Thursday, August 13, 2015

1960: Elizabeth Taylor for BUtterfield 8

Elizabeth Taylor plays Gloria, a call girl/model who picks up men when she wants them and drops them when she's tired of them, and loves it. Then she actually falls in love with one of them, which she didn't think was possible, but is it too late for her to turn her life around?

One thing that I found very interesting about this movie is how similar it is to the previous year's winner, Room at the Top, even down to the same leading man. Both Taylor and Signoret play promiscuous women who fall in love with Laurence Harvey, and they have a few wonderful days together until he treats them badly and breaks up with them, and then they die in a car crash. But while I think Room at the Top is probably a better movie, and Harvey's performance is certainly much better, I enjoyed BUtterfield 8 a lot more, partly because there were way fewer bedroom scenes, but mostly because it's so hilariously bad.

There are generally two kinds of bad movies: those that were trying to be good and failed, and those that know they're bad and embrace it. Usually the former are painful to watch, but the latter can be hugely entertaining, as is the case here. In any other movie Elizabeth Taylor's performance would have been terrible, but it's perfect for such an awful film. She's very melodramatic, which is usually a bad thing, but her character's a total drama queen, and she has such cheesy lines that it works. I mean, there's no way to say something like, "Mama face it: I was the slut of all time!" that's not melodramatic. She's even able to make some of her ridiculous lines passable by delivering them with conviction. Harvey, on the other hand, makes a lot of his lines worse by adding wholly unnecessary dramatic pauses and gestures. His performance is so bad that it makes Taylor's look spectacular by comparison, which probably helped her win the Oscar. What doesn't help is that they have essentially no chemistry, so their love scenes are just painful. Taylor does have very good chemistry with Eddie Fisher, who plays Gloria's platonic friend, which makes a lot of sense given that at the time they were married in real life.

If internet rumors are to be believed, Elizabeth Taylor was forced to make this movie as a kind of punishment. She had one more film in her MGM contract, but she wanted to leave to make a bunch more money in Cleopatra with 20th Century Fox. She had also recently caused a huge scandal by running off with Eddie Fisher, who had been married to Debbie Reynolds. So MGM refused to let her out of her contract, forced her to star in this horrible movie before she could make Cleopatra, and cast Fisher in a supporting role. Understandably, this made her furious. Miraculously, this was exactly the state of mind she needed to be in to effectively portray Gloria. Her over-the-top, melodramatic, spiteful, angry performance was just what this movie required to take it from painfully awful to delightfully awful, and she got the Oscar to prove it. I think the picture at the top of this post sums up how she felt about that pretty well.

While now mostly remembered for her many failed marriages and her support of AIDS research, Elizabeth Taylor was also one of the few child stars in Hollywood to make it as an adult. She was nominated for five Best Actress Oscars and won the last two. Before this she was nominated for 1957's Raintree County, 1958's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and 1959's Suddenly, Last Summer. I'll talk about her again when I watch her other winning performance, in 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, a much more highly acclaimed movie than BUtterfield 8 but one that I have never seen. So stay tuned for that. But first comes Sophia Loren, the third Best Actress winner who's still alive, and the first person to win a Best Actress Oscar for a non-English language role.

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