Tuesday, March 23, 2021


"A triple echo is the sound a shotgun blast makes when fired in the country."  

A triple echo is also the sound of the triangular collision of three lives.

I first became aware of the late British director Michael Apted back in the early '70s as the filmmaker responsible for picking up the mantle and expanding upon Paul Almond's groundbreakingly innovative Seven Up! documentary series. Nine in total, these social documentaries spanned the years 1964 to 2019 chronicling the lives of its original subjects…14 children, each 7-years-old…and checking in with them every seven years hence, from childhood to their 60s.
Over time, Apted established himself in feature films, gaining considerable success, if not Oscar recognition, for the superior celebrity biopic Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), and for taking on the James Bond franchise with The World is Not Enough (1999). A 3-time BAFTA winner and recipient of several DGA awards, when Michael Apted died at age 79 on January 7, 2020, he left behind a varied legacy of outstanding films reflective not only of his roots in television and years as a documentarian, but his lifelong commitment to exploring the emotional truth of human relationships. 
The latter a distinguishing characteristic of his impressive feature film debut The Triple Echo.
Glenda Jackson as Alice Charlesworth

Brian Deacon as Pvt. Barton 

Oliver Reed as Sgt. Arthur

Because The Triple Echo has the confined, minimalist structure of a three-act chamber drama, before I learned that it was based on a 1970 novella by H.E. Bates (co-screenwriter of the 1955 Katharine Hepburn film Summertime) I was under the impression the film was adapted from a stage play. 
The time is WWII, the spring of 1943. The place, a remote farm in a hilly expanse of rural Wiltshire, England. A farm maintained solely and with some difficulty by Alice Charlesworth (Glenda Jackson), a solid, no-nonsense type whose husband is a POW in a Japanese prison camp. Alice’s reconciled solitude is interrupted one day when Barton (Brian Deacon), a young man from a nearby military training camp, accidentally trespasses on her land. Hostile wariness warms to measured affinity when the boyish soldier reveals himself to be a sensitive type enamored of nature, disdainful of authority, and a farmer’s son with a knack for fixing machinery. 
The Triple Echo marks the film debut of television & theater actor Brian Deacon 

From compassion and homesickness, the two strike up a tentative friendship. Out of loneliness and need—him: to forget the war, her: to remember who she was before the war—an incautious romance develops. (The film references but fails to specify the couple’s age difference. In real life, Glenda Jackson is Brian Deacon's senior by 13-years.) 
They spend his extended leave together on the farm. The undisturbed seclusion provides an artificial Eden so lullingly appealing to the discontented squaddy that when the time comes to return to camp, he decides to make his temporary absence a permanent one by deserting and going AWOL. Barton's abrupt decision precipitates an equally hastily-arrived-at solution from Alice: to elude detection and avoid capture, Barton must grow out his hair and nails, dress in women’s clothing, and assume the identity of Jill, a fictional younger sister visiting to help out on the farm. 

Confinement brings unforeseeable conflicts of personality, and almost immediately their relationship begins to buckle under the day-to-day strain of impersonation, complicity, and apprehension. Alice, implicated in Barton’s desertion yet sensing she’s the only one to grasp its seriousness, grows more fault-finding and resentful as feelings of “caring about” splinter into “being responsible for.” Meanwhile, the battle-resistant Barton, holed-up indoors and chafing at the irony of his great escape resulting in only a greater loss of freedom, finds himself embroiled in a battle with himself as he tries to simultaneously suppress and understand what both he and Alice perceive, but cannot find the words to talk about: his subtle, inner responsiveness to externally gender-identifying as a woman.

With its remote, farmhouse setting; Alice trudging about in the mud in boots and trousers; and Barton-as-Jill secreted-away indoors laboring over the cooking and ironing, it feels more intentional than coincidental that in falling so obligingly (yet acrimoniously) into a traditional gender role dynamic, Alice and Barton’s relationship comes to resemble that of Ellen and Jill (!) in D.H. Lawrence’s 1922 novella The Fox. A similarity reinforced by the Freudian emphasis on shotguns in both narratives, and the central conflict in each story being the intrusion of a third party—a fox/male character—whose attentions drive a fateful wedge between (and this is where I think '70s audiences were lost) two women.
The Sergeant (Oliver Reed at his charming-menacing best) and his buddy Stanley (Gavin Richards) make a nuisance of themselves once they discover the remote farmhouse is occupied by a "married crumpet" and her sister

In 2019 Glenda Jackson spoke on the topic of gender while starring on Broadway as King Lear: “When we’re born we teach babies….to be boys or girls. As we get older [she was 82 at the time] those absolute barriers of gender begin to crack.” She went on to observe how, having been just three-years-old at the start of WWII, she grew up in a world of women. Seeing women participate in every field of endeavor left her heedless of gender limitations. That is, until the war ended, the men returned, and women were encouraged (strongly) to go back to assuming more traditional roles.

