegas and banging Elizabeth Taylor, turn on the cameras and he's boring. But he's just the best friend anyway.

Liz is hung up on the dress-tearing check writer, whose name is Weston Liggett and who is played by Laurence Harvey in the most uptight style possible. He is a selfish jerk and her attraction to him is inexplicable.
He's a lawyer married to a wealthy socialite. How wealthy? Well, one, he's her trophy husband and this is her Fifth Avenue penthouse. (And that was her mink.) Two, look at the bitch's fucking closets! Rows of shoes! Aqua-upholstered hatboxes to match the walls! Why do i not live here!?
Poor Liz. It's always dangerous to think that you've finally met the man who'll save you, who's your reward for your years of loneliness, of being misunderstood, of knowing everyone and knowing that not one of them cares if you live or die. Because Mr. "Right" will indeed ditch you cold and the pain or rejection will be augmented by the pain of being a damn deluded fool. (Or, as the truly great band, ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead put it, "every inch of hope becomes a wall of shame.") If you're the heroine of Butterfield 8, he will call you nasty names, get drunk and fuck you in roadside motels before going back to his wife.
Seriously, this guy is an asshole and i have no idea why his calling her a tramp and banging her on the side is so much special than anyone else's doing so. Especially since Harvey and Taylor have zero chemistry.
Much is made of the fact that Harvey's wife has the money, wifey's dad owns the company he works for. But the story never makes the connection that Taylor and Harvey are both pretty pieces that have been bought and paid for, except she's rented and he's owned. But i guess back in the 50's the idea of the manwhore was still something one did not discuss. When a movie needs the viewer to bring their own subtext, it's a problem. Actually, nothing reads -- all of the players seem to be pretty much sleepwalking through this film, save for occasional actorly outbursts.

Ultimately, Butterfield 8 is a pretty dull movie. (Compare it to Breakfast at Tiffany's, which also does the NYC party/call-girl story a year later, and infinitely better. The characters have actual depth, the dialogue is actually clever and there's even a few laughs -- intentional laughs.) It's fun to ogle the costumes and sets. The opening worldess scene is a classic for the La Taylor highlight reel -- as well as an object lesson to every woman that she looks far more alluring wandering around the house in a slip than sweats -- and there's some hilarious dialogue, but that's about it. I'll leave it to the star to pass judgement...
"I still think it's a piece of shit."

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