52 Before 62 — #43 Butterfield 8

Butterfield8 movieposter.jpgDirected by Daniel Mann

Written by John Michael Hayes and Charles Schnee, based upon the novel by John O’Hara

Starring Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey, and Eddie Fisher

Elizabeth Taylor is a rare thing in Hollywood history – a kid actor who grew up to have an adult career.  Most only fade away before then, or just drift into fitful employment – looking at you Henry Thomas.  Some, though, carry the fame forward.  Sure, the life of, and demands of, being an actress probably warped Taylor immeasurably – how else would you possibly explain her eight marriages – and probably led to her struggles with addition.[1]  But somehow, she managed to come out of that as well as one probably could.

Anyway, by the time she made Butterfield 8 Taylor had been a star for something like 15 years, and was being paid like it, earning as much as $500,000 a picture.  But fame and fortune and the veneer of perfection for a beautiful woman couldn’t get her an Oscar, even though at the end of the 1950s had feted her with three straight best actress noms – Raintree Country (1957), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959).  No, what would get her the Oscar was scandal – she stole Eddie Fisher away from her friend, Debbie Reynolds[2] – and nearly dying of pneumonia during the 1960 Oscars voting period.  The irony is that the Oscar would eventually come to her for Butterfield 8, a movie she openly did not want to make, said was lousy, and which she only made to satisfy her MGM contract.

The funny thing is, is we should look at this situation and think of how life can be so ironically cruel sometimes, but can life really be all that cruel when you got an Oscar out of it?

What’s It About?

A New York City prostitute (Elizabeth Taylor) falls in love with a married attorney (Laurence Harvey).  Better, he seems to love her, too.  But because she’s a low woman, and slept around, he’s callous and disrespectful of her, which eventually leads to tragedy.

Image result for liz taylor butterfield 8Any Good

It’s said Elizabeth Taylor hated Butterfield 8, which if true, must have made her resent the Oscar she won for it.  Or, at least made her look at the trophy with a mixture of pride and hate.  Anyway, I suspect her distaste for the film is probably the reason why it’s not as well-remembered as many others in her filmography.  Also, that it’s considered a not-very-good melodrama.

Anyway, it was with all that in mind that I queued up the film, expecting the worst, and at least in the first few moments I thought maybe Taylor’s assessment, and the films reputation, might have been harsh.  After all, this is a film that opens with a largely silent sequence of Liz rising from bed at her lover’s how, trying to dress, then doing her best to hold her dignity when she realizes he’s left money for her.  Which you’d do, for your prostitute.  The long sequence played, in its own way, like a miniature version of Robert Redford’s All is Lost, and I hoped we’d get that for the whole film.  A truly lived-in, physical performance from one of the screens great stars.  Just a day-in-the-life sort of movie, devoid of any spectacle.

Alas, while I hoped for it, that was not what the film had in mind for me.  After all, while it starts as a proto-All is Lost, it quickly downshifts into becoming a barely-elevated soap opera, with almost everybody outside of Liz Taylor giving various levels of shaky performances.

Image result for harvey butterfield 8

Harvey and Taylor

The worst of the shaky performances comes from her co-lead, Laurence Harvey.[3]  In the film Harvey plays Liggett, the lawyer she falls in love with, and who loves her.  The most striking problem in Harvey’s performance is his accent.  In the film he’s explicitly American, which we know because at one point he takes Liz to his childhood home in the suburbs.  But while he’s explicitly American, his accent doesn’t sound American – suburban or otherwise.  Rather, his accent is very clearly British-struggling-to-sound-American.

But lousy accent work is only half of Harvey’s problem, with the other half being his inability to decide on a tone/volume/ethos when performing the role.  What I mean by this is that throughout the film he vacillates wildly between being aloof, bland, sullen, and just straight bugging out his eyes.  At no point does he ever just ‘be’.  Rather, he’s always some sort of a cartoon instead of a real person.  Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad if he truly were only a supporting player, and off-screen for long stretches at a time.  But he’s largely a co-lead here, which makes the lousiness of his performance unavoidable.

All that said, Liz is quite good here, and also looks pretty amazing.  At no time does the film ever let her look bad, dressing her in the most beautiful clothes and even she’s fresh out of bed it makes her look like she just emerged from the makeup chair.  She is a woman of lush assets – pun intended – and the film plays on them.  In some sense seeing her here is a little jarring if you only really know her as the much older version of herself, when she was struggling with her weight.  To see her so thin – almost unhealthily-thin – is a shock.

As to her performance, while Harvey can’t quite figure his own performance, Liz does a superb job of threading the needle between over-the-top melodrama and being too understated.  Certainly, she’s histrionic as she can be, doing what she can to spice up dialog and situations that lumber rather than pop, but her performance never grates.  Even in the scene where she tells the story of being sexually abused by her mother’s suitor at age 13, and how she liked it, when you expect her to go well over-the-top and literally start chewing down the scenery, Liz keeps the tone close and rather than be off-putting she earns our sympathies.

What’s interesting is that the scene above, about being molested, is where the film goes awry in a very sinister way.  No, I don’t mean it goes off the rails.  Rather, it’s how the film treats the character.  After all, that scene makes clear the lead character was molested as a child, was damaged by it, and likely grew up to be a prostitute.  It truly sets up our sympathies.  But the film doesn’t want us to sympathize with her – rather, it wants her punished.  It doesn’t matter why she’s a low woman, it’s only important that she is, so at the end she drives off a cliff and dies.  Certainly, there are other problems with the film being both over-baked and weak tea all at the same time time, but it’s biggest is simply that it hates its own main character, and probably hates women, too.  After all, all women in the film are portrayed as a shrew, or a harridan, to the extent you wish they’d all die.  All except for Liz, who is the only one who does die.

All that said, this film essentially feels like a dry run for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and in better hands, it might’ve been something like that.  In these hands, though, it gets an Oscar, but also scorn.

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[1] Money and fame have a habit of enabling a person’s worst impulses.

[2] This was after the death of her husband, Mike Todd

[3] That’s right – you might’ve thought when you put this movie on you were watching a star vehicle for Liz Taylor, but instead found that nearly the same amount of screen time is devoted to Laurence Harvey.

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