That the flexible quadrants of gender are a theme explored in the nearly 50-year-old The Triple Echo suggests that Glenda Jackson’s timely comments reflect what has been a career-long interest on her part in taking on roles that explore the entire spectrum of human experience. Whether they be queer identity, gender-nonconformity, women’s autonomy, or sexual orientation, a considerable number of Jackson’s films have been about people and relationships that fall outside of the narrow confines of a gender binary paradigm:  Women in Love (1969), Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971), The Music Lovers (1971), Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), The Romantic Englishwoman (1975), and controversially, even her interpretation of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler in Hedda (1975). 

Michael Apted’s assured and nuanced The Triple Echo humanely explores a human reality...that long before there were terms like gender dysphoria or an understanding that assigned gender does not always conform to gender-identity, there has been an awareness that male-female / masculine-feminine are limited and inadequate qualifiers. That human beings are more complex than the simple roles they are assigned, and that there have always been individuals who felt a natural resistance to being what the world told them they must be. 
One of my favorite things about The Triple Echo is that the film refuses to disclose to the viewer any information about the characters that they themselves don't know. Barton in his youth has no real understanding of what he's experiencing, while Alice picks up on things she herself doesn't have the words or sophistication to fully comprehend. The film's emphasis, that we must go on loving those we care about...even when we don't always understand them...is, to me, a profoundly sensitive perspective for a film to have.

I don't know how it performed in the UK, but considering Glenda Jackson’s popularity at the time and the opportunity the film posed to see her reunited with Women in Love co-star Oliver Reed, it's (somewhat) surprising The Triple Echo struggled to find an audience in the US. Today it remains one of Jackson’s least-familiar, least-seen titles, failing—at least to my knowledge—to even get a VHS release.  
Of course, it didn’t help that the poorly-marketed 1972 independent feature didn’t appear in most American markets until 1974, then hoping to ride the publicity coattails of Jackson’s recent Oscar win for A Touch of Class (1973). But by then The Triple Echo came off as a late-in-the-cycle entry in the early-'70s trend in films exploring transgender and gender-identity. Films that were either of the well-intentioned-but-sensationalized variety: I Want What I Want (1972), or blatant exploitation: The Christine Jorgensen Story, Dinah East, and Myra Breckinridge--all released in 1970.

The audience for gender exploitation was likely unenthusiastic about Apted’s simple, arthouse approach. The nostalgia crowd was disappointed when the film's age-difference love story didn't turn into Britain's answer to The Summer of ‘42 (1971). And critics, left rudderless due to The Triple Echo arriving on the scene minus the guideposts of prior film festival wins determining its pedigree, didn't know what to make of a movie that was part love story, part unorthodox romantic triangle, part gender-identity character drama, and part nail-biting thriller.

Usually when I say “Only in the ‘70s” about a film, it’s meant as an affectionate pejorative relating to the decade’s reputation for turning out offbeat, idiosyncratic films that could only have been made during that tiny window of time between the assembly line days of the studio system and the market-research era of the franchise blockbuster.
When I say The Triple Echo is the kind of movie that could only have been made in the ‘70s, I mean it as a badge of honor. With a small budget, minimal cast, and an intimate story that staunchly defies categorization; The Triple Echo feels like anything but sure-fire boxoffice hit material. But very much like a film Michael Apted wanted to make and a story he wanted to tell…market prospects be damned. And THAT is definitely something that could happen only in the ‘70s.
Critics in 1972 never tired of making reference to how "unconvincing" Deacon is as a woman. In a rare instance of an informed contemporary mentality working in favor of an older film, to watch The Triple Echo today and catch yourself obsessing over a jawline or a hairdo (bad wigs, however, are fair game) or ideas of "pretty," is to confront how fragile and arbitrary our ideas of masculinity and femininity really are. 

I missed out on seeing The Triple Echo during its original run, finally catching it on TCM just a few short years ago after decades of having had it on my holy grail list of must-see, hard-to-find films. With Glenda Jackson starring, I knew I wasn’t likely to be disappointed, but I didn't expect to be so moved or impressed by a first directorial effort. 
Even as the story veers toward the melodramatic, culminating in the tragic, The Triple Echo maintains an emotional perceptiveness and authentic sense of time and place that give scenes the feel of having been culled from personal memory.

If director Michael Apted and screenwriter Robin Chapman reveal their filmmaking inexperience in a certain overstatement of symbolism (portents of doom abound), and an overreliance on ambiguity in characterization (Glenda Jackson’s complex, fully-inhabited performance tethers the more sketchily-drawn roles of Deacon and Reed); they display an uncommonly deft hand in managing the film’s many shifts in tone and in creating an accompanying atmosphere for the three distinct phases of the story.
In the film's first third, as Alice & Barton get to know one another, the look is sunshiny and most scenes are set outdoors. The peaceful open spaces punctuated by reminders of the war: the sight & sound of planes flying overhead, the carcasses of a downed airship overlooking Alice's farm like the eyes of TJ Eckelburg in The Great Gatsby 

The fear of detention spawns a sense of confined imprisonment as emotional estrangement and claustrophobic interiors characterize the second segment. The oppressively low ceilings and too-close walls are in stark contrast to what came before. The low-angle shot here not only calls attention to the lovers braced coldly with their backs to one another, but places in the forefront Barton's lengthened hair and long painted nails.

