A NEW APPROACTI to
a movie was suggested by a black-dressed cloakroom attendant. "I shall be glad when this picture closes," she said. "It brings in such a tiresome class of customer."
Obviously I mustn't say which picture was under review. But the authoritative comment set rue thinking how seldom the audience gets the blame it deserves for many movies. Producers often use the audience and its alleged demands as an alibi for the cinema's more outrageous lapses of taste.
But we critics seldom have the courage to place the blame for a truly awful film on the public who tolerate it. patronise it. publicise it by word of mouth and the example of their attendance, and who may in the first place have inspired it.
Before T met the cloakroom lady, at another cinema I had been looking round me to discover what kind of people were undeniably flocking into the Empire to see Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in The Sandpiper (A-). For this is a picture certainly inspired by the public life-or-love story of the two stars and designed apparently --with a story by the producer, Martin Ransohoff—to provide them with as close a parallel as possible to set before a celebrity-and-scandal-hungry public. Mr. Burton, who as most people can't help knowing is Miss Taylor's fifth husband, plays an Episcopalian headmaster. managing his school and his marriage to Claire (Eva Marie Saint) correctly enough until he starts walking out (or driving, or lying about the Big Sur beauty coast of California) with the unconventional, free-thinking,
lone living, multi . loving mother of a wayward illegitimate son.
From then on the film is mostly devoted to long passages of love-making along the beach which the 'spectator
can if he wishes imagine as glimpses from the private life of the two stars.
Miss Taylor swells gently out of a succession of up-tothe-minute low-cut casuals, she lectures Mr. Burton on the follies of marriage, plain living and belief until the poor man takes leave of his mistress in the well-tried gambit guaranteed to get the plot past censors (and even perhaps the Legion of Decency?) and of his school in the most embarrassing confusion of a sermon and end-of-term farewell speech.
In no other age can I envisage such deliberate transparency of celluloid over reality being passed off as permissible entertainment. Even today's critics have been shocked, though with a smile, into comments like "brazen" and "blatant". What then of the audience gathered to look upon the romance of these middle-aged great lovers of today?
My first surprise was at the predominantly youthful appearance of the audience in which I found myself. There was only a tiny sprinkling of filmgoers as old or older than the stars (Miss Taylor is 34, Mr. Burton 40). This was no assembly of peeping toms come to leer or jeer or even consciously to pry, but a normal, workaday film audience.
Dissociated from the private-life parallel, the film (the lady-arlist paints birds on the beach, birds symbolically trying to fly free or else building their own cage) is certainly no better a picture hut not very much worse than scores of past screen romances.
Surely it is a little worse than those old favourites like "Love Affair", listed by one critic, worse in that those were a phase in the cinema's growth, where The Sandpiper is a relapse into decadence. Still, in itself it is negligible enough, but offers an opportunity for reflection on the career of Elizabeth Taylor and her position in the history of movies.
For in the cinema. there is no doubt that Miss Taylor is the star. Mr. Burton is a magnificent actor who for one reason and another has strayed into film stardom. But Miss Taylor is one of the great film stars, with a legend and an image of her own.
There has always been confusion as to whether she was an English or American star. In fact she was born in England of American parents, so naturally at the beginning of the war she went home to America.
Her husbands have been American, British, American, American, British. (Her four children, adopted, probably count as Americans.) At 7 she was a Hollywood star in "Lassie Come Home", again in "National Velvet", and has remained one ever since.
Her looks have made her generally recognised as a beauty. She is that phenomenon of the film era, a living legend composed of publicity feeding on the more or less lurid headlines of her "private" life and fed back to create of her a celebrity.
Celebrity is a neutral quality, neither good nor had in itself but recognised as a reality of our time. Miss Taylor has lived publicly as a celebrity, her fame at one stage almost attaining the stature of tragedy with the death of her third husband Mike Todd.
There remains the question of her professional quality as a film actress. To me she has usually seemed an expert, slightly sub-Crawford, capable of giving conviction even to rubbish such as "Butterfield 8" for which she got her Academy Award—or as The Sandpiper?
But she has also always been capable of rising to the very few more serious pictures she has been given; to give splendid performances in "Suddenly Last Summer". "A Place in the Sun" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof". Even her "Cleopatra", though abysmally boring. was not wholly inept. Her story may not be edifying hut she has mastered her craft, and must be given that credit.