Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Call, Girl

Films: BUtterfield 8
Format: Turner Classic Movies on rockin’ flatscreen.

Every now and then, an actor has a string of Oscar nominations. It doesn’t always result in a win, but for Elizabeth Taylor, four was a charm. Strong performances from 1957-1959 put her close to the podium but not atop it. She finally got there in 1960 with BUtterfield 8 for a role that she hated and that she was convinced got her the Oscar in a sympathy vote thanks to a nar-fatal bout of pneumonia. By the way, the way I’ve typed the title is not a typo. The title refers to an old-school telephone exchange, and that’s how they were written.

In this case, the phone number in question is an answering service used by Gloria Wandrous (Elizabeth Taylor). Gloria is the dark version of the following year’s Holly Golightly. She’s a prostitute in all respects except that she refuses to take money for spending time with a man. In the opening sequence, she wakes up alone in a man’s apartment and explores it. She discovers her torn dress from the night before and appropriates a mink coat to wear over her slip. She also finds an envelope of money for her, a fact that offends her and makes her decision to take the mink that much more justified in her mind.

Gloria’s life outside of spending her evenings with men consists of visiting her childhood friend Steve (Eddie Fisher). Steve has his own problems. Specifically, his problem is that Gloria’s frequent presence is the reason his girlfriend Norma (Susan Oliver) thinks he can’t commit to her. Gloria also goes home to her mother (Mildred Dunnock) when she’s not spending the night somewhere else. Mrs. Wandrous knows what Gloria is like but suppresses the knowledge. Her best friend (Betty Field) is always quick with a comment, though.

But Gloria is not the only person at the center of this story. The other person standing there is Weston Liggett (butter-voiced Laurence Harvey), Gloria’s evening companion from the night before. Wes is unhappily married to Emily (Dina Merrill). His unhappiness mainly stems from her family having given him a high-paid, do-nothing job at the family company. With nothing to occupy him, Wes spends his time on drink and women, especially while Emily is out of town tending to her sick mother.

It’s no surprise here that the relationship between Gloria and Wes is a tumultuous one. It’s clear after not too long that Gloria is in love with Wes, but is conflicted in terms of how he treats her and how he thinks he sees her. Weston is clearly having his own issues, since he is obviously attracted to Gloria and feels some guilt for this and a great deal of shame for being so attracted to a woman who is in all but name a prostitute. They spend a great deal of time lashing out at each other and fighting against what they both clearly want. This is what gives the movie its narrative strength, actually. Without this, we’d only have Weston’s failing marriage to keep us interested, and it’s really not that interesting.

I think the biggest problem with BUtterfield 8 is my expectations. Elizabeth Taylor had a long and tremendous career and this doesn’t really feel like an Oscar-worthy performance. It certainly has its moments, and I won’t deny that Taylor is good in the movie, but this isn’t Taylor at her best.

However, I think the movie absolutely nails her appearance. There are moments in BUtterfield 8 where Taylor is absolutely gorgeous in the way that a 28-year-old Liz Taylor could be. And then there are moments when she appears so much older and so much more haggard, as if the hard years that Gloria has lived are starting to show up. I can only think (and hope) that this was intentional, that in moments we see the veneer and in other moments we see the cracks starting to show. It’s brilliant, so I’m going to credit the filmmakers.

Eddie Fisher is an admitted lower point. Taylor evidently insisted that he be given the role and so he was, but a more convincing actor here would have been a much better choice. This is definitely not the case with Laurence Harvey, who I always like on screen. Harvey plays this type of role well, and he’s as good here as he is in anything I’ve seen him in. In fact, he’s easily my favorite part of the film.

As I said above, I expected a lot out of BUtterfield 8 and it only delivered partially. There’s a lot good here and the idea for the story is at least mildly interesting, even if the end comes off as tacked on and a function of plot rather than character. Fortunately, it delivers enough that I think it was well worth my time.

Why to watch BUtterfield 8: It’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s gone terribly wrong and serious, but in all the right ways.
Why not to watch: The ending is unfortunate.


  1. I haven't yet seen this, but considering my love for Ms Taylor, I am sure I shall see this at some point (though it doesn't seem to be available in Australia, like many other things, darn it!).

    Apparently she also thought she got the award because the film spent much time telling Gloria/Elizabeth what a bad girl she was, Hollywood's way of teaching Taylor a lesson for her affair with Fisher.

    1. Evidently, she hated it so much that she and Fisher nicknamed the film "Butterball 4."

      It's worth seeing, but if it never shows up, it's not the worst hole in your videography.

    2. If you're an Elizabeth Taylor fan, you should see it. She's great. The movie itself is not quite Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? but it's still pretty good.

  2. It's been seven or eight years since I saw it and I don't specifically remember what I liked about it, but I do remember thinking it was great! I also remember hearing about the Oscar talk that Liz's win was a sympathy vote, and I thought it was gibberish because she's excellent.

    1. I scrolled over and looked at the other Best Actress nominees. I've not seen The Sundowners. Greer Garson and Shirley MacLaine are both great in their respective roles. But Melina Mercouri is the only real competition for this year among these candidates. I would have a hard time picking between Taylor and Mercouri for Best Actress, and if I picked Mercouri eventually, I still would be glad that Taylor won.

    2. I like Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment quite a bit. I'm not the biggest MacLaine fan, but I genuinely love her in that.

      I still have to see The Sundowners, so I can't render a verdict yet...but I'll get there eventually.

  3. This is a big, glossy, lush soap opera of the type that fell by the wayside a couple years later and on that level it's very enjoyable with a terrific cast, excepting Fisher. I think Liz does a good job, at this point she was still always at least professional something that can't be said of some of her later films why her performances get rather lazy when she was doing the films just for the loot, but an award worthy performance it is not.

    I can see why she hated it, at this point in her private life she was being branded a homewrecking Jezebel so she could hardly have been pleased to be handed a role that reinforced that vision. She accepted the film strictly to finish up her obligation to MGM so she could freelance more lucratively, something that came true in spades when she signed on for Cleopatra.

    Entertainingly trashy the film may be but I'd go for any of the other nominees over Liz's performance, it's a shame that this is the one that won her the first Oscar when she'd been better in ever film she's been nominated for previous to this one. My choice for best of the year though would be none of the nominees but Jean Simmons in Elmer Gantry with Judy Holliday in her final film Bells Are Ringing as a very close runner-up.

    1. I love Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer and I absolutely adore her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, so I definitely agree that in this case, she won for something that wasn't her best. I still have Raintree County on the list, so I can't comment.

      In some ways, the backstory is more interesting than the movie we're given.