The third and final act, representing the completion of the triangle and the introduction of Sgt. Arthur's fateful dominance in the narrative, takes us back to the outdoors. But now the look is wintry, the atmosphere dark, stormy, and threatening.

What if who you think you're pretending to be is who you really are? 

There’s a scene early in The Triple Echo where Alice sees Barton out of his military uniform for the first time and comments on his looking so different: “I’m a master of disguise,”  he says. A throwback reference to an even earlier scene in which, after Alice remarks that he doesn’t look much like a farmer’s son, Barton complains of having been “made” into a soldier by the Army. 
So much of life is being who we have to be, what we're told to be, and what we're expected to be, it feels like a genuine stroke of luck if any of those align with who we actually are. 
Michael Apted has crafted a finely-observed film that at times feels like the most heartfelt fable about the subtle tyranny of identities assigned and roles assumed, 
With Glenda Jackson giving what I think is one of her best and most underrated performances, it may have taken me almost 50 years to see The Triple Echo, but I say in all sincerity that I know I'm able to appreciate it more today than I ever could in the '70s.

The Triple Echo opened in Los Angeles without much fanfare on April 17, 1974 at the Music Hall Theater. 
In a move not uncommon in the days before home video and DVDs, The Triple Echo was re-released some four years later in September of 1978, this time at the bottom half of an arthouse double bill (paired with Chabrol’s Dirty Hands) and christened with the fuck-all, act-of-desperation title: Soldier in Skirts.  
Lotsa Larfs & Sex
It's difficult to imagine how anyone thought it a good idea to market Michael Apted's somber character drama as a proto-Bosom Buddies comedy. Misconceived, misguided, and blatantly misleading.

The first thing I ever saw actor Brian Deacon in was John Schlesinger's 1983 HBO telefilm adaptation of Separate Tables with Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Before then I only knew of him as the husband of Rock Follies star and oft-parodied VO5 hairspray TV commercial pitchwoman Rula Lenska (the pair wed in 1977, divorced in 1987).

The Triple Echo is currently available for streaming through Amazon Prime Video.

Copyright © Ken Anderson  2009 - 2021

Saturday, January 30, 2021

WISE UP - A look at the Best Director you've forgotten & the book "ROBERT WISE: THE MOTION PICTURES"

Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures (Revised Edition) by J. R. Jordan - 2020
The Pause That Refreshes.
Director Robert Wise hoists a Coca-Cola on the set of West Side Story with the film's star Natalie Wood. Wise co-directed West Side Story with choreographer Jerome Robbins, their twin 1963 Oscar win for Best Director was the first time the directing award had ever been shared. (Photo not featured in book.)

By rights, the director of the movie that single-handedly saved 20th Century Fox from bankruptcy should be as well-known as John Ford or Howard Hawks. And if that same fellow received his first of seven career Academy Award nominations (four wins) for editing one of the most highly-acclaimed motion pictures in American cinema, you'd think he'd be at least as talked and written about as William Wyler or George Cukor.  Now, what if this guy was also responsible for two of the most iconic movie musicals of all time...films that made a fortune for the studios, garnered Best Picture Oscar wins for both, and influenced the way movie musicals were made for years after...surely this director must be as famous as Orson Welles or Alfred Hitchcock. Right? 
Answer: Well, not so much.
The Sound of Music
Even die-hard devotees of the film have a hard time remembering who directed it.

Of course, the person I’m referring to is the late director-producer Robert Wise (1914 – 2005). It was Wise’s adaptation of the Broadway musical The Sound of Music (1965) that rescued 20th Century Fox from the threat of Cleopatra (1963)-induced bankruptcy. It was Wise who, at the ripe old age of 26, edited the Orson Welles masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941) and received his first Oscar nomination. (Wise was also the person controversially tasked with whittling/butchering Welles' The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) down to 88 minutes from its original 148-minute running time.) And in 1962 and 1966, it was Robert Wise who each year took home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director in recognition for his work on West Side Story and The Sound of Music respectively.

West Side Story
According to the Jerome Robbins biography Somewhere, Robert Wise was "quite reluctant" when asked to co-direct with the Tony Award-winning choreographer/director of the original 1957 Broadway production. An agreement was struck granting Robbins control of the musical sequences, Wise the book scenes. Even with this, the producers fired Robbins some 45 days into the film's 7-month shooting schedule, citing his over-meticulousness as the cause for the film being severely and expensively behind schedule. 

Having directed some 40 motion pictures throughout his six-decade career—several now regarded as contemporary classics—Wise is hardly an unknown in film circles. Similarly, given the many positions of honor he held in his lifetime (president of both the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and The Director’s Guild) and the number of industry trophies bestowed upon him (the aforementioned four Academy Awards, The Irving G Thalberg Memorial Award, The Director’s Guild D.W. Griffith Award, and The AFI Life Achievement Award), Wise isn’t even a filmmaker about whom it can be said had a career that went unrewarded.

Two for the Seesaw
Wise uses space to dramatize the isolation of characters played by Shirley MacLaine & Robert Mitchum

The boon and bane of Robert Wise’s career has always been his versatility and disinterest in imposing a defining “A film by Robert Wise” signature on his movie. 

