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.|
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.