What is there left to say about Elizabeth Taylor? The woman loved her diamonds, had 5 million ex-husbands (okay, seven…eight if you count Richard Burton twice), sex appeal out the wazoo, and cast SERIOUS doubt on the eternal question “Do blondes really have more fun?”. She was voluptuous, saucy, and in the immortal words of Napoleon Dynamite: she did whatever she felt like, GOSH. She spoke her mind; she championed gay rights during the Rock Hudson/AIDS debacle–years and years before it was even remotely socially acceptable to do so.
What I am trying to say to you is this: Girl had it going on. She was a little bit crazy, I grant you. Nobody will be holding her up as a beacon of traditional morality anytime soon, and her relationships were certainly nothing to model your own marriage after. BUT I would like to think that there is still something to be said for the kind of passion that leads people to, in the Hallmark-iest of expressions, live their lives out loud. Liz Taylor’s life was nothing if not lived “out loud”. As a result, she brought a definite panache and complexity to each and every one of her on-screen roles, never more so than in Butterfield 8.
Now, you guys, Butterfield 8 is a crazy movie. I hesitate to bring it up in a “review” type setting, because I have so many mixed emotions about it that I don’t even know if I can provide you with a straightforward opinion. Regardless, I am going to try.
First of all, if you have not seen this movie, I implore you to stop what you’re doing right now and watch this clip (a piece of the opening scene):
I mean…COME ON. Eat your heart out, Ke$ha, Liz was brushing her teeth with a bottle of Jack (or in this case, a glass…same thing!) forty-nine years before you said it was cool.
But okay. Before I get too deeply entrenched in discussing Butterfield 8, I do think there is one crucial thing that I need to point out. In many summaries, reviews, and descriptions of this movie that you will find online, a surprising amount erroneously refer to Elizabeth Taylor’s character, Gloria Wondrous (….I know), as being a prostitute. I think it is a very, very important distinction to make here that she is actually NOT a prostitute. She is what one might call a “hey hey” or “good time” girl; she makes her living as a model, but really it boils down to her being a sad, beautiful, I-need-a-forklift-to-transport-all-my-emotional-baggage type of girl with demonstrably low self-esteem, who tries to find validation in one night stands. She is fragile and all kinds of messed-up, let’s just leave it at that.
We see our first glimpse of this in the opening scene of the movie. Gloria wakes up and stretches, catlike; she smokes a cigar from her lover’s nightstand. She crawls out of bed and onto the floor, and proceeds to slink around the apartment in her white satin slip (which she is WEARING THE CRAP OUT OF, by the way, as only Elizabeth Taylor could), casually running her hand over all his wife’s things. She purrs, she opens the closet to find a delicious mink coat—one that she envies, but still puts back on the hanger in favor of a more modest (albeit still hella fancy) fur coat to cover her almost-nakedness. BUT THEN, what’s this?! A note from her lover leaving her $250 for the previous night’s escapades?! Liz/Gloria is indescribably insulted that he would leave her money for something that she obviously thought was meaningful, and storms to the mirror in a wordless rage (I should also mention that, at this point, no words whatsoever have been spoken in the movie. Just an over-the-top, Looney Tunes-ish, hilariously descriptive score by Bronislau Kaper). In a fit of inspiration, she scribbles “No Sale” on the mirror in lipstick, snatches the first delicious mink coat out of the closet, dons it, and strides elegantly out of the apartment.
Now, I know I’ve expended a lot of words on the first seven minutes of the movie alone. But you have to understand that it really just sets the tone for the entire movie! Gloria is, yes, a woman of ill-repute. But throughout the story she struggles mightily with that fact, and honestly tries to reconcile her lifestyle with an inner sense of right and wrong that is made more difficult by her strict mother’s refusal to see or accept her daughter for who she is. She is a very complex character, and without getting too deep into spoiler territory here, I would honestly have liked to see her get a much better ending.
This is a dark movie, there’s no question about it. It leaves you with the sense that you aren’t quite sure WHAT you wanted to happen to Gloria, you just know that it wasn’t…that. And can I just ask why Laurence Harvey always seems to be such an insufferable, sanctimonious d-bag? He’s the one man she claims to have ever loved, and he just treats her like trash. Yet, somehow, you’re supposed to root for them to be together. This is where my “question mark?” opinion on the movie comes into play. I just…I don’t know. Here’s something I do know, though: I love the glamour and the complicated feelings that old movies like this leave you with. Butterfield 8 was the first time Elizabeth Taylor won an Oscar for Best Actress, despite being nominated several times previously (and despite her own reported comments that this movie was “a piece of trash”). It’s a movie that can’t quite decide what it wants to do–does it want to commend its heroine for being honest in her struggle to become a better person, or does it want to condemn her for being a so-called loose canon? I’m really just not sure, and I’m not sure Daniel Mann was either when he directed it.
Despite these hesitations, however, I am endlessly fascinated by this movie. IMDB describes Gloria as “part model, part call-girl–and all man-trap.” The back of my Butterfield 8 DVD declares, in bold red print: “Lots of men knew her number. No one knew her heart.” Maybe there has been a decline in the tagline industry these days, but I seriously cannot think of the last time a movie tagline made me want so much to laugh out loud and simultaneously spend the whole afternoon watching Elizabeth Taylor brush her teeth with whiskey.
So please, stick with me. In my reviews, and as Charles, Micah, and I make our way through the Good, the Bad and the Podcast, I will be bringing up many more of these kinds of movies. The classics aren’t just Groucho Marx’s eyebrows or Edward G. Robinson going “mmyeah, see?” through the butt of his cigar. They are beautiful, they are complicated, they are women proving that smarts and beauty are not mutually exclusive. They are strong men and strong values, convoluted plot points, and gorgeous cinematography. I hope you’ll stick around to explore every last one. 🙂