“Some of the more esoteric critics claim there is no Robert Wise style or stamp. My answer to that is that I’ve tried to approach each genre in a cinematic style that I think is right for that genre.” - Robert Wise  The Los Angeles Times 1998 

The range of genres Wise worked in is staggering. Film-Noir: Born to Kill (1947) / Western: Blood on the Moon (1948) / Sports: The Set-up (1949) / Comedy: Something for the Birds (1952) / War: Destination Gobi (1953) / Bio: I Want to Live (1958) / Crime: Odds Against Tomorrow (1959) / Romance: Two for the Seesaw (1962) / Adventure: The Sand Pebbles (1966) / Musical: - Star! (1968) / Horror: The Haunting (1963) / and Sci-Fi: Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). 
The Hindenburg
Suspicious-looking onlooker Roy Thinnes skulks behind Colonel George C. Scott and Countess Anne Bancroft, whose opium addiction has her airborne long before the dirigible ever leaves the ground. 

And while Robert Wise may not have been the most hands-on director, his films led many a performer to Oscar wins and nominations (Steve McQueen received his only Oscar nomination for The Sand Pebbles). 

—From the book Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures by J.R. Jordan—
RenĂ© Auberjonois on working with Wise on The Hindenburg (1975): “But I have very little recollection of Robert directing me as an actor. And that is unique, really. I didn’t have much of an actor-director relationship with him.”   
Janette Scott on working with Wise on Helen of Troy (1956): “From our perspective, he didn’t really direct. He would place us and say things like, ‘Let's try it.’

The Day the Earth Stood Still
Michael Rennie (left) no doubt feeling ill.

Historically speaking, if Wise suffers from anything, it's from a lack of legacy. He's a director with no visibility (there aren't any Alfred Hitchcock-like walk-ons in a Robert Wise movie); no public persona (he didn't make the talk-show circuit like Otto Preminger); no mystique (there are no juicy anecdotes detailing displays artistic temperament); and impossible to "type" (versatility resists branding). When film enthusiasts and scholars talk about the directors of the studio system era, the name Robert Wise is conspicuous in its absence. Underrated and overlooked in comparison to his peers, Robert Wise is the Jan Brady of film directors. The Rodney Dangerfield of Cinema. 

Photo: Los Angeles Times
Robert Wise's reputation as a director worthy of scholarly evaluation took a serious blow in 1968 when influential film critic and Auteur Theory advocate Andrew Sarris summarily dismissed the versatile director as a "technician without a strong personality," and claims that Wise's stylistic signature was "indistinct to the point of invisibility."

Hoping to rectify this is the book— Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures by J.R. Jordan, originally published in 2017 and now available in a revised and updated edition. Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures is a well-researched, sizable volume (506 pages) that takes a comprehensive, chronological look at the full body of Robert Wise's career output as a director. All 40 of Wise’s feature films are highlighted, including his last, a TV-movie filmed when the director was 85-years-old. 

The book is divided into five sections, each representing a significant period in Wise’s career (section titles are the author’s, the descriptors my own):
RKO Pictures – B-movies under the tutelage of horror master Val Lewton.
The Fifties – His most prolific period.
Primetime – The ‘60s, his most successful decade.  
The Science and Surrealism of the Seventies – Big budgets & modest returns.
Twilight – His brief return to filmmaking following a 10-year absence. 
The Haunting
My favorite Robert Wise film is also one of the most effective haunted house films I've ever seen

An entire chapter is devoted to each of Wise’s films. The chapters comprise a thematic quote; plot description; details about the making of the movie; trivia and behind-the-scenes-info; pertinent screen dialogue; and in some instances, interviews with actors and other individuals involved in the production. More than 20 interviews were conducted for the book, among those contributing their thoughts on working with Wise are Marsha Mason (Audrey Rose), George Chakiris (West Side Story), Lindsay Wagner (Two People), RenĂ© Auberjonois (The Hindenburg), Earl Holliman (Destination Gobi), Billy Gray (The Day the Earth Stood Still), and Janette Scott (Helen of Troy). For me, these interviews are an entertaining and informative highlight. 
Featuring an index, bibliography, and where necessary, citation footnotes, it’s a book that can be read cover to cover (as I did) or used for reference. 
When it came to Wise's return to the musical genre, three failed to be the charm. The expensive, tuneful, and colorful musical biography of Gertrude Lawrence was as big a flop as The Sound of Music was a hit.

