BUtterfield 8 (1960) Directed by Daniel Mann. Elizabeth Taylor, Lawrence Harvey, Eddie Fisher, Dina Merrill (109 min).
A party girl wakes up in a strange bed and “borrows” a mink coat for the taxi ride home, jump starting this sizzling adaptation of John O’Hara’s novel. Liz won an Oscar for playing restless Gloria Wandrous. “A sleek and libidinous lingerie meller” (Time Magazine).
John O’Hara’s novel, BUtterfield 8 (the title comes from Gloria’s telephone exchange, when phone numbers were a combination of letters and numbers) is considerably different from the film starring Elizabeth Taylor. A major contrast is that it is set in 1931, the beginnings, but not yet the depths of the Depression, in a New York City where Prohibition is still in force. A great deal of time is spent drifting from one speakeasy to another, a portrait of a city starved for alcohol. It takes a while for Gloria Wandrous to come into focus as the central character of the book, as it begins as a kaleidoscopic portrait of the city and its inhabitants. The torn evening gown and the stolen mink coat, so memorable in the film, do propel the plot forward, and the trio of Gloria, Liggett and her friend, Eddie (as played by the hopelessly inept Eddie Fisher in the film) do eventually take control of the narrative.
John O’Hara wrote the book reflecting on the story he read in the newspaper of a girl, 25 year old flapper Starr Faithful, whose body washed up on the shore of Long Island after a boating party. His book was meant to be a meditation on the life of this anonymous death. O’Hara imagined an amoral party girl who became entangled with a married man, who lusted after her and hated himself for his own sexual passions. In the film, Elizabeth Taylor’s intensely magnetic performance dominates the movie, easily overshadowing Laurence Harvey as Liggett. But, in true sexist 60s style, even though the film appears to be about Gloria, the screenwriters are concerned with whether a man can regain his self respect after rolling in the gutter with a bad girl like Gloria.
“There were four bedrooms besides the one where she had slept…the fourth was a woman’s bedroom. In this she lingered.
She went through the closets and looked at the clothes. She looked at the bed, neat and cool. She took whiffs of the bottles on the dressing table, and then she opened another closet door. The first thing she saw was a mink coat, and it was the only thing she really saw.
She left the room and went back to his room and picked up her things; her shoes and stockings, her panties, her evening gown. ‘Well, I can’t wear that. I can’t go out looking like that. I can’t go out in broad daylight wearing an evening gown and coat.” The evening gown, more accurately a cape, was lying where it had been carefully laid in a chair. But, when she took a second look at the evening gown, she remembered more vividly the night before. The evening gown was torn, ripped in half down the front as far as the waist. “The son of a bitch.” She threw the gown on the floor of one of his closets and she took off her pajamas—his pajamas. She took a shower and dried herself slowly and with many towels, which she threw on the bathroom floor, and then she took his tooth brush and put it under the hot water faucet. The water was too hot to touch, and she guessed it was hot enough to sterilize the brush. This made her laugh. “I go to bed with him and take a chance on getting anything, but I sterilize his tooth brush. She brushed her teeth and used a mouth wash, and she mixed herself a dose of fruit salts and drank it pleasurably. She felt a lot better, and would feel still better soon. The despair was going away. Now that she knew what the bad thing was that she was going to do, she faced it and felt all right about it. She could hardly wait to do it.
She put on her panties and shoes and stockings and she brushed her hair and made up her face. She used little make up. She opened a closet door and put her hand in the pockets of his evening clothes, but did not find what she wanted. She found what she wanted, cigarettes, in a case in the top drawer of a chest of drawers. She lit one and went to the kitchen. On the kitchen table was an envelope she had missed in her earlier round of the apartment. “Gloria” was written in a round backhand style, in pencil.
She pulled open the flap which was sticky and not tightly held to the envelope, and she took out three twenty-dollar bills and a note “Gloria—this is for the evening gown. I have to go to the country. Will phone you Tuesday or Wednesday. W.” “You’re telling me” she said aloud.
Now, she moved a little faster. She found two hats, almost identical black felt, in one of the girls’ closets. She put one on. “She’ll think she took the other to the country and lost it.” She was aware of herself as a comic spectacle in shoes and stocking, panties, black hat. “But, we’ll soon fix that.” She returned to the woman’s closet and took out the mink coat and got into it. She then went to his bedroom and put the sixty dollars in her small crystal covered evening bag. She was all set.” (O’Hara 5-6).
For the last film on Elizabeth Taylor’s MGM contract, the studio decided that they wanted to embrace Taylor’s bad girl image as the home wrecker who broke up the storybook marriage of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher. Taylor thought the script irredeemably smutty, and that playing the part of Gloria would tag her as the harlot some of the columnists already thought she was. MGM would call the tune, demanding if she wanted the rumored $1million paycheck for Fox’s Cleopatra, she would finish out her contract with them, first.
MGM had owned John O’Hara’s novel since 1935. He was pleased that it would finally appear on the screen, but somewhat less than delighted that the proposed star of the film immediately began to denounce it as sleazy and pornographic. O’Hara said later, “The cracks Miss Taylor has taken at my novel gave me some bruises, which were healed by the MGM accounting department with their tender, loving royalty checks” (Morley 108).
