Thursday, December 04, 2008
The Case of the Disappearing Accent: THE COMEDIANS (1967)
One thing I love about Elizabeth Taylor is how she can both coast and transcend her craft in a single scene. I've been watching the "other" films that come in the Taylor Burton boxed set and man, what a tepid lot. Liz and Dick seem to saving their sparks for offscreen, if they had any at the time. Sometimes there's still some blazing brilliant flashes of the Liz we all love from Suddenly Last Summer, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Reflections in a Golden Eye. Sometimes she just seems zonked. Either way, there's little life in old man Burton, just fumes.
The main ingredient of this Taylor Burton set is V. Woolf. I've seen that film a zillion times and--along with Taming of the Shrew--have come to see it as the "tru-life" story of Dick and Liz, the dynamic duo of drunken lust and titanic actorly love. The other films in the set are the VH1 versions, the bleary, hung over Dick and Liz of the bloated studio system, a system they helped destroy with their initial collaboration, Cleopatra (1963). For The VIPS (also 1963), aka Grand Hotel at the airport, it seems like the screenwriter has gone off to look for a new job and forgot to tell the actors. Alone or in pairs they wander through expensive London airport sets in search of love, directorial cues, and highballs... what they find is themselves, and obsequious airport receptionists.
A couple as coolly debauched as Dick and Liz could probably not exist in the films today anyway. The power-suit and baseball cap-wearing "industry" people would probably have a hard time getting either actor to agree to product positioning and not smoking. Plus, these days it's tough getting insurance for any film starring notorious drunks, and audiences are far less indulgent, and have quit smoking and drinking and telling lewd stories. Liz and Dick made apparently dozens of Giglis and people dutifully came. The equivalent to the Dick and Liz pair bond today would probably be Courtney Love and Nick Nolte, if they were a couple, and maybe they should be. Can you imagine it? We'd love them, but poor Nick and Courtney wouldn't have a Chinaman's chance finding roles together in today's less enlightened times. Recall that Courtney had to give daily urine tests to play Woody Harrelson's junky wife in People Vs. Larry Flynt. Here the author sighed heavily, as some PC thug immediately called him to task for saying Chinaman.
But maybe that's for the best. I've only seen two of the films in this set, The VIPS and The Comedians (1967), and already I've grown unfathomably weary. In their romantic scenes together--which apparently are the "meat of things" as far as box office allure - Dick and Liz have all the burning chemistry of two gin-soaked carpets. Burton usually sways or stands still and glowers under baggy Welshman's eyes. Liz angles her good side, emotes, sucks it in, flashes her cleavage and its all very adult, in the way that made adult synonymous with boring. One waits, in vain, for some of the fierce gutsy braying and brawling that makes Woolf so endlessly rewarding. Instead it feels like Dick and Liz are right there with you, too, dreaming of a script with decent writing, their youth, a new liver, a writer of Edward Albee's stature; in that way it's fun for awhile, like meeting new people while you stand in line for a show, but it's not the show itself, and after an hour of waiting and hearing Dick and Liz bicker in front of you, you grow so suffused with world-weary ennui you give up and just go home.
But, what is rare and precious in The Comedians is that Liz is working a German accent! It sounds more French than German, but Liz... with an accent! My ears perked up when I first realized she wasn't just doing a "character doing an accent" like the mannered way Martha might say "What a dump!" in Woolf. The first scene with Dick, meeting after he gets off the flight to Haiti-- her accent is sensational. Later, it falls off a bit. She forgets she's doing one, then she picks it up where it left off, like a good book. But by then it's long been apparent that whatever fun Dick and Liz are having is off-screen. Did Burton forget he was allowed to smile? He cloaks his hangover in a smoke-yellowed veil of adult gravitas, just like any 60s dad who's given up trying to be a good husband and parent and resigned himself to his easy chair, his Larks, and his highballs, like me dear old dad.
Ah, the late 1960s, before Easy Rider wiped the frozen martini smirk all the way off Hollywood's stupid face. The last breath out of the pre-Easy star-studio systm wasn't a gasp at all, as it turns out, but a long drunken smoker's wheeze. And for all that, Liz and Dick still got more class than all of New Hollywood put together. Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf? Those industry dorks in their baseball caps and crew jackets, that's who, or they ought to be. If Burton were alive today, there'd be some "Get the Guests" games playing, and no mistake. Alas, he's not, and the best part of the Comedians turns out to be Lililan Gish, who has a few great scenes going ballistic on the sunglassed thugs of Papa Doc. God bless little children. They abide. They are not hung over.