Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Monday, December 08, 2008

Snap, went the dragon! THE SANDPIPER (1965)

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 I had as a kid, but had prejudged as being exquisitely dull as I couldn't even understand what was going on in the satire, except that it was a dull movie I should spend my adult life avoiding.

Turns out Mad needn't have bothered warning me off, because Sandpiper is pure hilarity - a camp masterpiece that could only have come out right before the summer of love, when beatniks were in vogue (as opposed to 'hippies'). 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 through the winding treacherous cliff highway (101) curves or Big Sur to be the pinnacle of California dreaming, then you can finally unpack your duffel and book a room with the Piper. Director Vincente Minnelli makes fine poetic use of every 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 puts single free-spirit beatnik painter Taylor against married-repressed parochial school reverend Burton for the soul of Taylor's young wild child boy. Taylor wants to keep the lad pure and unsullied by the system, i.e. illiterate and antisocial, 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.  Of course, Dick and Liz fall in love in between their child pop psychology-themed, surf crescendo-timed, Big Conversations. That's a given, but what most straight dudes won't get is that with a gorgeous wife like Eva Marie Saint--trying here to seem sexless --as if she ever could--so we can better understand why a 'good' man like priest Burton would prefer this unkempt (even slovenly) 'broad' of the sea. Maybe I'm prejudiced (Eva looks like my Swedish mom did back in the 70s) but damn!

Taylor, for her part, already has a lover in the form of sculpted sculptor Charles Bronson, who wears very thin shirts and beach pants in order for you to better see all the sinews in his amazing body, and smell the peak animal magnetism. Is Taylor out of her mind to prefer some self-hating dissolute   man-of-cloth, even if Burton's voice is more mellifluous?

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 that's to die for. Minnelli, and DP Milton Krasner, and whomever authored the DVD, really make the colors on that bouquet POP. And though the Burton-Taylor chemistry isn't at its full battling bacchanal beauty, it's still pretty amazing. They know not to get all diva difficult for a major player like Minnelli. And 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, after the booze has made them repetitive and bleary-eyed.

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 star couple's titanic alcoholic ego-romance dive detours 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: there's a great scene where the two are gazing into each others' eyes, emoting and talking in the bungalow around that giant vase, when the wounded sandpiper (symbolism!) that Liz saved earlier in the film comes fluttering in for a landing right on Liz's head!  You'd think someone would yell cut or break character, but Liz 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, lost in her eyes like a hypnotist. It's a magical moment, not even a ripple of shock or discomfort is noticeable.

Then after they kiss, Liz 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 they 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. This movie rocks!

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.
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 (though a thousand curses on the director for not letting Welch play Myron, which was the whole reason she signed on) and it's got Mae West singing "Hard to Handle" in front of greased-down muscle boys. It's so nearly 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 brave, Dr. Faustus. 


  1. I really enjoyed your review of The Sandpiper! I think it's an underrated Taylor/Burton film, but also a melodramatic mess for all the right reasons and a lot of fun to watch. Big Sur has rarely looked so beautiful.

    I do have to disagree that "any slumdog millionare would go for gentle, svelte Saint over chubby braying beatnik Taylor in a hot minute" though. Sure, Saint is pretty in a waspy yawn inducing way that's so damn safe and extremely popular today, but Taylor is Taylor. Any one of her curvy limbs is more interesting than Saint's entire lithe body.

    But I do think Saint is a terrific actress and she's easily got some of the best scenes in the movie.

    You've made me want to see this again. I got the Taylor/Burton DVD boxset as an xmas gift last year. I need to track down a copy of the soundtrack since I remember really enjoying it. Off to Google it...

  2. hmmm, good point. I'm just a sucker for the Saint type, because she looks like my mother and Liz reminds me of my ex-wife, but I shouldn't be shallow about it. Anyway, Thanks Miss Kimberly! It's an honor to have your comments as I revere your awesome site.

  3. That's fascinating. Hopefully I didn't insult your mother with my comments of Saint.

    My own mother was a Liz Taylor meets Natalie Wood type and I even have the photos to prove it. I'm prone to liking brunettes over blondes and I'm sure my mom has something to do with it. Of course it helps that I'm a brunette myself and I grew up in the '70s and '80s when you couldn't watch a movie, turn on the TV or stroll down a toy store isle without being bombarded by blondes.

    And please don't thank me for stopping by your blog! Acidemic is fabulous and I'm thankful you find my own blogging efforts worthwhile.


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