Taylor wrote to MGM’s head of production, “I’ve been here for seventeen years, and I was never asked to play such a horrible role as Gloria Wandrous. She’s a sick nymphomaniac. I won’t do it for anything” (Spoto 167). But she needed both the $125,000 salary, since Eddie Fisher was gambling her money away, and freedom from the lengthy court case that surely would have resulted had she tried to break her contract. She demanded the film be shot in NYC (one major location was in front of an apartment building at 1050 Fifth Avenue, on the northeast corner of 86th) and that her husband, Eddie Fisher, have a featured role, replacing David Janssen. Taylor prevailed upon Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Paddy Chayefsky, Joe Mankiewicz, Christopher Isherwood and Daniel Taradash to write new scenes that might show her husband to advantage, they all ended on the cutting room floor. Fisher’s acting is so amateurish, even with Taylor’s coaching inside an atmospheric, real Greenwich Village apartment, it’s hard to imagine him being up to the challenge of any new scenes. Filming in New York was difficult because of animosities between LA and NYC unions, and there was even a strike midway through production. The sound stages in the Bronx were overrun with rats. But Taylor, even disgruntled, was the consummate pro. She didn’t want to make the film, but she worked hard. When the Screen Actor’s Guild called a strike, she worked right up until 11:59 deadline.
Her character would be modeled on her public persona. Director Daniel Mann wrote a description of Gloria on the shooting script. “Finds men the source of her regeneration. She needs to call the tune. A will to find and lose herself. She has a great sense of humor. Changes come fast. Emotion flows—flips—flops. She’s up, she’s down” (Mann 274). This could easily have been a description of the Elizabeth, not Gloria. Included was a relationship with a friend about to dump a girlfriend played by an actress who looked suspiciously like Debbie Reynolds. Everyone knew the film would be accepted as a dramatization of Taylor’s fan magazine tribulations. Screenwriter John Michael Hayes, a veteran of Peyton Place and skilled at making censorable material pass the censors made sure that, even if, in real life, Taylor seemed never to pay for her sins, her character must.
“In both Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and BUtterfield 8, Taylor appears in a tight white silk slip that looks as if it were sewed onto her body. What a gorgeous object she is! Feminists are currently adither over woman’s status as sex object, but let them rave on in their little mental cells. For me, sexual objectification is a supreme human talent that is indistinguishable from the art impulse. Elizabeth Taylor, voluptuous in her sleek slip, stands like an ovary goddess, triumphantly alone. Her smooth shoulders and round curves, echoing those of mother earth, are gifts of nature, beyond the reach of female impersonators. BUtterfield 8, with its call girl heroine working her way down the alphabet of men from Amherst to Yale, appeared at a very formative moment in my adolescence and impressed me forever with the persona of the prostitute, whom I continue to revere. The prostitute is not, as feminists claim, the victim of men, but rather their conqueror, an outlaw who contracts the sexual channel between nature and culture” (Paglia 17).
In the recent book, The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness M. G. Lord extravagantly claims Gloria Wandrous as an early sex positive feminist. This seems a bit far-fetched, however. Gloria takes sex as she pleases, but she is trapped by circumstances, more related to the Depression era origins of the book than the mid-century one of the film. Her sexual power is undsiputed, but control over her life is negligible.
Taylor’s leading man is Laurence Harvey, a big star in the early 1960s, who was in between his successes in Room at the Top and The Manchurian Candidate. He leapt at the chance to work with Elizabeth Taylor, the world’s biggest movie star, but underplayed on screen his unsympathetic role as Gloria’s married lover. But Harvey and Taylor became fast friends. In an interview he said, “She is wildly professional. She’s so wonderful to work with, I absolutely love her. When she comes onto a set, she gets on with her job and does it in the most extraordinary, professional way. There’s a special sort of thing which goes on between her and the camera. She is no automaton doing what the director tells her to do. She thinks. She is imaginative. She starts little things going which help her interpretation of her role. With her there is never a lot of phony theatrics and clutching at herself to portray emotion. Nor does she need soft music to get into the proper mood before a shot. If you don’t mind another superlative, I find her most enchanting to work with (Sinai 251). However his character, Liggett, is a reptile. He treats Gloria–and his wife–horrendously, and we are somehow supposed to sympathize with him. The enthusiastic, sold out audience at the NC Museum of Art decidedly did NOT.
Taylor had been bitterly disappointed when she had not won an Oscar for Suddenly Last Summer, losing to French actress Simone Signoret for Room at the Top. Her nomination for Best Actress was her fourth in a row. She had really wanted to win the award, and her recent brush with death (she contracted pneumonia and had to have a tracheotomy when she stopped breathing) had turned public sentiment from the disdain for husband snatching to concern, when it was reported prematurely that she had died. She would finally win an Oscar for Gloria Wandrous. She stood at the podium, her scar clearly visible and offered her breathless thanks. “I don’t really know how to express my gratitude for this, and for everything. All I can say is thank you with all of my heart” (Mann 298). It was generally thought it was the prize she should have won for Suddenly Last Summer, had her personal reputation not been so bad at the time. Shirley MacLaine, who lost for The Apartment, griped, “I lost to a tracheotomy.” But, Taylor had not changed her mind about the film. Backstage at the Oscars she announced, “I still think it’s a piece of shit” (Spoto 181).
Butterfield 8 by John O’Hara, How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood by William J. Mann, Elizabeth Taylor: A Passion for Life by Donald Spoto, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Ellis Amburn, Elizabeth Taylor: A Celebration by Sheridan Morley, Elizabeth Taylor: The Lady, The Lover, The Legend 1932-2011 by David Bret, Reach for the Top: The Turbulent Life of Laurence Harvey by Anne Sinai, The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness by M. G. Lord, Sex, Art and American Culture: Essays by Camille Paglia, Bring in the Peacocks…or Memoirs of a Hollywood Producer by Hank Moonjean.