Love Letter to Liz

BUtterfield 8 is a Bad film: dumb, sententious, sometimes dull, often silly. Usually I’d give that as a recommendation, except the film’s also got Eddie Fisher, who lurches about its garish sets like a zombie that can’t find a body to munch on. Though I do enjoy Bad movies—mainly because I take pleasure in what’s Bad about them—I find a Walking-Dead Fisher beyond the pale. Even I have my limits.

Wakey, wakey, Eddie

However, Elizabeth Taylor, the film’s star and its reason for being, is terrific. She’s better in it than she thought she was (she hated making the film, hated the result), better than its reputation would lead you to believe. Everyone assumes her Oscar for her role was a sympathy vote, but Taylor really is good. She doesn’t pose and look beautiful for the camera, she creates a specific, solid human being. It’s not ‘acting’ for effect, it’s Taylor ‘being.’ She fuses her star persona with character and environment, bringing who she is to what she’s doing, and she fills the screen. Her main flaw as an actress was her untrained voice. It has no richness or depth and gets too monotonous too soon, especially in emotional scenes (she’s fine when speaking in normal or nasty tones). I sometimes wish she could have cultivated a more Bacallish timbre. As Taylor grew older her voice lost its scared-little-girl softness and acquired interestingly rough edges. It could veer from fishwife shrillness to streetwalker coarseness and yet still convince you that it came from the most fabulous woman on earth. Which she was.

Taylor was not yet thirty when she filmed BUtterfield 8 in 1959, but she already looked mature—though that was the custom back then; a woman could look her age and still be glamorous, and not have to waft about like a clueless teenager. She’s full-figured here, with breasts, hips, and a belly (she’d already had three children); by the end of the Sixties she would have spread into a zaftiggy softness out of sync with today’s gym-hardened bodies. But Taylor didn’t need ridges of muscle to compel our attention. Onscreen she moved superbly: confidently, with swagger, sensuousness, and a what-the-hell-do-I-care attitude. She’s a queen charting conquered territory. That fits in well with her character in this film. She plays Gloria Wandrous, a high-priced ‘party’ girl (the film’s title refers to a telephone exchange in New York’s expensive Upper East Side) who provides a night’s companionship for wealthy men of her choosing. It’s a life of Brief Encounters, of impulse and improv, and risk. Gloria may not be a character we approve of, but she must be one who interests us.

Which Taylor does, right from her first scene, when, waking up in a strange bed, she rises and roams round an unknown apartment, reacting to objects and space. She has no dialogue here, no one to play against; it’s Taylor exploring foreign territory on a private stage. And she’s mesmerizing. This is no actor’s exercise; Taylor invests everything she touches and sees with experience. Her Gloria lives through what she finds. Desperate for a cigarette, she scrabbles through a packet, discovers it’s empty, then crumples and tosses it away with scorn; pouring herself some whiskey, she gulps it down and shivers with relief. She’s amused to find her torn dress (her lips twitch in the smallest of smiles), then she tosses that away as she did the empty packet. Beyond immediate gratification, Gloria has no goal; she’s merely indulging human curiosity. It’s behavior for its own sake. Wandering through the rooms, with only a whiskey glass for company, she sees a closed door and opens it simply to see what’s beyond. What’s astonishing is that she’s not astonished to find herself in such a room, in such a bed. You sense she’s woken up in such rooms, and such beds, before. Been there, done that.

That kind of completeness, of immediately inhabiting an onscreen world, with mere movement and expression, and without the need for background or explanation to grip us—that’s more than performing. That’s star power. It’s why Taylor compels. Even her action in the credit sequence—just long takes of Taylor sleeping in a bed—is arresting to watch. Do viewers realize how difficult that is? Taylor in effect must do nothing onscreen but feign sleep and make it interesting. And damn it, she brings it off, lying there like a log, out of contact, inert, deglamorized. It takes talent to do that, yes, but it also takes guts. It’s letting us see existence in the raw, open and vulnerable, with no barriers between her prone body and our prying eyes.

I think Taylor was so comfortable in front of the camera that, like Harlow or Monroe, she could perform actions of dull intimacy onscreen and not feel any self-consciousness. Note her wiping her face in front of a mirror—a casual morning routine not disrupted by waking up in an unfamiliar apartment after a night of hot sex with a virtual stranger. Or how she coolly opens bottles of perfume, wrinkling her nose at one scent, shrugging at another, while we watch, engrossed, waiting for her to choose. Taylor creates all of Gloria here, this whole, singular woman, her entire life and meaning, out of small, careless gestures. Before a word’s been spoken, you already know who and what Gloria is. Watch how Taylor stirs a toothbrush in a glass of whiskey before brushing her teeth. It’s more than practical, it’s practiced. You see a woman who can improvise and make do; and you know she’s done this before, during other, similar mornings. Watching Taylor dip that brush in the booze, I winced (ewww! she had me that caught up in the moment), but then mentally applauded her bravado—that she would risk audience shock by letting herself do something like that before us. This was one great, ballsy lady.

Bonus Clip: Here’s part of Liz’s morning routine from BUtterfield 8, including toothbrush sterilization by whiskey:

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