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March 30, 2011

The Sandpiper

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Vincente Minnelli - 1965
Warner Brothers Region 1 DVD

Back in the early to mid Sixties, in the age before the internet or television shows devoted to show business news, the newspapers seemed to always have articles about Elizabeth Taylor. To some extent, Taylor was the Kim Kardashian of that time, and even though she had established herself as a Hollywood star, it seemed to me that making movies was almost incidental to a life of emergency hospital visits, or simply showing up at a nightclub with Richard Burton. I had a sense of familiarity with Elizabeth Taylor without actually seeing any of her movies. The first one I did see, in a theater, was Taming of the Shrew which I justified by the fact of it being a filmed Shakespeare play. It was also while I was in high school that I caught Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer. But for someone in the mid to late Sixties, who made a point of seeing every James Bond movie, and discovering the Italian movies by Fellini and Antonioni that he had only read about previously, Elizabeth Taylor was not considered very hip.

I had seen The Sandpiper once on a late night television broadcast, edited and in black and white. I wondered how the film would look, now that I was older, more familiar with the talent in front of a behind the camera, in a semblance of how the film was intended, in wide screen and color. I'm not sure what was intended, but nothing quite comes together here. The one part of the film that did work was when young Morgan Mason (son of James), as Taylor's son, points out Mom to his equally young friend. The tow headed kid's eyes bulge out, as if to say, "Wow! That pretty lady with the stupendous knockers is your mom?".

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There are problems with The Sandpiper. Elizabeth Taylor's breasts are not among them. From what I have read, producer Martin Ransohoff, credited for the story, felt this movie had to be made, even when everyone else on his creative team had questions. The screenplay, by the former blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, and reworked by Michael Wilson, creates a dialectic between conformists and non-comformists as well as believers and athiests, with free spirited artists on one side, and the church, state and corporations on the other side. There is also time for some proto-feminist discussion as well. Could the film have been more convincing with Kim Novak as the star? Possibly. The public personas of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton make the story of an a single mother and artist in love with a theologian whose act of adultery causes his own personal and professional crisis unconvincing. I couldn't forget that I was watching Dick and Liz, two of the biggest movie stars of their time.

William Wyler wisely chose not to make this film. I suspect that Vincente Minnelli got the job in part because of his work in guiding Taylor into adult film roles with Father of the Bride, and as a way of finishing up his contract with MGM. The story, at least that part of the artist rebelling against authority figures and conformity, would seem right for Minnelli. Whatever magic could be found in Some Came Running, Lust for Life or Two Weeks in Another Town isn't here. The effect is as if Minnelli gave up any attempts at being a stylist, resigning himself to simply work as a director for hire.

Where there is the Minnelli hand is in the beach house where Taylor lives, supposedly right by the beach in Big Sur, California. Described as a shack, the design must have been tossed out by Frank Lloyd Wright. The overly cluttered interiors resemble Pottery Barn showrooms. I think the only movie where more black eyeliner was used was in The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. Actually, that is one of the other things that Taylor did so well is to wear an overabundance of eye makeup that actually was part of what made her attractive. And for an artist who hasn't sold any paintings, Taylor dresses quite well, with more purple designer duds than Prince.

More convincing are James Edwards and Charles Bronson as two artist friends of Taylor's, and Robert Webber as Taylor's sleazy former patron. The frequently pilloried Bosley Crowther's was spot on in his assessment of The Sandpiper back in 1965 when he described it as "romantic twaddle". Unlike some people, I have no affection for the Oscar winning song, "The Shadow of Your Smile", wishing that the Academy had shown some love for at least one of the Lennon/McCartney songs for Help. As for Elizabeth Taylor, I'm lukewarm about her body of work, generally preferring the films she appeared in prior to, and including, Cleopatra. But philosophizing about life and art aside, what The Sandpiper is really about is an acknowledgment that Elizabeth Taylor had an awesome body.

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Posted by peter at March 30, 2011 08:45 AM


That honey had a nice rack.

Posted by: Flickhead at March 31, 2011 04:48 PM

One of Miss Taylor's most obvious and potent selling points, yet one that writers observing her past have chosen to refer to with the most delicate, and indirect euphemisms.

Posted by: Peter Nellhaus at April 1, 2011 10:02 AM