Liz ‘N Dick On The Beach

I’m a little baffled by The Sandpiper, as I can’t tell how sincerely it’s meant. The plot follows the affair between a free-spirited young artist, living hand-to-mouth with her out-of-wedlock son, and a proper, married Protestant minister, head of a boys’ school that the son, by court order, must attend. It’s a small, even intimate story, contrasting the values of an uninhibited secularist with those of a reserved religionist. Yet it was acted by the two most famous people in the world in 1965, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Already you can sense the elephantiasis and star-goggling setting in. That’d be like staging Waiting for Godot with Davis and Crawford going at it hammer-and-tongs, on sets by Anton Grot and in costumes by Travis Banton. It might not be Beckett, but it’d be mighty watchable.  (Gotta admit: that’s a production I’d have loved to see.)

Not that the mighty watchable Liz’N’Dick hadn’t done variants on free spirits or repressed reverends before. Taylor had already played sexually maverick ladies in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and in her Oscar-winning role in BUtterfield 8 (which I wrote about here), while Burton had practically cornered the market on sexually wracked priests. I wondered if he’d do his Night of the Iguana preacher bit—bellowing his misdeeds from the pulpit, then sweatily lusting after firm young flesh in the tropic zone. Burton lusts in The Sandpiper, all right, albeit in more temperate climes, and for Taylor’s fleshier delights, amply and continually displayed to his dismayed delectation. When, after succumbing (a number of times) to such carnal attractions, he confesses All to his wife: “We made love—even in motels, God help me!”, he bawls, as if Sin were more Sinful when enacted in a travel lodge. The wife predictably doesn’t react too well to that.

In keeping with such well-upholstered stars, the film is blown up to deluxe proportions, its glamour and expense suitable for its jet-setting leads. The story takes place at Big Sur (much gorgeous cinematography of sparkly waves and shimmering rocks—even the sand looks pricey), where Taylor lives in a “shack” by the sea; when said shack sidled into view, I was left literally speechless. Today such a hovel would go for well into the seven figures, its natural-wood beachside structure, built on earth-embedded stilts, commanding an intimate view of the Pacific Ocean. Its interior is done up with heavy fabrics (a then-trendy burnt-orange hue) covering walls, a large inset fireplace, driftwood shelving, carved bowls, vases of bright flowers, a huge kitchen, and lots of gleaming veggies—all reeking of expensive taste and the well-to-do. Was all this lushness the auteur reflex of the film’s décor-enamored director, Vincente Minelli? Or could struggling artists afford to live like this in mid-1960s California? If that’s the case, would someone please lend me a time machine?

OK, maybe it’s because I’m a pasty-faced, space-cramped New Yorker, but the film’s whole la-di-da West Coast outlook got to me. It partakes of, even anticipates the liberal Californian well-heeled, fuzzy-headed mindset of the 1970s and beyond—that sunbaked What-Me-Worry? attitude, as if the entire coastline had upped and gone Beach-Blanket-Bingo. All that sky, sea, and sand, amid which aging beatniks and artists, including Charles Bronson (not too convincing as a sculptor, and even less convincing when Burton beats him up; I mean—Really! This is CHARLES BRONSON!), frisk and frolic in a state of arrested development. It’s Disneyland with the kids and Mickey Mouse put safely to bed, while the grown-ups get to enact their wild-and-wooliest Tinkerbell fantasies. You knew the prim 1950s were over when The World’s Most Famous Thespian canoodled with The World’s Most Celebrated Beauty, both oblivious to the title bird nesting in her stylishly unkempt hair.

Da Boid

Still, the film’s heady unreality—everyone looks gorgeous and no one has to pay rent (maybe that’s a New York thing)—left me feeling not exactly gruntled. Taylor’s artist daubs paint on canvas with the entire Pacific as her backdrop; she can’t sell her work but never seems to need money (does it sprout from sand?); she lives in that FABulous house, with its many possessions, but views herself as materially unshackeled. As for Burton’s character, he’s never at his (quite tastefully furnished) school but keeps finding excuses to head for Liz’s bijoux beach hut and indulge in some Love in the Afternoon. Well, who wouldn’t go for a post-meridian shag with Luscious Liz? If I had that handy time machine, I’d be whooshing there myself. No wonder California had a mid-century population boom. A clever travel agent could have used this flick as a come-on-in-the-water’s-fine travelogue for the financially advantaged, luring them to the Golden State where all is bloom and bliss, never mind the earthquakes, we have fun here. The hung-up Fifties were indeed truly toast.

