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Monday, January 23, 2017

One That Smoldered In '65

Taylor and Burton Steam Up The Sandpiper

First to clear sentiment away: I was taken to this during Winston-Salem visit where my mother and sister got sudden impulse to see newest of Taylor-Burton coupling after cross-street shopping from the Carolina Theatre, it decorated by one-sheets with Liz/Dick lying beauteous on the beach like an adulterous Frankie and Annette. What little I knew of the pair derived from cover upon fan mag cover, on last newsstand leg themselves, but still threat to shelf space for comics or monsters I sought. Cleopatra had been foreclosed to me for too-hot content plus being origin point of Burton-Taylor sins. A neighbor boy had somehow got a roadshow souvenir book and hid it under his mattress. One sixth-grade school group bus-rode to Winston for Cleopatra (presumed educational value) and some parents complained bitterly, or forbade offspring to go along. This then, was background to my seeing The Sandpiper. Mother and sis choices were to take me into the Carolina, leave me in the car, loose on streets, or forget The Sandpiper (our Liberty Theatre wouldn’t get it till several months later). I was thrilled to see a truly adult film to brag on, embellish, or outright lie about for friends back home. As events turned out, The Sandpiper needed no enhancement. It had the heat, all of grown-up passion one could hope for at age 11, and … I swear this was real, a nude glimpse of Elizabeth Taylor, which I looked for again in TCM’s recent HD broadcast and couldn’t find. Was that couple of frames a dream? Did just me and no one else actually see it? Look back on formative filmgoing and ask yourself: Was I looking at the same screen as the rest of the audience, or was a different movie playing in my head?

The Sandpiper is today laughed at where not ignored altogether. It was produced in a party atmosphere, champagne corks popped between each take and hangers-on present for a whole of shooting. Fifty years gone by barely lifts perception of The Sandpiper as keyhole-peep into sex excess of a notorious tabloid couple, less a movie than relic of Hollywood gone to 60’s ruin. I was fortunate then, to enjoy The Sandpiper at face value, being barely aware of offscreen scandals, and new besides to grown-up topics it addressed. It was enough to know that Richard Burton’s character was a cleric and boy’s school administrator fallen from grace and happy marriage to Eva Marie Saint when he flips for free-spirit Elizabeth Taylor, she of Malibu dunes and Bohemian lifestyle. That last includes au naturel posing for sculptor Charles Bronson, which was where I got glimpse (or did I?) of undraped Liz. So how is it she covers herself demurely on TCM and DVD? A girl next door confirmed (years later) what I saw, she being age seven when taken by parents to see The Sandpiper in that same summer 1965. Good lord, where were babysitters to pinch-hit for Mom-Dad and spare young minds this impact?

I wonder how its stars regarded The Sandpiper. Burton seems to me quite good in moral crisis. Taylor works as best she can in a difficult part. Her seduction of his untested virtue gives us glimpse to what went on behind Roman columns of Cleopatra. Reviews of The Sandpiper certainly would not have mattered to a public whose primary want was to get between sheets with the decade’s most reckless lovers. They achieve a screen intimacy here that later pairings would lack. The trick having been performed would have made its repetition less welcome. Already there was The V.I.P’s (1963), but Taylor and Burton are estranged in that, her character taken up with Louis Jourdan. Irony was Burton playing the cuckold, even if the Taylor-Jourdan liaison isn’t fully consummated (a Code limit that makes The V.I.P’s almost comical in hindsight). The Sandpiper was two years deeper into reality of a Liz-Dick world and so played cards more face up. It proposes an adultery that pays off, and so gave a paying crowd their money’s worth. And then there's further asset of Vincente Minnelli directing.

Minnelli evidently thought little of Sandpiper prospects, but realized big numbers would go and see it. In fact, they did, but the film still lost money, over a million in fact, despite a whopping $8.6 million in worldwide rentals. Trouble was a familiar one --- too much spent on the negative, in this case $5.3 million. Part of excess was $1.5 million the Burtons collected (half-a-million for him, the rest to her), plus percentage of the gross. They were worth that for white heat of publicity they generated. Taylor had good sense to insist on Minnelli to direct, and threw needed work also to old MGM colleague Tom Drake, whom she had helped before with a spot on Raintree County. I hadn't realized before reading Stephen Harvey's book on Minnelli that latter was receiving a weekly check from MGM, which would surely put him among last of contract talent the Lion still fed. Big Sur in California was used for beach location. After that came balance shot in France, an accommodation to Taylor-Burton tax concerns. Say what you will of Minnelli reduced to empty star celebration, The Sandpiper has his style and a look to overcome faults of its narrative. It came close as any 1965 release to being a critic-proof picture. Any "quality" element would have just got in the way of what folks were there to see.

