Psychedelic film criticism for the woefully unprepared

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, 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. 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 to use them. Director Vincente Minnelli makes fine poetic use of the Big Sur locations so, if you love the area as I do, it's worth it just for that alone. But there are many other perks, including the most highbrow camp dialogue I've ever heard. And I've heard the Boom!

Co-scripted by the great Dalton Trumbo, the story finds beatnik painter Taylor squaring off against married 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 in Psycho, or Oscar Madison in The Long Hot Summer. Of course Dick and Liz fall in love, even though his wife Eva Marie Saint, trying here to seem sexless --as if she ever could. Taylor for her part has a lover in the form of sculpted sculptor Charles Bronson (he wears very thin shirts and beach pants, so you can see all the sinews in his amazing body, and god damn! Is Taylor out of her mind to prefer some self-hating cloth man even if Burton's voice is more mellifluous?)

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 if you want an idea of what that sort of giftedness with actors is all about, compare Minnelli's Sandpiper and Mike Nichols' Woolf with their rather tepid, disinterested work 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. 

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 "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, when she chases her old sugar daddy-cum-rapist 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.


  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.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...