However, I suspect something else was going on beneath the film’s lacquered surface. The script (by Dalton Trumbo) tries to pass off its star shaggings as integral to its let-it-all-hang-out meaning, with Liz boasting that she and Dick have something “holy” in their rutting; yet I couldn’t help thinking it was less to declare being on the side of the angels, sex-wise, and more to tempt the prurient interests of a public avid to rehash the 1960s Liz’n’Dick scandals (Sandpiper was a hit, earning over $30mil at the box office). So many of the Taylor-Burton films function as barely concealed star bios; it’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Amazingly Accoutered. Audiences were already given a peek into the Affair of the Century with Cleopatra and The VIPs; next year’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? would depict what a cozy evening Chez Dick-n-Liz was like. (I don’t even dare speculate about Boom!) Coming midway in the Liz’n’Dick oeuvreThe Sandpiper is a mild replay of The Beginning of The Affair, with an all-consuming passion, a wrecked marriage, spying, shock, gossip, and a stunning location in which to flaunt it. Had the filmmakers made Burton a Catholic priest instead of a Protestant one, they could have added a sniffy Vatican rebuke (as happened in real life) for a kicker. You just can’t go too far with a subject like this.

That also seems to have been the case with the film’s leading lady. We see a great deal, not just of Big Sur, but of Big Liz herself, nearly every splendid inch. Taylor was no longer the well-tailored miss of the 1950s, but was on her way to the brassy, blousy Wife-of-Bath persona of her late 60s/early 70s movies. She wasn’t quite there (Virginia Woolf would really seal it), but it was present in embryo. Her Sandpiper wardrobe—swinging-wide caftans and too-tight (and cheap-looking) sweaters plunging below her ucipital mapilary—displays as much of her cleavage possible without risking the censor. One scene even teases at nudity, as Liz coyly cups bare breasts when Reverend Dick comes for a visit. Unfortunately, Taylor’s outfits (as well as the wide-screen camera) didn’t flatter her plumpening figure, nor did she look like her character’s 20-something years. She was in her early 30s when she made this film but looks older, mature and well-rounded, starting to lose her youthful glow. Ah, poor Liz; when you’ve a reputation as a great beauty, everyone judges you by it. She tries hard to be young and restless, but let’s face it: this is Elizabeth Taylor, whose life of sybaritic excess would have been the envy of Roman emperors (she got a million bucks for this film alone). A beachcomber’s life would not have suited her tastes.

Burton, displayed in clerical collars and buttoned-up suits, comes off as actorly-sincere, meaning he gazes deeply and rings his sonorous voice like the big bell of Notre Dame (his anguished prayer to overcome his Liz-aroused passion nearly shakes the sand dunes). He had the kind of talent where he could play it lazy and the public would still think it was getting something (Taylor, a performer of less range, works much harder than he does). Per IMDB, Burton didn’t want to make the film but had a contractual obligation; so he skims his character’s anguish, giving us Suffering Lite With A Dash of Bitters. What was it about Burton and priests? He played them in Becket, Iguana, and that peculiar 1978 film Absolution (as a Catholic priest caught up in murder, lies, and self-deception). Maybe it was that Voice, booming lines as if issuing them from the All-High; you expect the mountains to quake. With that tolling bell in his larynx, it’s no wonder Burton couldn’t play everyday folk. His actor’s equipment must have restricted his roles; he convinces only in situations of the most elevated or extreme. Why not just cast him as God? We’d surely accept him as that.

The film’s one sincere moment comes from Eva Marie Saint as the ministerial wife: learning of her husband’s infidelity, she sobs in raw, harsh pain, as if sandpaper were scraping her throat. Otherwise, Eva looks dull, meek, and gray, smiling patiently (not to make a pun of it) like a faintly embarrassed saint. Oh, where was that elegant Hitchcock blonde of yore? But the ultra-chic Saint of North By Northwest came from another culture entirely, when the tailored suit, styled hair, and polished pumps were the acme of beauty and sophistication, a culture that was being knocked to pieces by the Burtons and the Sixties. Didn’t it count any longer? And didn’t it occur to the reverend’s missus that, had she acted and dressed like the gals of the previous decade, the good Rev wouldn’t have given two thoughts to that toss-haired beach lass? The past can still teach us, even today. Someone should have told this lady to watch some old movies.

BONUS CLIP: “They knew it was wrong—but nothing could keep them apart!” The slow (and I do mean awfully so) trailer for The Sandpiper, which promises us “an adult love story,” while giving us plenty of Big Sur and a ripely sensual Elizabeth Taylor. So who cares about story?:

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