Wednesday 1 October 2008

BUtterfield 8 (1960)

Unashamedly a vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor, back in the days when she was a beautiful young woman, it actually seems for a while that there's going to be nothing here except Liz wandering around her apartment looking good. She's asleep in bed while the credits roll, then she gets up, smokes, drinks, puts on her makeup, gets dressed, picks out a fur coat... for ten minutes. That's hardly the height of deep storylines. But there's something in here that speaks to her character too: it's not her apartment.

She's Gloria Wandrous, a model who is having an affair with a married man, a socialite called Weston Liggett, and he has the audacity to leave her money in the morning. It's really to replace her torn dress, but that doesn't stop her getting upset at a concept at the same time we're introduced to it. Watching this less than a week after watching Anne Biller's Viva, I can't help but look at this from the perspective of gender and what it meant at this point in time. I think a lot of what these characters get up to is what Biller was looking for in her explorations of gender.

Gloria is a contradiction in almost every way: the sort of woman that couldn't exist in today's world, at least not without rating a lot worse criticisms than she gets here. She's passive in everything, because she's woman, but the things that are done to and for her by those around her have to be precisely what she wants them to do. She officially doesn't want anything, but she really wants everything and she gets what she wants. She's an infuriating tangle of complexity, the sort that sat under 'woman' in the dictionary in 1960. A bartender describes her as 'catnip to every cat in town'.

There's a fascinating conversation/confrontation between Gloria and her mother, who has been worrying sick about where she's been. Her big achievement is that she's 'been with a man for a whole week', given that she's been call-girl either by profession or inclination for some time, the Butterfield 8 of the title being the telephone exchange that people can reach her at. She describes herself as 'the slut of all time' and then effectively blames her mother for it by pointing out 'if only you'd done that before, long ago, every time I came home soaked through with gin' when she slaps her.

This all ties to a change. She's no longer the 'slut of all time', she's now a woman in love, really in love, and this love transcends all her previous sensibilities. She doesn't even need therapy any more. Of course she's in love with a rich married man, though those two adjectives shouldn't actuallly matter. This rich married man also appears to be a prize catch, at least from a 1960 perspective. In the hands of Laurence Harvey, he's tall and handsome, strong and wilful, talented and driven, and sure enough, he reads Playboy. He's also a caged animal, because he married into money and all that he is comes from that married money, including his important but meaningless job.

Put together, the pair of them are catalysts for an explosion. In certain ways they're awesome for each other: Gloria causes a change for the better in Liggett, just as he causes a change for the better in her. But while it seems to be deep and meaningful, all of that is really just window dressing. Under the surface they're the same people they always were and trying to be something that they aren't is aways a recipe for disaster. Both of them have people have other partners in their life who love them and take care of them: Liggett has his wife, Gloria has a childhood friend called Steve. Perhaps they fit with the people they're running from far better than the people they think they want. Perhaps not.

I think this probably had more impact in 1960 because the whole masculine/feminine game was being played like this everywhere. It's so close to truth that the actors lived it out offstage too. Steve is played by Eddie Fisher, who at this point had gone from being famous as a singer to being even more famous as Liz Taylor's husband. She was his second wife of five, having divorced Debbie Reynolds to marry her. He was her fourth husband of eight, having lost her third, Michael Todd, in a plane crash. It's hard to tell whether the turmoil generated within the story here was intended by the writers to be what to seek or what to avoid.

The key should be in the lines, 'You can't have everything in life. Be grateful for the few things you do get, no matter when they come from,' but even they're vague. Does that mean that you should set your sights too high and be satisfied with what you get or do you just not set your sights that high in the first place? Who knows. To my eyes Gloria is like Liz Taylor herself: the best and the worst all tied up in the same package. This film rings true for her as a character and an actor. Depending on your mood or your point of view it's either a deep insight into who she is or a complete waste of space. Then again, depending on your mood or your point of view that may be the same thing.

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