THE V.I.P.S (1963)
½*/**** Image C+ Sound B
starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Elsa Martinelli, Margaret Rutheford
screenplay by Terence Rattigan
directed by Anthony Asquith
THE SANDPIPER (1965)
½*/**** Image B Sound B- Extras C-
starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Eva Marie Saint, Morgan Mason
screenplay by Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson
directed by Vincente Minnelli
WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966)
****/**** Image A+ Sound A- Extras B
starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal, Sandy Dennis
screenplay by Ernest Lehman, based on the play by Edward Albee
directed by Mike Nichols
THE COMEDIANS (1967)
*½/**** Image B Sound B- Extras C-
starring Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Alec Guinness, Peter Ustinov
screenplay by Graham Greene, based on his novel
directed by Peter Glenville
by Walter Chaw Also called International Hotel, The V.I.P.s--the first chronologically-released vehicle for Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor following the initiation of their legendary infidelities on the set of Cleopatra--is unwatchable dreck of the Old Hollywood variety. When people say "They don't make 'em like they used to," it's a good corrective to start listing off dusty artifacts like this one. As it was something of a financial windfall at the time (though not enough of one to offset the impending disaster of Cleopatra), one assumes that audiences flocked to theatres to sniff the musky odour of Burton/Taylor's forbidden l'amour that had dominated the world's lascivious imagination as production on an epic failure (or failed epic) dragged on for months and years. For me, the curiosity about The V.I.P.s, currently available in Warner's freshly-minted box set of Burton/Taylor pictures made during the height of their notoriety, has a lot more to do with Richard Burton, who was, to my mind, his generation's Russell Crowe. Like Crowe, Burton is thick with virility and gravitas and the ability, by himself, to carry a picture on his broad shoulders; I wonder if his seduction by a relic of Old Hollywood glamour hasn't tainted his legacy irrevocably. My voyeuristic impulse ultimately isn't so different from that of contemporary viewers, in fact, though I do offer the slight caveat that I'm in it to see how touching a match to Burton's already-boundless explosiveness would infect, for good or for ill, what are essentially vanity pieces for a couple drunk on the cult of themselves.
For The V.I.P.s, Burton's pervasive masculinity is cuckolded by lumpen, ineffectual fishwife Frances (Taylor) as billionaire industrialist Paul (Burton) does his level best to keep his vacuous spouse from eloping with unctuous ladies' man Marc (Louis Jourdan, in a performance that stinks of Pepé Le Pew). Helping in his quest is a fortuitous Heathrow fog bank that socks in the titular V.I.P.s in the airport lounge as they flip out over bounced checks, hostile takeovers, infidelities, and the imminent foreclosure of their palatial ancestral estates. Rod Taylor wrestles with an Australian accent as the head of a small tractor concern while his mousy Girl Friday Miss Mead (Maggie Smith) tries her best not to bust her corset with badly-concealed longing. Margaret Rutherford does the ancient, tedious dotty duchess bit to a chorus of priggish medieval lutes on Miklas Rozsa's appalling score (and wins a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in the process), while the whole of it feels like the world's longest episode of "The Love Boat". Modern Hollywood's oft-discussed propensity to toss off venal cash-grabs could take a lesson from what is basically a tabloid-extruded product: The V.I.P.s is the equivalent in spirit to a hastily tossed-off, studio-backed movie starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie concerning adultery, privilege, and the cool baptismal font of kerchief-fluttering, self-pitying melodrama. It's loathsome in concept and painful in execution. At least Elia Kazan's auto-apologias post-HUAC are infused with real outrage and genius--the only thing The V.I.P.s can boast is a largely-miscast group of actors engaged in an embarrassing morality play about their own failings as human beings.
