Oct. 19, 2008

Butterfield 8 (1960)
Grade: 45/100

Director: Daniel Mann
Stars: Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey, Eddie Fisher

What it's about. Elizabeth Taylor is a Production Code prostitute, technically a New York City dress model with a wide nightclub clientele. She ostensibly lives with her mother, Mildred Dunnock, and her mother's sarcastic best friend, Betty Field. But she's rarely home, spending her nights instead with an endless series of men and their bottles of liquor.

Taylor has a platonic best friend, played by her real-life husband (at the time), Eddie Fisher. (Fisher had only two real film roles, Bundle of Joy with his first wife, Debbie Reynolds, and the present movie with his second wife. Apparently, third wife Connie Stevens couldn't land him a speaking role.) Taylor's presence in Fisher's life frustrates his prissy girlfriend, Susan Oliver.

Taylor decides that her wastrel days are over when she meets deep-voiced Laurence Harvey (whose best film was Room at the Top instead of the more widely known The Manchurian Candidate). Harvey wants Taylor, despite her sordid past.

Problem is, Harvey is married to heiress Dina Merrill, who has greater patience for a straying, sponging husband than any real life woman would. She doesn't even get mad when it appears he has given her posh fur coat to Taylor (and lied about it inveterately). Harvey, however, does get mad. At Taylor, whom he thinks (with good reason) has stolen it. Harvey's holier-than-thou act toward Taylor is soon followed by a take-me-back speech, but Taylor, who begged for forgiveness the day before, now plays hard to get.

How others will see it. This melodramatic movie is difficult for anyone to watch, man or woman. Classic movie fans will be most sympathetic, since it shows Taylor and Harvey in their prime, if not in their best roles.

Elizabeth Taylor despised Butterfield 8. Apparently, she was forced to make the film for MGM to release her to 20th Century Fox for Cleopatra, a lavish project that would nearly bankrupt that studio, but pay Taylor a huge salary and introduce her to husband number five, Richard Burton.

How I felt about it. Taylor's dislike of her call girl movie didn't keep her from winning Best Actress for her role. Perhaps Academy voters felt sorry for her, having to deliver such turgid dialogue. One particularly painful conversation has a series of groaners:

Taylor: I saw a woman. Utterly proper. Utterly conventional. Utterly beautiful.
Mother: You're beautiful too, dear.
Taylor: I have a face. That's not the kind of beauty I mean.
Mother: What kind of beauty?
Taylor: The kind that comes from self-respect, I guess. That shines.
Mother: I've seen that kind. It takes a lifetime to find.
Taylor: I'm going to find it.
Mother: I think you will.

People simply don't talk this way. Only a writer could come up with such pretentious nonsense. Self respect might keep you from drinking too much. But by itself, it won't make you beautiful, much less make you shine.

John O'Hara's novel was adapted by John Michael Hayers and Charles Schnee. In better days, the former wrote the screenplay for Rear Window, and the latter the script for Red River, but this collaboration is embarrassing. But much of the blame must go to director Daniel Mann, who exaggerates the pathos that accompanies too many lines.