Because so many of Robert Wise’s movies are so well-known and popular, yet Wise remains a director about whom little has been written, it’s natural to approach this sizable volume with a great deal of expectation. (In my case, over-expectation. I’m a big fan of Robert Wise, but the last book I read about him was back in 2007…Richard C. Keenan’s The Films of Robert Wise.) So, at this point, I need to emphasize that one's enjoyment of Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures will be significantly enhanced by understanding clearly what the book is and what it isn’t. 
Odds Against Tomorrow
Produced by Harry Belafonte and credited as the first film-noir to star a Black actor

Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures is not an academic work of film scholarship and doesn’t present itself as such. More an appreciation and career tribute to Wise, Jordan approaches his subject with a film-buff’s enthusiasm and a well-informed informality. Biographical information about Wise, personal or professional, is minimal, the emphasis being on letting the films speak for themselves, letting actors and industry professionals share their thoughts on working with Wise, and highlighting each film’s production and content. As per the latter, perhaps an overabundance of riches. Unaccountably detailed plot descriptions dominate the book, it not being unusual for 5 pages of a 9-page chapter to be devoted to the recounting of a film’s storyline alone.
Audrey Rose
Marsha Mason and John Beck wonder if the reincarnated can reverse charges

For me, Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures succeeds as an introduction and primer for those unfamiliar with the director, and as a solid reference book supplement to the already existing books about Robert Wise (I’m only aware of their being 5 total). I would think this book would prove very useful in this age of streaming sites and online movie accessibility, its chapter-by-chapter highlighting of each film serving as a guide for the unfamiliar, a recap to the initiated. 
Should there be a 2nd revised edition of Robert Wise: The Motion Pictures, I hope the opportunity presents itself for a strong editor to tighten up the prose a bit. There's so much worthwhile in Jordan's book, yet I suspect its form as is might keep well-read cinema enthusiasts away. It's great to have a book dedicated to the entire body of Robert Wise's directing career, even better to encounter such a sincere tribute to a man who, by all accounts, was an unusually kind, principled, and self-effacing director whose movies continue to touch many lives.
The Andromeda Strain
You know it's science fiction when Paula Kelly and James Olson battle an uncontrolled
outbreak of a deadly virus and there's no one around bitching about having to wear a mask.

Indeed, the major through-line of each and every interview conducted in the book can be found in this quote by a pre-The Bionic Woman Lindsay Wagner, whom Wise directed in her first film Two People (1973): 

“Robert (Wise) to this day remains one of the nicest, most gracious film directors I’ve ever encountered. Consequently, my indoctrination to the business was that power, success, and kindness can all coexist. Because to me, those are the characteristics that defined Robert Wise.”

 The author provided a review copy of the book.

All screencaps are from Robert Wise movies in my personal DVD collection.

Simone Simon and Ann Carter in The Curse of the Cat People (1944)
Taking over the reins from original director Gunther von Fritsch, this RKO film
produced by Val Lewton marks Robert Wise's debut as a film director.

Copyright © Ken Anderson     2009 - 2021

Monday, January 4, 2021

BOOM! 1968

"I don't believe God is dead, but I do think he is inclined to pointless brutalities."
Tennessee Williams

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton made a total of ten films together (11 if you count the presciently-titled 1973 TV-movie Divorce His/Divorce Hers) over the course of their highly-public, passionate-but-rocky, ten-plus-one-years marriage (wed in 1964, they divorced in ’74, remarried a year later, re-divorced a year after that). By the time they appeared in their 8th vehicle together, Joseph Losey's Boom!, unkind film critics--worn down by years of ceaseless press coverage of the couple's top-of-the-line lifestyle and bottom-of-the-barrel movie resume--had taken to referring to the paparazzi-popular pair as a traveling vaudeville act. A difficult point to argue against at the time.

Branded infamous for their scandalously out-in-the-open, adulterous canoodling during the making of Cleopatra (1963), the combination of gossip and public curiosity helped turn cinematic dogs like 1963s The VIPs (neither had secured divorces from their respective spouses by then) and the following year’s The Sandpiper (their first onscreen pairing as man and wife) into boxoffice blockbusters. Yet it wasn't long after scoring an unexpected critical and boxoffice bullseye in Mike Nichols’ film adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), that Taylor and Burton developed the reputation for saying yes to any film offer that promised a hefty payday, major tax break, or exotic locale in which to work. 

Il Palazzo di Goforth
Built especially for the film, the mansion of Mrs. Flora Goforth is situated high atop the limestone cliffs of Isola Piana, a small island in the Mediterranean off the coast of Sardinia. Along the bluffs are replicas of the Easter Island moai heads, six of them, representing perhaps the spirits of the six husbands she outlived. Some interiors of the mansion were sets in Rome.

Boom! offered all three, plus the prospect of granting Taylor an unprecedented Tennessee Trifecta: Having already appeared in two successful Tennessee Williams screen adaptations—Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)—garnering Oscar nominations for both, surely reuniting with Williams for Boom! (working titles Goforth and Sunburst) would result in delivering the third cherry for a boxoffice jackpot. 

In his diaries published in 2012, Richard Burton admitted that The Sandpiper—a substantial financial success, but critical flop—was a film both he and Taylor knew to be a joke, but accepted solely for the opportunity to work together and as a cash-grab of convenience should negative public opinion about Le Scandale lead to their never working again. On the topic of the $5 million mega-flop that was Boom!, Burton asserts that it was a film both he and Taylor very much believed in and very excited to do. In fact, after watching dailies mid-production, Burton writes of the film looking “perverse and interesting, and optimistically intones, “I think we are due for another success, especially E [Elizabeth].” Given the dismal returns on their most recent releases The Comedians (1967) and Doctor Faustus (1967), perhaps the words "long overdue" are more apt.   