All would be forgiven if The V.I.P.s were free of things like Liz's character moaning that she wants to be possessed as a person instead of as an object (this in a film where Frances later rejects her individuality in favour of a life as co-dependent trophy to a suicidal narcissist); of Rod Taylor's character awkwardly expressing surprise that someone couldn't puzzle out that he was Australian; and of Orson Welles's humiliating role as a pretentious filmmaker (named "Buda" and asked, at one point, about his expansive waistline) with a gay valet, desperately trying to escape British tax law while abusing his twittery Italian ingénue (Elsa Martinelli). The whole mess is a minefield of ugly, transparent moments and filthy with an itch to turn it off and get busy forgetting it ever happened. Apologists will probably extol the film's camp value or, more damnably, the importance of movies that aren't worth a shit for people looking to have their bad taste and stupidity confirmed and re-enacted by the brightest stars in the firmament. But liking garbage doesn't elevate that garbage, nor does it lessen the reality that we only ever seek out movies like this so we can throw our poo at people we're inclined to envy. The V.I.P.s is endlessly interesting as a looking glass to celebrity culture as it infects the victim and the consumer; for all their offenses here and elsewhere, "Tayton" (Taylor-Burton in today's "Brangelina"/"Bennifer" shorthand) count as their ugliest legacy an unapologetic exploitation of our desire to peep, masquerading it as an expression of personal art. Nothing's indicted here, just indulged.
Written by freshly-un-blacklisted luminaries Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson, Vincenti Minnelli's The Sandpiper assembles talent so rich and astonishing that one almost pops a vessel trying to twist this inflamed polyp into a self-aware send-up of horrible harlequin romances. Try hard enough, squint narrow enough, and equivocation could be wrung in the form of something about revenge against the medium and maybe, just maybe, a satire of the baseness of the masses that would have brought so many so low during the HUAC travesty. Too much to hope that The Sandpiper is an intentional dissection of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton's love affair with notoriety instead of a yoke and plow through a thousand-acre mud plot. It's hard to know why anyone besides Tayton (who are here to preen and groom one another some more in public) were even attracted to the thing in the first place if not for the truckloads of money backed up to their front door. The tragedy of this entire run of films isn't that Taylor is revealed as an exceptionally limited actress and probably a dim bulb to boot, but that Burton, possibly the best of his kind of actor of his generation and one with the real potential to have fulfilled the role that Steve McQueen eventually would as alpha dog of the 1960s, suddenly transformed, permanently, into Taylor's beard.
For what it's worth, Taylor is boho free-spirit artist Laura, living in a luxury shack on a beach with her delinquent son (Morgan Mason), who, as the film opens, kills a deer for shits and giggles. After the kid is sentenced to parochial school in what one might call an ironic punishment, Laura locks horns, then thighs, with sweaty holy man/healer Dr. Hewitt (Burton), who really has no excuse since he's already married to numinous Claire (Eva Marie Saint). The scene where Hewitt confesses to his wife that he's strayed begins with the equivalent of "this hurts me more than it hurts you" and ends with me wanting to swear off all televisual entertainment in favour of smearing my poop on a padded wall. With its centrepiece a godawful scene on the beach as Hewitt and Laura (in her best imitation of frozen solid) belch forth an unspeakable dialogue about jealousy and desire, The Sandpiper (its title referring to a baby sandpiper that represents Laura's soul in first-year English comp jibber-jabber) is dreck of the faux-introspective variety that internalizes the disdain the best of Sixties cinema holds for facile psychoanalysis by holding it high as the font of all adult entertainment. Awful in and of itself, the picture also finds time to offer sloppy lip service to the wisdom of the black man, recasting Uncle Remus as a fellow beach bohemian dishing out nuggets of pearlescent beatnik wisdom to gooshy, muumuu-draped Laura. The Sandpiper wants so badly to be taken seriously as a grown-up conversation that it's not kidding when it has a tortured Charles Bronson carve the naked bust of la Taylor out of redwood. She's foam, see, on the ocean of life, and poor sodden Hewitt is the unnatural oil slick of civilization, stifling a young (relative to now, I guess) woman's yearning to float free. Take a snapshot of Taylor next to her wooden likeness and you'd need a caption to distinguish between the two.
