Thursday 9 July 2015

Boom! [1968]

BOOM! Is a British black comedy / drama that was directed by Joseph Losey and premiered in the US in May 1968.  It stars the then-married Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton along with Joanna Shimkus and Noel Coward.  Adapted by Tennessee Williams from his own play ‘The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore’ it tells of a fabulously wealthy but seriously ill recluse who is visited on her private island by an itinerant poet who has the reputation of being an angel of death.

Williams is such a towering figure in American literature that I tend to think of him as having died a long time ago but actually he lived until 1983; indeed he was most prolific during the 1950s so he’s very much a modern writer.  He was also a friend of Taylor and Burton’s who, despite the media circus which surrounded them, were intelligent, literate and cultured people.  Between them they appeared in four films based on Williams plays, the last of which was BOOM!

The play was written and first performed in 1963 and was not a success: it is now considered by some to represent the beginning of the decline in Williams’ work.  On the stage the characters Flora ‘Cissy’ Goforth and Christopher Flanders are much older and much younger, respectively, than the characters in the film; in Tony Richardson’s original production the parts were played by Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter – an age gap of 29 years.  When BOOM! was made Richard Burton was actually seven years older than Elizabeth Taylor.

Taylor and Burton in BOOM!
This is an important aspect because generational conflict, particularly between genders, is a key theme in Williams’ work.  Cissy Goforth in the play is a tyrannical older woman, raging against the dying of the light who sees in handsome young Flanders a last opportunity to define herself in terms of allure, beauty and desirability.  Obviously when the parts are played by Burton and Taylor this element is almost entirely obscured.

A typically elegant interior by Richard Macdonald
As in a number of his plays, and films of his plays, certain themes – particularly homosexuality – had to be soft pedalled or disguised completely.  In SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER (my review of which can be found here) the character Sebastian’s homosexuality is barely mentioned but is the key which explains the text.  Similarly, in ‘The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More’, if one reads the central relationship as a homosexual one, in other words considers Cissy as an elderly homosexual man, then the play – and consequently the film - opens itself up. 

A beautiful composition by Douglas Slocombe
There are autobiographical elements in the character of Cissy.  Williams stood at a crossroads in his career, beginning to doubt his creative power and afraid that his imagination was running dry.  He was torn, much as Cissy is, between looking back at what can never be recaptured and looking forward in fear.  Over dinner one night Cissy talks about the shock of each living moment and the realisation that what happened even a single second ago is now unreachable history.  There is some interesting symbolism on display too:  Cissy’s emblem is the griffin which apparently was a nod to the Williams family’s own coat of arms which was a fighting lion above a peacock.

The griffin emblem

And again
It’s a shame that BOOM! has long been considered an impenetrable, hilarious failure because if the characters are re-interpreted then it makes much more sense.  The Burton-Taylor circus mitigated against the film being taken seriously almost from the get go but because the real point is buried beneath these two layers of obfuscation critical reaction to it was merciless.  They lambasted the histrionics and the camp atmosphere presumably without realising that if you tweaked your perception of the characters then these elements made much more sense.  I mean, Noel Coward plays a (typically waspish) character called the Witch of Capri, for goodness’ sake: the clues are there.

Noel Coward as Mr Bridger.  Pardon me, as the Witch of Capri
I get the impression that critics thought this was just a Burton-Taylor vanity project and to be fair it does look it at first glance.  It’s a virtual two-hander, set in a glorious designer cliff-top mansion in Sardinia, Taylor swans about in a jaw-dropping collection of gowns and jewellery bitching like it’s going out of fashion, while Burton recites poetry dressed in a Japanese robe with matching samurai sword.  Writing that now it sounds ridiculous even to me.  But think of it this way: ignore the surface and think about the content and then ask yourself ‘Would Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, or Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, or Daniel Craig and Rachel Weisz make a film like this?’  To me it’s unthinkable that a modern Hollywood couple would choose to star in an adaptation of a pretty obscure play by a renowned contemporary playwright?  I mean, Hollywood doesn't really make stage adaptations any more, apart from the odd musical, and its showbiz couples – when they act together at all – make bad thrillers or romcoms. 