Elizabeth Taylor as Flora "Sissy" Goforth

Richard Burton as Christopher Flanders 

Noel Coward as Baron William "Billy" Ridgeway, aka The Witch of Capri 

Joanna Shimkus as Francis "Blackie" Black

Michael Dunn as Rudi

Elizbeth Taylor is eccentric millionairess Flora (“All my close friends call me Sissy”) Goforth. Cloistered away in a majestic mountaintop villa on her private island in the Mediterranean, Sissy Goforth dictates her alternatingly introspective/self-aggrandizing memoirs to her put-upon secretary (Joanna Shimkus) while being overzealously watched by her sadistic bodyguard Rudi (Michael Dunn). It’s summer (isn’t it always in a Tennessee Williams movie?) and Signora Goforth is dying. But not to hear her tell it.

 After burying six husbands--five wealthy industrialists and a penniless poet/adventurer who was the love of her life--the widow Goforth fancies herself as an indefatigable force of nature and nothing less than eternal. And, in point of fact, after getting a load of her constant carping, bellowing, and hurling of coarse invectives at all and sundry, one can well imagine that even death itself, when faced with the prospect of coming face-to-face with Flora Goforth, might opt to pass her by.

In 1968 Boom! and Rosemary's Baby earned the dubious distinction of being the first American feature films approved by the MPAA (Production Code Seal) to feature the word "shit."

"The doctors are disgusted with my good health!” Flora insists. Even in the face of nightly pain injections, blood transfusions, regular vitamin B shots, a steady diet of pills and medications, and the distressing increase in the number of paper roses blooming in all corners of the villa (a paper rose is Flora's bleakly poetic name for the many discarded wads of tissue stained with her coughed-up blood.) 

But for all that money can buy, it can't buy immortality, so the gravely ill Flora Goforth...racing against time to complete her memoirs...is fated to go forth from this plane of existence. But not until she’s good and ready. And ready she’s not. The "dying monster," as she's referred to by her scornful staff, is not yet willing, prepared, or capable of relinquishing her vicelike grip on life. Or, closer to the truth, that which has come to represent life tor her: wealth, power, possessions, position, acquisition, and excess. 

The Walking Dead
By way of her vulgarity, cynicism, lack of compassion, and ostentatious flaunting of wealth,
it's inferred that Flora Goforth's spiritual death occurred long ago.

As though metaphysically summoned, a trespassing stranger named Christopher Flanders (Richard Burton) arrives at the villa carrying two heavy bundles and professing to have been invited. Flanders, whose saintly Christian name proves to be as symbolically relevant (and subtle) as Flora’s surname, is an itinerant poet, mobile artist, aging gigolo, and professional houseguest. Most recently, among his circle of imposed-upon jet-set friends, he has come to be known as “The Angel of Death.” A bitchy-but-accurate name assigned to him after a pattern emerged involving his paying visits to some of his aging and ailing benefactors shortly before their deaths.

With Christopher’s arrival, the already sublimely bizarre Boom! takes on the form of a spiritual allegory played out in a highly-stylized manner suggesting a Western interpretation of Eastern kabuki theater. Flora, facing mortality by stubbornly ignoring its existence, clings ever tighter to what she wants. Meanwhile, Christopher, whose physicality inflames Flora’s lifelong use of sex as a means of denying death, dares to suggest that beyond the things she wants lie the things she actually needs. 

Death Takes a Holiday
Flora amuses herself by dressing Chris (whose clothes were shredded by her attack dogs) as a samurai warrior, but the joke may ultimately be on her. The flowing black kimono and samurai sword present Chris as a kabuki variant of the traditional black-robed Grim Reaper with his scythe.

Hostess and guest engage in verbal sparring matches exhibiting the one-upmanship strategizing of games. An element emphasized both in the costuming (Flora & Chris are dressed in the colors of chess pieces) and art direction (chess boards and B&W domino tiles are scattered throughout the villa). Between bouts of seduction and bargaining, their parry and thrust conversations circle around existential fundamentals like acceptance of the inevitable and the relinquishing of the inessential. 
As the sun sets on Flora Goforth's island and indeed, Flora herself, Tennessee Williams’ paradoxically heavy-handed and confoundingly opaque screenplay leaves us with the metaphorical food for thought that “Saint” Christopher has trudged up that mountain to assist Flora in her journey to the other side. And in the recurring device of having Chris' requests for food (especially a drink of milk) met with refusal or completely ignored, the presumed takeaway is that Mrs. Flora Goforth is singularly lacking in the figurative ‘milk of human kindness,’ its train long having ceased pausing at her lonely threshold. 

Flora Goforth, appearing to be engulfed by a stylized golden shroud, is at last ready to go forth. But in reciting the title of the 1963 Broadway play upon which Boom! is based, lets it be known that she...like Helen Lawson...intends on going out the way she came in. 