What most wounds about The Sandpiper is that if it had made any attempt to suggest that everything dropping out of Laura's mouth was so much moose shit, it could've been an early and sharp indictment of the hippie culture instead of this relic of its brief vogue. (It's Myra Breckinridge in every way that matters--and if it's better, that's only because Rex Reed isn't in it.) When Laura goes off on an extended rant about the goodness of "The Natural," you cast a critical eye over her inch of pancake makeup and mascara, her endlessly-teased perm, and her carefully-organized collection of poly-blends, and wonder what anyone could've been thinking. Neutering Burton's force-of-nature virility (see how Burton-as-holy-man/rebel burns in Becket and especially Night of the Iguana) doesn't help the cause of Romanticist physical frankness--they would've done better switching the casting, putting Burton in the wild and Taylor in a straitjacket. Spin Splendor in the Grass for your dose of camp, thereby avoiding having to ditch things like a great screenplay, interesting direction, and performances memorable for the right reasons. You only really watch The Sandpiper because you want to see people already making asses of themselves do so in an expensive movie and in the company of those who've agreed to whore out a part of their artistic legacies dirt cheap. It's like an unauthorized autobiography; shame on anyone, massive audience included, for participating.
The similarities between Mike Nichols's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Joseph Mankiewicz's Sleuth are more than cosmetic. Both are based on well-regarded plays designed for small casts eating one another in claustrophobic environments, both point to the fallacy that a good stage play needs to be expanded when transformed into feature film--if the writing is caustic and vital enough, it can by itself open up limitless interiors. It doesn't hurt, of course, that Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is given screen life under the sure hand of cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the genius lenser fresh from lovely work with Tony Richardson, Elia Kazan, and Franklin Schaffner and just two years away from making his own generational statement with the reality-skewing Medium Cool. The picture loosened the old form of film censorship's hold on the motion picture industry (to pave the way for new censorship, natch), but its most enduring legacy could be the popularization of the cinematographer-as-voyeur. Of Albee's direct lineage, Patrick Marber's (Closer, Notes on a Scandal) scripts come closest to recreating the tableau morte of Virginia Woolf?, but looking at the way that both of Marber's pictures flag in the third act while most crucially failing to un-flesh the sympathetic humanity in his icy necropsies highlights the brilliance of Nichols's (an acclaimed theatre vet making his debut here, with his next stop The Graduate), merciless dissection of the intellectual's disease of ennui and gamesmanship.
It's impossible to separate the real-life tumult of the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton on-again, off-again romance from the verbal/cerebral gymnastics of their Martha and George--she the daughter of the dean, he the associate professor of history several years past the point where "associate" holds anything but the ring of missed opportunities--so why bother? Even the dichotomy of verbal/cerebral paints the popular picture of Taylor vs. Burton. It's arguable that the reason Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? succeeds is due entirely to one part Wexler's intuitive cinematography and one part the playing out of Tayton's perceivable public persona as an ugly psychodrama. In one fell swoop, the film pushes the vocabulary of visual interpretation into the remarkable run of late-'60s counterculture pictures; forces the MPAA into establishing a ratings code to finally deal with popular films that disregard the Hayes censorship; and stands as the last, most eloquent statement on the Taylor/Burton relationship. I see in George and Martha's long night of torturing one another and initiating a younger couple into their cycle of alcohol and abuse for sport the thought that all this public scrutiny--no matter how auto-initiated and nursed--has the ultimate effect of digesting their personae in the popular perception. Compare the kind of fame Tayton invited at their height to a suckling parasite and find modern analogs in anything from Tom Cruise's 2006 meltdown sans publicist interference to Lindsay Lohan's very public fall from grace. In this scenario, the audience assumes the role of leech and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (tabbed once by a critic as a piece that could only be interesting to dirty-minded women) maintains its effectiveness because it's not just front-row to a trainwreck, but also a mirror held up to the dirty-minded assholes buying tickets for the exhibition.