You don't often see Angelina Jolie imitating Kabuki theatre.  Or dressed like this.
Actually there is a function to this scene because in his introduction to the text of 'The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore' Tennessee Williams stipulates the addition to the cast of two stage assistants whom he says "function in a way that's between the Kabuki Theatre of Japan and the chorus of Greek theatre".  He goes on to say that in Japan these performers also serve as stagehands and if you look closely in the background you can see two of Cissy's staff doing exactly that.
Burton and Taylor made 11 films together and almost all of them are interesting, and some of those genuinely intriguing.  Can you imagine Will Smith and Jada Pinkett in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? or Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones in THE TAMING OF THE SHREW?  Burton and Taylor got, and still get, an awful lot of flak for their high profile celebrity status – and they deserved most of it – but the least that can be said of them is that they worked hard on interesting projects.  Now you might argue that the likes of Pitt & Jolie weren't put on this earth to star in adaptations of works by important playwrights and that their function is to appear in mega-budget blockbusters.  And you’d have a point but let’s not forget that in its day CLEOPATRA [1963] was exactly that so Burton & Taylor proved that you could do both.  Of course they got accused of pretentiousness when they did their more interesting stuff so they couldn't win either way.

Cissy's amazing cliff-top home
It probably helps if you've read the play first but there’s plenty to enjoy about BOOM!  The location is absolutely stunning – the film’s title refers to the ocean waves thundering on to the rocky coastline – and I know that can be said about virtually any film ever made but it genuinely is an awesome sight.  Cissy Goforth’s palatial residence is a designer’s dream and her astronomical wealth is similarly awesome.  The extraordinarily lavish meals she ignores or dismisses are hilarious and after a while her monstrous treatment of her employees becomes amusing too.  Taylor has great fun in a larger-than-life part which she uses to send up her public image.  Burton enjoys himself too: Flanders is a smooth-talking seducer, not a man of action, and that suits his skills perfectly for Burton was, as I've written before, wooden physically but blessed with one of the great speaking voices.  So despite what you may read elsewhere it is entertaining and makes, or at least attempts to make, some profound observations about important themes.

Elizabeth Taylor as Flora 'Cissy' Goforth

Richard Burton as Christopher Flanders
Joanna Shimkus who plays Cissy's put-upon secretary Blackie had a brief film career in the late 60s and early 70s and more or less retired from the screen after she married Sidney Poitier in 1976.  As far as I can determine she became an interior decorator / designer and no doubt picked up a few pointers from Richard Macdonald (see below).

Joanna Shimkus as Blackie
Michael Dunn who plays Cissy's put-upon security chief Rudi was a diminutive character actor who had a decent career that was sadly cut short by his death at the age of 38.  Obviously he was never going to get starring roles but he nevertheless made an impression and even picked up an Oscar nomination for his performance in Stanley Kramer's SHIP OF FOOLS [1965].  There are a number of properly delirious films on his CV some, all or none of which may or may not appear on these pages in the future, particularly the tacky British horror movie THE MUTATIONS [1974].

Michael Dunn as Rudi
Romolo Valli plays Cissy's put-upon personal physician, a part which can only be described as tiny.  A waste really because he was a terrific actor, most memorably as the put-upon (he must have had one of those faces) Father Pirrone in Luchino Visconti's masterpiece THE LEOPARD / IL GATTOPARDO [1963], one of the greatest films of them all.

Romolo Valli as Dcotor Luilo
Joseph Losey was an American director who was forced out of his country because of the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s.  Unlike Elia Kazan who chucked former friends and colleagues under the proverbial bus to maintain his own Hollywood career, Losey refused to testify before HUAC and exiled himself to Britain.  Here he made a number of terrific, jaundiced films that were deeply critical of our society – particularly class – in a way that only a non-British director could.  There are too many films to list here but I would suggest you at least try to see THE SERVANT [1963] and KING & COUNTRY [1964] the latter of which I saw recently and was very impressed by.  His 70s output was a mixed bag but they are always intelligent, challenging pictures.  No doubt Losey would have appreciated the irony of an American outcast collaborating with one of the great men of American literature on BOOM!

A final word about the technical credits.  The Panavasion anamorphic photography is by Douglas Slocombe, one of the very best in his field.  The production designer, Richard Macdonald, was Losey's preferred designer and worked with him many times.  The composer was John Barry whose score is typically elegant and deceptively simply.

1 comment:

  1. Re: the Japanese "stagehands" - Williams himself was evidently unfamiliar with the correct term; they are called "koken".