Such is the tale Tennessee Williams hoped to tell. What he delivered was a wordy, over-stylized exercise in opulent incoherence that, had the cast been a decade younger, would likely have been labeled a youth-culture "head trip" movie. As it stood, the generation still interested in the life-in-a-fishbowl antics of Taylor and Burton were either baffled or bored. It didn't take long for word about Boom! to get around, and, as the saying goes, people stayed away in droves.
Taking advantage of a little breather between Goforth tantrums,
her houseman Etti (Fernando Piazza) and her attending physician Dr. Luilo (Romolo Valli) 

One of the more persistent Hollywood myths that gains traction every award season is that of the passion project. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen Oscars triumphantly hoisted overhead as the recipient shares the same “tenacity rewarded” tale of never giving up on a beloved movie vehicle despite years of studio rejection. This then cues everyone watching to shake their heads in amazement at the thought of all those studio dummkopfs failing to recognize the value of a project whose obvious merit now shines so brightly. As reassuring as all this is to those who romanticize the never-say-die spirit, I think it neglects the equally-valuable flip side: recognizing when it is both wise and prudent to let something go. Ironically, one of Boom!’s major themes
Even those who meet Boom! with, as one journalist phrased it "almost gleeful critical contempt" are apt to be impressed by the glorious compositions of Douglas Slocombe's stunning cinematography, and the breathtaking production design and art direction by Richard McDonald and John Clark.

If any Tennessee Williams work can be called a passion project, it’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. How else to explain the alarming fact that Boom!’s screenplay represents Williams’ 4th crack at the same material and he STILL failed to work out bugs?  What began life in 1959 as a short story titled Man Bring This Up Road (a line of dialogue that survives in Boom!) morphed into a stubbornly unsuccessful Broadway play that had the unprecedented honor of bombing twice in the same season. Claiming it to be one of his most obsessively beloved yet most difficult plays to write, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is partly 52-year-old Williams confronting his own creative decline (his last hit was 1961's The Night of the Iguana), part his processing of the 1963 death of Frank Merlo, his partner of 14-years, from cancer at age 40.
Flora Goforth's secretary, Mrs. Black--the most honest and compassionate character in the play--owes her name to Williams paying tribute to his love, Frank Merlo. Merlo is the Spanish name for a blackbird, one of which appears in a golden cage in Boom!

In what feels like a desperate, last-ditch effort to get his point across, Williams has a character simply verbalize one of the film's themes: "Sooner or later, a person's obliged to face the meaning of life!" but Joseph Losey's stylized direction works just as hard making sure little as possible makes sense. What comes through (almost in spite of itself) is that death is the ultimate solitary act. No manner how many friends or how much money and "stuff" we amass, we can't take it with us and we must "go forth" alone. Boom! in its clumsy, campy way, proposes the gladdening notion that life offers us final mercy...the appearance of someone (something?) to ease our fear and escort us on our irrevocable journey.  We may claim it was never invited, but death requires no formal invitation. It's been summoned the instant of our birth. 

In his 1975 memoir, Williams relates that he was both astonished and overjoyed when the film rights for The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore had been purchased and director Joseph Losey (The Servant) assigned to the project: “Then a dreadful mistake was made. [Producer Lester] Persky offered the film to the Burtons.”

Were I the gambling type, I’d wager that the very reasons Tennessee Williams saw the Burtons as the least-favorable casting option for Boom! are the very reasons I find them to be absolutely ideal for the material. The stunt-miscasting of Taylor & Burton in Boom! was a bald-faced effort to try and recapture the lightning-in-a-bottle magic of Mike Nichols’ “And you thought she/he was all wrong for the part!” Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  hat trick, while simultaneously exploiting the screenplay's many Taylor-related bits of self-referential coincidence. Flora was supposed to be a past-her-prime battleax grinding to a halt in her 60s (Taylor was 35), Chris a fading gigolo in his early 30s (Burton was 42). Neither really fit their roles in ways having nothing to do with their ages, but say what you will, Taylor's mesmerizingly purple performance abutted by Burton's Sunday-morning-hangover thesping are the sole and primary reasons Boom! achieves any level of watchability at all.
Chris: (Indicating cigarette) "May I have one?" 
Flora: "Kiss me for it."

But I’m the first to admit that the Boom! I adore is probably not at all the Boom! Losey & Co. set out to make. As a play cloaked in Brechtian minimalism, it reads like a needlessly convoluted rehash of themes Williams has already explored…with more poignance and coherence…in Sweet Bird of Youth, The Fugitive Kind, Summer and Smoke, and The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. As a film, not only does Williams’ trademark brand of cloaked symbolism and Freudian metaphor sound cobwebby in the era of “tell it like it is,” but no one involved in the project seemed aware that high-minded drama and high glamour have a funny way of canceling each other out. The end result is like watching a Theater of the Absurd sequel to Valley of the Dolls dramatizing the final days of Helen Lawson.

Since Mrs. Goforth on her deathbed looks better than most people in the full bloom of health,
it's kinda hard to wring much pathos out of her plight. 