The first real good look we get at the happy couple after a long and, it will become redundant to say, brilliant series of Wexler compositions is in a harsh, high-contrast black & white close-up that cast America's most-recognizable couple in an unforgiving light. They look like zombies or, closer to the theme, like blood puppies for a vampire: drained as community property by shunts that run parallel to American culture's thirst for human failing and weakness. The anticipation of their "first" appearance as it were has been imprinted on us as a culture. Wexler follows George and Martha through their modest home at 2 am, (we presume) after and (we hope) preceding long bouts of drinking and jousting--discovering endless reflective surfaces and lenses through which our complicity in this ugliness is flayed open. Better, Wexler demonstrates a real understanding of Albee's play as it bleeds into the whys of our fascination with Tayton. The reason Burton is perfect as the ravaged, war-torn intellectual tied to his own squandered potential by a harridan spawned from the ruling elite is because whatever the truth, Burton to us is something less than what he could be because he's with a creature of pop mythology and less than what we think he deserves. The initial bickering exchange involves Martha's needling George about some lost Bette Davis performance (Beyond the Forest (1949)); her impersonation of Davis establishes Martha as one thing (a product of inheritance), George as another (the barbarian at the gate). Through the creation of a child together--one by function that is non-viable and afflicted with the psychic diseases fabricated in the bile between them--Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? offers the fascinating suggestion that Tayton are substantively parents of our desire to pry into the lives of total strangers and, more damning, not for the purposes of edification, but for the purposes of feeling superior to folks who make us feel inferior. George and Martha's kid, a fiction in the picture, is the manifestation of our insupportable smallness.
What's often read as an audience surrogate, then (the young couple played wonderfully by professional lapdog George Segal (as a fledgling teacher dipping a toe in the academic shark tank) and Sandy Dennis as his befuddled, prone-to-hysteria wife), is better read as a cookie-cutter version of our torturers, infected by George and Martha's illness in the same way a tarantula is infected by a wasp's egg. Ambition and desire are handled in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the same way they are in "Othello", another matrimonial drama, though the Iago of Nichols's film is our own insupportable curiosity. Ernest Lehman's script preserves Albee's contemptuous fluency and Tayton, sensing the right avatars, deliver the goods with something very much like pain. Although Dennis will fly into eternity on her interpretive dance in a closed-down honkytonk, much of the doom of the piece hangs on the revelation that her Honey can't carry a child and is doomed, like Martha, to birth a string of barbed-wire spleen fathered by betrayal, disappointment, perhaps astonishment that all the civilization of the modern world could be mustered to deliver velvet, elegant savagery. Transforming the film into a thing of resonance instead of merely wrath is the bedrock truth, unshakeable, that Tayton love each other, understand each other, and that nothing will save them despite everything, so long as they're addicted to a public that would suck them dry if it could. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? sloshes alcohol around in scary draughts, but its junkies looking for an angry fix are jonesing for a dirty shunt and a crusty bucket (so it's convenient that the shunt and bucket are restless and ravenous). It's celebrity as horror film, as an act of embalming, as a relationship between two parties (us and them) cooperating in the implosion of any respect for boundaries and basic moral propriety. What a rush.
