Because the screen is the only well-lit mirror in town

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 (the ones that aren't Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and, man, what a generally tepid lot they are. Liz and Dick seem to saving their sparks for offscreen, if they had any left at the time. Sometimes there's still blazing brilliant flashes of the Liz we all love from Suddenly Last Summer, and Giant. Sometimes she just seems zonked halfway to Hell. Either way, on Burton's end, there's just sputtering fumes. Was he saving his energy for Doctor Faustus (also '67), his big directorial debut (and swan song)? If so he coasted there too, directing-wise, and acting-wise, and subtlety-wise.

Hell indeed, I've seen Woolf a zillion times and--along with their version of Taming of the Shrew--have come to see it as the "true life" story of Dick and Liz, the snapshot from the drunken heights of that dynamic duo of titanic love. I know I'm not alone in that, but it doesn't make my sense of connection to them in that film any less profound. The other films in the set are the VH1 versions, the morning after versions. They're the blearily hung-over Dick and Liz of the bloated studio system, a bloated system they helped destroy with their initial bloated collaboration, Cleopatra (1963). They actually overbloated the whole system down around them! That's some bloating power.

What was left, after all that? For The VIPS (also 1963), aka Grand Hotel while waiting around the VIP lounge at Heathrow International Airport, not a lot. In fact it seems like the film hasn't even happened. It seems like the screenwriter snuck off to look for a different career and forgot to tell the actors. Alone or in pairs they wander through expensive air terminal sets (and actual London Heathrow) in search of love, directorial cues, and highballs... What they find is themselves, and obsequious airport receptionists.

A couple as openly debauched as Dick and Liz could probably not exist in films of our age, so their powerful chemistry and indulgent audience may seem as hard to fathom today as that of Martin and Lewis. The power-suit and baseball cap-wearing "industry" people would probably have a hard time getting either actor to agree to product positioning and/or 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 Shanghai Surprises but people dutifully came (anything, maybe, to get away from the kids for a few hours). 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? And to have them in not just one disastrous film but dozens, with maybe one or two hits amongst the dross?
We'd love them all today, but poor Nick and Courtney wouldn't have a Chinaman's chance finding roles together in our less enlightened times. The 'bond' wouldn't go through. Recall that Courtney had to give daily urine tests to the insurance company stooges to play Woody Harrelson's junky wife in  People Vs. Larry Flynt. Which yes, makes no sense. Here the author sighed heavily, as some PC thug immediately called him to task for saying Chinaman.

I've only seen two of the films in this set, The VIPS and 'love in the time of Haitian Revolution" romantic potboiler, The Comedians (1967), and already I've grown unfathomably weary. In their romantic scenes together in Comedians--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, new livers, a writer of Edward Albee's stature (or even prime Graham Greene rather than this overheated Haitian turmoil).

 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. The Haitians are only too happy to escort you to the airport, and Liz and Dick can creep off to an air-conditioned bungalow.

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, mein Herr! 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 has moved off-screen. Did Burton forget he was allowed to smile? He cloaks his hangover in a smoke-yellowed veil of adult gravitas, 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... once he realized the 80s wasn't going away.

Ah, but 1967 - year of my own birth, that was a time. Easy Rider hadn't yet wiped the frozen martini smirk off Hollywood's stupid face. The last breath out of the pre-Easy star-studio system was still on inhale. In the end, it 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. And they are not hung over.


  1. Also, Erich, Chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please.

  2. Also to what? I used it deliberately to make a point. MAD MEN-style. Is that so wrong? Is that so... wrong?

  3. The proper response was, "MovieMan, this isn't a guy who built the railroads here. This is a guy who...he peed on my rug!"

    And then we wait patiently for someone to come along and play Donny.


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