“BOOM!”— Taylor and Burton and Tennessee Williams


Taylor and Burton and Tennessee Williams

Amos Lassen

“Boom!” is often considered to be a comedy horror story of posh, intelligent people letting their hair down in public. It is based on Tennessee Williams’s “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” about the ‘Angel of Death’ poet and the dying millionaires and stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. It is not one of their best movies, though it is still interesting, intriguing and fascinating. At least I think so.

Taylor plays the supposedly dying Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth and Burton plays the penniless poet Chris Flanders, a mysterious man who may or may not be the Angel of Death. Both stars seem to be enjoying themselves but are upstaged by the grand Italian island setting and the wickedly waspish Noël Coward’s ingratiatingly camp turn as the Witch of Capri.

Director Joseph Losey’s 1968 movie is magnificently self-indulgent, an overblown but captivating Sixties kitsch folly, made at the peak of the Burton-Taylor fame. It was directed with a winning lack of restraint, apparently relishing overheating Williams’s already overheated play and the playwright’s own screenplay, but with dialogue mostly lacking in his usual wit. The movie looks smart thanks to the ravishing island location and Douglas Slocombe’s lovely, distinguished Technicolor widescreen cinematography. The score by John Barry, another asset.

Williams’s play “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore” must set some kind of record for literary resurrections. It’s a short story, “Man Bring This Up the Road,” and it exists in no less than three dramatic versions that have received widely publicized professional productions, two on Broadway in 1963 and 1964 (both unsuccessful) and one in San Francisco. It then became “Boom!”, a $5-million color film version. In spite of Williams’s rewriting “Boom!” is still an unconsummated work caught like so many of the playwright’s heroes, midway between a real world and a symbolic one.  With all of its overtones of Indian mysticism, Christian theology and Greek mythology, the movie is essentially a story of the very-very rich that shows that money can’t buy happiness. Mrs. Flora Goforth, who dominates “Boom!” from beginning to end, sits on her Mediterranean island dictating her memoires into a battery of tape recorders. She is, at turns, mean, bawdy, stingy and frightened. She’s had five or six husbands, is a multimillionaire and is now refusing to face the fact that she’s dying. Because she is so healthy looking, it seems only that she must be dying of some dread plot device.

The movie opens with the arrival of a ne’er-do-well poet, Chris Flanders, an aging, turned-around Orpheus, who ascends to her mountain domain, bringing with him a reputation for being the last house guest of wealthy old ladies before death. Half-mocking, half-sympathetic, Chris(t) presides over the last 36 hours of Mrs. Goforth’s life. In effect, he arranges her safe, finally peaceful, passage out of her hell on earth. Miss Taylor, who is not a subtle actress, has no trouble with the robust, shrewish aspects of the wealthy woman from One Street, Ga., but it’s impossible to see the vulnerability in the woman Williams described as “a universal human condition.” She spends a lot of time changing her clothes and fixing her hair. As the Angel of Death, Mr. Burton is earnest and mellifluous. The one unequivocal success is a brief appearance by Noel Coward as the Witch of Capri, Mrs. Goforth’s wickedly gossipy friend.

The mostly negatively reviewed film did little to help the plummeting careers of Burton and Taylor. The film is caught between a real world (of vanity and suffering) and a symbolic one (fuzzy overtones of Indian mysticism, Christian theology and Greek mythology). The only thing that comes through as clear and straight is the beautiful location shots on the coast of Sardinia.

Taylor never makes us feel her vulnerability or want to really care about her. While Richard Burton has a mellifluous poetical voice but is done in because the confrontational chatty scenes have a gloomy air of self-importance and lack dramatic inspiration. The highly stylized film is ineffective in conveying that this a study of universal suffering and instead remains fascinating as its questionable worth is to watch the famous stars emote in such a flowery but pretentious manner.

There are different kinds of bad movies. Some are simply wretchedly bad, like well, you know. Others are bad but fascinating and “Boom!” is one of these. It isn’t successful, it doesn’t work, but so much money and brute energy were lavished on the production that it’s fun to sit there and watch.

 Taylor and Burton exchange 90 minutes of Tennessee’s peculiarly formal dialog, and you begin to realize that this was done before in Williams’s “Night of the Iguana.” In that the man was a failure, but he had a poetic spark that the dominate and successful woman hungered for. Williams has written this story more than twice, no doubt for reasons of his own.

Well, about 10 minutes into the movie you get its most exciting moment. Goforth-Taylor stands in the window of her modernistic castle, observes that Burton has come aboard and decides that the time has come once again to take unto herself a lover. Taylor seems to embody a kind of deadly beauty, and we anticipate a moral struggle to the death between her and Burton. However, this tension dissipates.

The sets are great and Flora Goforth lives in a house that seems to be carved of Ivory soap. Everything is white, or gray, or in shadow. Her clothing is white and black. The crags of the mountain are always behind, the sea is always below. In this strange world, the characters rattle instead of breathe. Still Taylor is there and Burton, and you can watch them struggle with this impossible movie or simply watch them.

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