Without carrying the comparison too far, making a film critical of "Papa Doc" Duvalier's reign of terror in Haiti is about as dangerous as making a film critical of Idi Amin's in Uganda, Miloševic's in Serbia, or Hitler's in Germany. Because Graham Greene wrote both the book and its screenplay adaptation, you presume that the real topic is the slow disease of colonialism. (Symptoms include: malaise and hedonism.) You might even go so far as to speculate that the mistress longed-for in the novel is, typical of Greene, a silken metaphor for illicit misadventure spent in foreign arms--what's Greene, after all, but a more obviously politicized Henry James? But Hollywood being what it is, and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton being what they were in 1967, this adaptation of The Comedians is a dreary, talky version of The V.I.P.s, with the mistress role bloated by the need to insert Taylor into as many of the scenes where she doesn't belong as possible. It's an ensemble drama assembled mainly for the purpose of bolstering Tayton's star wattage with a series of lesser lights (not entirely successful when it's Alec Guinness in a secondary role instead of Rod Taylor), and, like most of Tayton's dozen films together, it's far more interesting to deconstruct than to watch. If the title of the piece refers in a self-congratulatory manner to the way we all enact parts in a meaningless melodrama, then take that as the most succinct criticism of a picture that's long-winded but never says much of anything.
Not a total disaster largely for the presence of Guinness and a remarkable couple of scenes in which he reveals the duplicity of his Major Jones (before commenting, in a shockingly literal way, on what kind of player he is in Greene's meta-drama), The Comedians is hamstrung by the sacredness with which it regards its celebrity scriptor's pinko politicking. There's a lot of black musing where irreverence and jaunty mordancy would have had a sharper sting. Casting Taylor as a disgruntled German embassy-frau demands, at the least, a little cocked-eyebrow bemusement--especially in a picture this in love with its smarty-pants self-awareness. As for Tayton: Burton, the slow man of eventual conscience (see also: The Constant Gardener), always sounds silly when asked to play "straight," while Taylor, so wonderful as the hothouse flower in her Tennessee Williams performances, is completely defeated by numerous lead-bottomed monologues about the limitless promise of Castro's Cuba and the bottomless evil of American Red-baiting. The Comedians is not without shards of truth; neither is it without a certain glowering mien, starting with a haunted children's chorus over its opening credits. In the end, though, it's too much the message picture eternal, confusing obvious for archetype. At 152 minutes, the film is also an endurance test--a long walk to nowhere in the company of preening dolts with nothing much to say about a great many things. If that's a pretty succinct way to sum up the cult of personality erupting around Tayton in the '60s, it's also a pretty tidy way to wrap up a box set celebrating the same.
The V.I.P.s debuts on DVD in an anamorphically-enhanced 2.39:1 port that is, alas, sick with edge-enhancement. Colours are (too) vibrant, black levels are obviously jacked-up, and though bleed is non-existent, so much has been done to augment the slack image that it almost, at times, looks as though the characters are digital cut-outs badly pasted onto a rear-projection. (Come to think of it, that's exactly what they are.) The original Dolby Digital 1.0 mono mix is replicated herein with nary a hint of distortion, which is either a blessing or a curse depending on how you look at it. Not sold outside the box set, the film is useless out of context and pretty much unendurable within, anyway, making its availability in any format a better conversation to have than an experience to endure. There are no special features.
Warner continues their Tayton quadrilogy with a fine 2.37:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of The Sandpiper that captures the lush Big Sur location shots with a lovely, filmic fidelity. Less enchanting are the weird, artificial interiors, all of them shot in Paris for some bonkers reason, giving the picture this inescapable feeling of a creaky old battleship navigating the choppy vérité waters of the '60s. It's dated for more reasons than its philosophies and its digitalization only draws a bold black line under its multi-tiered failures: one part looks like a travelogue, the other like Minnelli's An American in Paris. I guess we should be thankful, at least, that there's not as much singing. Two period docus constitute the disc's special features. The first, four minutes on Edmund Cara's sculpting of the wood bust, ends with its narrator saying something about how amazing it is that one ton of a fallen redwood stump was transformed into Liz. The jokes write themselves, don't they? Next comes "The Big Sur" (8 mins.), which has Burton reciting in his honeyed Shakespearean tones a poem by Robinson Jeffers followed by a brief history of the artists colonies of Big Sur. It all culminates, of course, in a few B-roll shots of our happy idiots lounging on the beach, engaged in the creation of an all-time boondoggle. Enough to say that the two shorts, despite being awful, self-satisfied bullshit, are preferable to the film proper.
