Thursday, April 18, 2013

Bad Movie Theatre: Liz and Dick in "The Sandpiper"

Richard Burton dominated the silver screen in the mid-1960s, delivering several of his finest performances in films such as: The Night of the Iguana (1964); Becket (1964); The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965); Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966); and The Taming of the Shrew (1967).

Then there’s The Sandpiper.

After the disappointing Cleopatra and the banal The V.I.P.s, Burton and then-wife Elizabeth Taylor were due for a successful pairing. Unfortunately, they chose a mushy, poorly-written soap set in Big Sur. Perhaps, they just wanted an expense-paid vacation on the beach.

Liz plays Laura Reynolds, a free-spirited artist who lives in an ocean-front cabin with Danny, her nine-year-old son. The home-schooled Danny has “issues” that prompt Judge Thompson (Torin Thatcher) to place the boy in a boarding school run by Episcopalian priest Dr. Edward Hewitt (Burton).  Laura and Edward clash immediately, with her shouting that Danny is “a healthy normal boy who hasn’t been brainwashed yet.” Keep in mind that this is the same lad who went before Judge Thompson three times for offenses such as killing a yearling.

From their first meeting, it’s apparent that the married Edward is very interested in the young, single mother. Even Laura’s beatnik friend (Charles Bronson) notices Edward’s frequent gazes when he asks her: “Are you gonna seduce him?” Still miffed at having her son taken away, she retorts: “It would serve him right if I did.”

Along the way, though, she falls in love with Edward and the couple spends a blissful week cavorting on the beach. Are we supposed to feel happy for these characters and then sad when—inevitably—they are torn apart? Surely not, because Edward is cheating on his dutiful wife (Eva Marie Saint) and devoted mother Laura seems to have forgotten about her son. Indeed, the weakest aspect of The Sandpiper is that it’s built around two characters that never gain audience sympathy.

The poster makes the film look steamier that it is.
The film’s failure is surprising given its pedigree. Vincente Minnelli directed from a script written by former blacklisted writers Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus) and Michael Wilson (Lawrence of Arabia). One can blame them for the dreadful pacing and the stilted dialogue (poor Robert Webber has to end almost every sentence with “baby” to show he’s a “player”). 

Still, everyone involved in The Sandpiper needs to share the blame for the general air of disinterest and gaps in logic. For example, Laura and Edward are having a clandestine affair, but gaze lovingly at each other in a local, very public restaurant. Laura’s “shack” on the beach turns out to be a charming private cabin with an amazing view—perfect for a starving artist. Finally, I assume that the little bird (a sandpiper) with a broken wing was supposed to be symbolic—though I’m not sure what of.

As for the cast, Burton walks through his role and Liz alternates between being mellow (in a groovy way) and going into histrionic mode. Eva Marie Saint isn’t in enough of the movie to make a difference. Charles Bronson probably comes off best as Liz’s cynical fellow artist (supposedly, Liz wanted Sammy Davis, Jr. cast in that role).

The Flight of the Sandpiper, as it was originally called, was intended as a vehicle for Kim Novak. She allegedly had a falling out with producer Martin Ransohoff, but it also could be that she felt the ill-fated affair plotline was too similar to her earlier (and far better) film Strangers When We Meet (1960).

Of course, before I dismiss The Sandpiper altogether, I need to point out that it received a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Original Song with “The Shadow of Your Smile.” It beat out “What’s New, Pussycat” and “I Will Wait for You” (from The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). It just goes to show that watching a bad movie can be like panning for gold. There may be a lot of wet sand, but sometimes there’s a nice little nugget hiding in there.

8 comments:

  1. I love this film. This movie is filmed at the height of the Burton/Taylor popularity. We get to see a side of Liz Taylor, that is so different from past silver screen performances… here she plays a "new woman of the 60's," who believes in free love, which turns out to be the film's theme... Richard Burton, character once again pays the price for his actions..

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  2. I'm with you on this one, Rick, all the way. Richard Burton in the '60s was magnificent. His potboilers with his wife, though, leave me cold. This is my least favorite of their films together and you detail all the reasons why. Elizabeth Taylor was more star than actress, but Richard Burton had such talent - it's always made me sad that he seemed to to lose sight of that after a few years as a high-profile celebrity.

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  3. I saw this movie and was also underwhelmed by it. I think you pegged it correctly that the two main characters build no sympathy with the audience and who's fault is that? The screenwriters? The director? The actors? Or a combo of all of the above?

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  4. The amusing thing about it is that the interiors were filmed in Paris - as often with the Burtons for their tax affairs (in 1969 both her Only Game In Town, supposedly set in Las Vegas, and his Staircase with Rex Harrison, set in Brixton, London - were both filmed in Paris), as indeed was Rex's Reluctant Debutante in 1958, also set in London, but he could only spend a limited time in the UK for tax reasons.

    Minnelli makes it look good even if the story is silly - with his usual colour schemes, Liz is all in reds and vivid colours, while Eva Marie Saint is marooned in beige colours, wearing beige against beige backgrounds. Very telling about their characters!

    The Sandpiper is now best remembered for that song, The Shadow Of Your Smile, which everyone, starting with the young Streisand, must have recorded.

    The little boy of course Morgan Mason, is the son of James Mason, he grew up to marry pop singer Belinda Carlisle.

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  5. Rick, I am also not fond of this film. The part that I really disliked was how adamant Elizabeth's character is about her son and then, when she starts to focus on Richard, the son drops out of view. I do like "The Shadow of Your Smile" very much. I really enjoyed your post and found Michael's comments very interesting, too.

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  6. Rick - gotta agree with you 100% (especially about what Hollywood considers a "shack"). Liz is impossibly beautiful, but she and Burton seem to have zero chemistry here (a preview of things to come).

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  7. I've never made it through an entire viewing of this film. I find it a bit painful, frankly.

    Don't scream - I sometimes think Dalton Trumbo was hit-and-miss as a screenwriter.

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  8. Aw heck...enough time has passed...to hell with all that is wrong with this film...just seeing Liz in all her beauty and that beautiful coastline with that terrific song is enough for me...who cares that the audience can't sympathize with these characters? Who says we have to? Aren't people flawed by nature? Let them be young and beautiful and flawed. Let me love them anyway...

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