Representing murky ideologies rather than people, the king-size personalities of Burton and Taylor, left with no characters to inhabit, resort to playing exaggerated versions of themselves. Portraying Death and often looking like it, Burton staggers about while letting his trained voice do all the heavy lifting. Meanwhile, Taylor, tottering around in high heels and even higher hair, plays Flora Goforth as a female impersonator doing a burlesque of Elizabeth Taylor. Yet they’re impossible not to watch. The film's sole concession to a contemporary sensibility is achieved in having a character written as a gossipy queen actually played by one. The Witch of Capri is traditionally played by a woman, and the producers had hoped to snare Katharine Hepburn. But granting the role to famed playwright/composer Noel Coward is inspired if ultimately affectless. 

Losey’s directorial style is languid and lovely and the storytelling clumsy, but there’s no end of delights to be found in the Burtons in their scenes together. Or in the regal blowsiness of Liz and her coughing, barking, swearing, drinking, glowering, and bitching. It entertains and maybe even enthralls.
Despite his initial reservations, Tennessee Williams, feeling his screenplay for the film was much better written than his play, ultimately warmed to Elizabeth Taylor's interpretation of Flora Goforth. Even going so far as to call her performance "The best that she's done." 
Howard Taylor (Elizabeth's older brother, who died in 2020) appears briefly as a journalist 

Before reality TV, the only opportunity fans had of getting a glimpse into the private lives of the rich and famous was when movie stars obliged them by taking on roles audiences were encouraged to interpret as fictionalized versions of themselves. They called it the Gawk Factor. Boom! is a movie loaded with Gawk Factor. The play was written for Tallulah Bankhead, but new generations of viewers are to be forgiven if they assume the role of Flora Goforth was Taylor-made.
Liz Taylor Loves Jewelry
Flora Goforth is a widow who sports a huge diamond ring that (tellingly) cuts into her hand every time someone tries to hold it. It's Taylor's 1956 engagement ring from 3rd husband Mike Todd. Two weeks prior to Boom!'s 1968 premiere, Burton gifted Elizabeth with the famous...and much larger...Krupp Diamond.

Mrs. Goforth has been married six times; Taylor beat that number by one (Burton was husband #5). The one husband Goforth truly loved died in a mountain climbing accident. Mike Todd (whom the fan magazines were fond of claiming was Elizabeth's one true love) died in a mountain plane crash. It's difficult to argue that these fact/fiction similarities weren't exploited, because in the play, Goforth's husband dies in a car crash.   
Liz Taylor Loves To Drink
Enjoying what appears to be a glass bucket of Bloody Mary, Goforth subsists on coffee, cigarettes, codeine tablets, and alcohol. In real life, Taylor suffered from alcohol addiction and helped destigmatize the illness by being one of the first celebrities to go public with her rehab treatment. Boom! is rumored to have been a very liquid set.

Liz Taylor Loves Kaftans
Goforth reveals closets overflowing with colorful kaftans. In the late '60s and '70s (until she found Halston) it was the rare photo that did not feature La Liz in a flowing, colorful kaftan.

Other exploitable Goforth/Taylor parallels pertain to Flora being known for her beauty ("If you have a world-famous figure, why be selfish with it?"), and Flora being plagued by numerous health maladies. Taylor enjoyed poor health throughout much of her life, her paparazzi-attended hospital visits as numerous as red-carpet premieres.

John Waters has called Boom! a “failed art film,” which I think is a very accurate description. It’s just ironic that Boom! ismovie that never could have found financing without the star-system leverage of the Burtons attached, yet the duo's megawatt star-quality is precisely what turns so many scenes in Williams’ elegiac “poem of death” into The Liz & Dick Show
But I don’t really have a problem with that because I think I must be a little in love with Elizabeth Taylor. How else to explain my finding her to be both epically awful and some kind of wonderful in this ambitiously off-beat camp curio that feels more emotionally truthful the older I get?
No, Boom! is not a perfect film, it's possibly not even a good one. But it's a risk-taking film. And the risk-taking Burtons of fascinating flops like this one are infinitely more affecting and fun to watch than the play-it-safe Burtons of moneymaking snooze-fests like The Sandpiper.

What does BOOM mean? It's...


Robert Redford portrayed Death as a kind young man who comes to ease an old woman’s (Gladys Cooper) fear of dying in the 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone titled "Nothing in the Dark." 

Divine Intervention
A favorite blogger writes about BOOM! as drag inspiration HERE

That's Tab Hunter embracing Divine in the 1981 John Waters film Polyester. Hunter appeared opposite Tallulah Bankhead in the second Broadway incarnation of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore. British actress Hermione Baddeley starred in the original production which opened 11-months earlier. 

In 1997 a red-wigged actor Rupert Everett (My Best Friend's Wedding, Another Country) portrayed Flora Goforth to David Foxxe's Witch of Capri in a London production of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore at the Lyric Theater

Early casting considerations for Joseph Losey's film version (likely never moving past the discussion stage) were Simone Signoret and Sean Connery; Ingrid Bergman and James Fox. Donald Sutherland was wanted for the role of bodyguard Rudi.

BOOM! opened on Wednesday, May 29, 1968 at Hollywood's Pantages Theater. 

Copyright © Ken Anderson   2009 - 2021