I've finished off the last two films in the Taylor Burton set: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? which I realized last night that I'd never seen before sober (I've seen it 10-20 times but never knew how it ended) and The Sandpiper - which I'd never seen at all, except in a Mad magazine parody collection, but had prejudged as being exquisitely dull as I couldn't even understand what was going on in the satire.
Turns out Mad needn't have bothered, because Sandpiper is pure hilarity all by itself. And it is beautiful to look at. I can imagine being bored by it on pan and scan TV in faded colors, but the DVD is amazing - full widescreen anamorphic with eye-popping colors and plenty of time and space to use them. If, like me, you consider driving up from San Francisco through its winding treacherous cliff highway (101) curves the pinnacle of California dreaming, then you can finally unpack your duffel and book a room. Director Vincente Minnelli makes fine poetic use of ever crashing wave but adds other 'percs' as well, including the most highbrow camp dialogue I've personally ever heard. And I've heard (the) Boom!
Co-scripted by the great Dalton Trumbo, the story finds single free-spirit beatnik painter Taylor squaring off against married-repressed reverend Burton for the soul of Taylor's young wild child boy. She wants to keep the lad pure and unsullied by the system, but Burton and the authorities know that at some point every boy needs to get away from his mother and go to school, lest he wind up like Norman Bates, or worse --Oscar Madison in The Long Hot Summer. Of course Dick and Liz fall in love in between child pop psychology-surf crescendos. Even though his wife is Eva Marie Saint, trying here to seem sexless --as if she ever could--Burton seems to prefer this unkempt (even slovenly) 'broad' of the sea. Taylor, for her part, already has a lover in the form of sculpted sculptor Charles Bronson, who wears very thin shirts and beach pants, so you can see all the sinews in his amazing body, and peak animal magnetism. Is Taylor out of her mind to prefer some self-hating cloth man even if Burton's voice is more mellifluous? In fact they're both out of their minds and personally I'd rather see Eva Marie Saint and Bronson hook up and leave the Burton-Taylor trainwreck to its 'social' drinking.
Ah, but back to the colors! There's a huge vase of flowers dead center in Taylor's cliff-side beatnik bungalow overlooking the sea. Minnelli, and DP Milton Krasner, and whomever authored the DVD, really make the colors on that bouquet POP out. And though the Burton-Taylor chemistry isn't at its full battling bacchanal beauty, if you want an idea of what constitutes giftedness with actors, compare the work Taylor and Burton do for Minnelli's Sandpiper and Mike Nichols' Woolf vs. their rather tepid, disinterested efforts in the other films of the set - The VIPs and The Comedians. It's the difference between night and day, or night and later that night. Clearly Minnelli and Nichols both took the time to access and cajole the best from their stars, while the other directors no doubt let their combined titanic alcoholic ego-romance tank their films' momentum as thoroughly as it tanked Cleopatra.
Piper doesn't even have to be good when the chemistry between this pair is in full flow the way it wasn't in The VIPs and The Comedians. There's a great scene where the two are gazing into each others' eyes, emoting and talking, and the wounded sandpiper that Liz saved earlier in the film comes flying in for a landing right on Liz's head! She doesn't even flinch! She just keeps staring into Dick's eyes, and for his part, even with that sandpiper there--maybe about to shit on her head, who knows?-- he doesn't freak out, just stays in the scene, fixed on her eyes like a hypnotist. Then after they kiss, she reaches up and cups the bird in her hand without even looking at it, and then lets it loose, saying in that languid half-to-herself Taylor style, "fly away, baby." Was this something they shot twenty takes of, just to get that damned bird to land on her head, or was it just a lucky accident that the pro thesps seized on? I spent the whole rest of the film just admiring the perfect nonchalant stillness with which these two lovers acted out their scene with this bird standing in Liz's wild hair. Then, later, when she chases ex-sugar daddy-cum-rapist Robert Webber out of the house with a hatchet, my heart was sealed.
Nonetheless I love what old Walter Chaw at Film Freak Central has to say:
it could've been an early and sharp indictment of the hippie culture instead of this relic of its brief vogue. (It's Myra Breckinridge in every way that matters--and if it's better, that's only because Rex Reed isn't in it.) When Laura goes off on an extended rant about the goodness of "The Natural," you cast a critical eye over her inch of pancake makeup and mascara, her endlessly-teased perm, and her carefully-organized collection of poly-blends, and wonder what anyone could've been thinking. Neutering Burton's force-of-nature virility (see how Burton-as-holy-man/rebel burns in Becket and especially Night of the Iguana) doesn't help the cause of Romanticist physical frankness--they would've done better switching the casting, putting Burton in the wild and Taylor in a straitjacket.For all that, man, for all that, it's still swingin'. Mr. Chaw, that shit is stone cold hilarious and on point, but please don't dis a lady's lip rouge; chicks can espouse naturalism while smeared in make-up all they want; it's called third-wave feminism and it's a stone gas. Of course, I love Myra Breckenridge too. And Reed becomes Raquel fast enough that he's never too much of a dead weight, and it's got Mae West singing "Hard to Handle" in front of greased-down muscle boys. It's so good you're almost tempted to rent Sextette afterwards, but don't. Dear God, please don't. Boom will do just as well, or if you're really masochistic, Dr. Faustus.