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 are still blazing brilliant flashes of the Liz we all love from Woolf, Suddenly Last Summer, and Giant. Sometimes she just seems zonked halfway to Hell. And Burton fares even worse: there's just sputtering fumes. Was he saving his energy for Doctor Faustus (also '67), his big directorial debut (and directorial swan song)? If so he coasted there too, acting-wise, though that film is nicely lurid and atmospheric, and colorful like a Bava AIP horror film.
Hell, it's not just for Faust and hangovers anymore. Heaven neither - 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. Taming isn't in the set, and with the exception of The Sandpiper, all the others, Comedians and VIPS, are the bleary morning-after versions from Woolf's wild drunken glorious night. They're the blearily hung-over Dick and Liz who collapsed the bloated studio system with their initial bloated collaboration, Cleopatra (1963) and were now rampaging through Europe. Europe doesn't know what hit them. That's some bloating power.
What was left, after all that? In The VIPS (also 1963), aka Grand Hotel while waiting for delayed flights in at 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 the actual air terminal and cavernous sets 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 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/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 or at any rate laughing at them and enjoying feel dominant. 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? That would be so great.
Alas, 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 seen two of the films in this set in a row this week, The VIPS and 'love in the time of Haitian Revolution' romantic potboiler, The Comedians (1967), and 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 (a low enough proof they are not flammable). 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 and Shrew so endlessly rewarding. Instead it feels like Dick and Liz are right there with you, too, standing in line in front of you as you wait to go into the 9 PM show, bickering and making up and keeping you entertained while you wait to be seated. 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, too jaded and bummed to even ask for a refund at the box office. Hey, that's okay with them. The Haitians are only too happy to escort you to the airport, and Liz and Dick can't wait to creep off to their air-conditioned hotel where, there's a working ice machine and stocked bar.
But, I almost forgot: 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. It's subtle, and legit, and it's unmistakable. 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, and the accent went with them. 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 and this film's release, 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. Never knowing it's air was limited.
Films like Comedians weren'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