One of the brightest moments of the Swinging Sixties, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is showcased in an excellent 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer so fine in its shadow detail that every pock on Burton's face is like a cave in a lunar landscape. That's a good thing, believe me, and Wexler's idea of throwing these matinee idols into bas, almost photonegative, relief here resurrects a lot of what I imagine to be its initial shock. George Romero didn't improve on our first look at George and Martha with any single moment of his seminal Night of the Living Dead--the effect of the reveal is as startling, as memorable, as the first appearance of Stanley in Kazan's Streetcar Named Desire. I mention Wexler a lot more often than Nichols with regards to this film because Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is more Wexler's than Nichols's. The Graduate is Nichols's film, as is Closer--and neither demonstrate this same level of visual penetration. Nichols's is insular; Wexler is insidious.
Accordingly, while Nichols is joined by a knowledgeable, respectful Steven Soderbergh on an anecdote-filled commentary track recorded for this release (it's nigh indispensable, truth be told, especially for Nichols's reflections on out-of-touch producer/screenwriter Lehman), Wexler gets a second, instantly-classic yakker all to himself. Wexler likewise takes centre stage in the second disc's "A Daring Work of Excellence" (20 mins.), reminiscing, along with a relieved and grateful Albee, about a few repeated production stories. (Best tidbit: the reminder that John Frankenheimer was originally slated to direct; the film he made instead, Seconds, with Rock Hudson delivering the same variety of "never be able to pull it off" performance as Liz in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and groundbreaking cinematography by James Wong Howe that apes Wexler's, is a startling instruction on zeitgeist as it relates to movements in film.) Incidentally, Richard Schickel continues his decline into one of those old movie critics who can't think of a thing to say that doesn't sound tired. The film's original exit music offered independent of its crisp DD 1.0 monaural soundtrack finishes off the first disc.
The second platter continues with the infuriating docu "Too Shocking for its Time" (10 mins.), a Jack Valenti-prominent piece that has one of this world's most evil people talking with pride about his ratings system, which supplanted the Hayes Code after enough films decided they didn't give much of a shit about their tiny Catholic audience. Good or bad, you decide, but this fluff piece, masquerading as a chat about the raciness of Virginia Woolf, is actually a banner for the MPAA's arbitrary assemblage of old hens and preening roosters in a top-secret coop. Letting soccer moms edit David Cronenberg films is one thing for Utah--another thing for the rest of the free world. The vintage "Elizabeth Taylor: An Intimate Portrait" (67 mins.) is a Jack Haley-produced piece that has Rat Packer Peter Lawford interviewing Taylor intimates Rock Hudson (!) and others over clips of La Liz's long career to that point (1975). A seven-minute screen test for Dennis, cast opposite Roddy McDowall (just as Taylor is in the Lassie Come Home clip featured in the Haley retrospective), is something like a revelation of why Dennis has remained a queer icon, not to mention the power and fascination of her Honey. It joins a vintage interview with Nichols (8 mins.) that comes off as a bit of a junket fluff piece plus trailers for all of the films collected in Warner's Tayton box set in rounding out the package. Incidentally, this is the only DVD in the Taylor-Burton collection available for--and, let's be honest, worthy of--individual purchase.
Finishing out the Tayton box (and exclusive to the set), Warner's DVD release of The Comedians presents the film in a 2.36:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer that sparkles. Especially during exteriors, the image looks fabulous: colours are bright, shadow detail fine. Sole complaint? The occasional appearance of edge haloes, which harm the verisimilitude of a few interiors. Less overtly impressive, the accompanying Dolby Digital 1.0 mono audio nevertheless gets the job done. "Comedians in Africa" (11 mins.) is a vintage promotional featurette interviewing Burton, Guinness, and poor director Peter Glenville, who slipped into the inky arms of unemployment with The Comedians as his last resumé entry. There are no other extras on the platter. Originally published: January 30, 2007.