The Sandpiper sold hand-in-purse with beauty aids, clothing, hair-styling, a six-page ad spread in Harper's Bazaar. Major cultural shifts were headed America's way, but this attraction would not reflect them, other than libertine lifestyle the Burtons indulged. Tie-ins if anything evoked means by which Lana Turner's late-term vehicles had been drummed, or Doris Day in commercial dotage. This would all be swept out, and soon, by Hollywood kowtow to youth in rebellion and patron demand that movies reflect a new awareness. Whatever else she was at age mid-thirties, Elizabeth Taylor still spelled sex at ripest before an abolished Code made her kind of moral trespass quaint. MGM may have sensed an expiration date and so got out combo revival of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof with Butterfield 8 soon after release of The Sandpiper. Posters cried "Liz Sizzles!" and so emulated tabloids long obsessed by her. Value of The Sandpiper was not so lasting, CBS picking up pieces with network premiere on 3-6-70. There is a DVD from Warners, and Amazon streams The Sandpiper in High-Def.


Blogger Dave K said...

Great piece, John. I note you don't mention perhaps the most lasting legacy of THE SANDPIPER, its ubiquitous theme song 'The Shadow of Your Smile.'

9:06 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Right you are to mention the very nice score, and that song, Dave. Screen Archives offers a nice soundtrack CD, which also includes outstanding music from "The Americanization Of Emily."

12:36 PM  
Blogger lmshah said...

It funny to see your header Photo from THE SANDPIPE; no matter how with-it and sexy Burton and Taylor thought they were being (an appeal that I never saw in them, they were just an obnoxious, frankly unattractive couple in some of the worst movies of the 60's and 70's as far as I was concerned), I find it hilarious to see the age-old silent movie tradition of bird-kissing hadn't died.


7:03 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

One of the problems watching any old movie is to be out of the context in which they originally came. I originally saw this film in the 80s in the pan and scan version and the most interesting aspect of it was actually how they had to reframe each take in order to fit it on television. This movie appeared in the early eighties in Argentine television in a Mexican dubbed version, however I saw it first in a version in original English in the days when cable companies lifted movies from a nearby video rental store. At the time the film felt like nothing more than an unremarkable story that at least had good cinematography, today it will feel more obsolete.

Maybe not in 1965 but today, Charles Bronson feels completely miscast and not fitting at all in this story. This is a problem involving most of his earlier film assignments. But that is not because of him nor the filmmakers at the time... this our perception after seeing Bronson establishing a screen image that worked out fine for him.

10:16 AM  
Blogger b piper said...

" But that is not because of him nor the filmmakers at the time... this our perception after seeing Bronson establishing a screen image that worked out fine for him."

I think of that as the RETURN OF DR. X effect. Bogie was fine in that movie, it's only the incongruity of that role in the context of his later film career that invites pointless scorn and ridicule.

12:28 PM  
Blogger Dave G said...

Never seen the film, but as noted above, it gave us the wonderful song "Shadow of your Smile" (most memorable to me from Sinatra's superb live "Sinatra at the Sands" album).

1:44 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Radiotelephonia -- A thought about casting. You note that Bronson's later career throws his early career in a different light (and vice-versa). My favorite example of casting that reconfigured an earlier role is Ted Knight as the hallway cop in PSYCHO. Twenty years ago my students saw him, pointed, and laughed, "Hey, that's Ted Baxter!" (the role he played on Mary Tyler Moore's eponymous sitcom). Then, as time passed and MTM retreated into the past, I would show the movie to my classes and no one laughed--Ted Knight/Baxter was ancient history.
Similarly, my friend Ed Sullivan no longer gets giggles when he says his name.

By the way, folks, was Richard Burton remotely that hairy chested?

1:07 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Anyone claiming Taylor is unattractive puts me in mind of Mad's parody of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where in the opening panels they skewered for all time Hollywood's idea of making a glamorous actress plain with a few touches of makeup:

2:30 PM  
Blogger StevensScope said...

What AN ARRAY OF FILM-THEMES, LOCALES, (and the SHEER COMPLEXITY of it all!), regarding the films that the BURTONS made TOGETHER, during the SHORT time-frame following "CLEOPATRA"! ... Not to forget ( and some folks WANTED to forget) those two DISCORDANT NOTES MIXED IN WITH the soap-suds of "THE VIPS" & "THE SANDPIPER": namely, Peter Glenville's "THE COMEDIANS", and Mike Nichol's "WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?" Some WOW-ACTING FROM OTHER CAST-MEMBERS, WHO REACTED RATHER WELL, to the VERBAL-ASSULTING-SCRIPTS thrown at them FROM THE TWO LOVEBIRDS. LOTSA- LIQUOR SPLASHED through it all; they left us some GREAT, MEMORABLE SCREEN-STUFF, FOR SURE. Always a GREAT PLEASURE to VISIT this EXCITING PLACE, JOHN!

11:08 AM  
Blogger Filmfanman said...

Stevenscope left out my favorite of theirs, 1967's 'The Taming Of The Shrew' - a good Shakespeare movie.

5:06 PM  

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