Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1968's "Boom!"

Boom! March 27, 2020  

DIRECTED BY

Joseph Losey

 

STARRING

Elizabeth Taylor

Richard Burton

Noël Coward

 

RATED

PG

 

RELEASED IN

1968

 

RUNNING TIME

1 Hr., 53 Mins.

E

lizabeth Taylor almost died while filming Boom! (1968), her first collaboration with the director Joseph Losey. Principal photography was done on the minuscule island of Sardinia. Because of the scope of production, Taylor had a trailer rather than a standardized dressing room. It sat near a cliff, securely fastened — or so it was thought. Partway through the shoot, Taylor exited the vehicle to begin work for

the day, and like a Looney Tunes cartoon, the trailer got loose and plummeted. An omen?

 

Boom! (1968) is an objectively bad movie — agreed to be one of the worst ever made. But it’s an anomaly in the bad-movie canon in that many of its detractors recognize that it’s a special kind of bad. “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,” said Roger Ebert upon release. Said the critic Sean Mulvihill decades later, “It's a bad movie, yes, but rarely has bad been so damned captivating.”

 

There are no limits to the ways a movie can be bad. But their transgressions, for the most part, typically add up to make them categorizable in a couple of ways. Either the feature in question can be so bad it’s good or so bad that to watch it is kind of analogous to experiencing pain. Yet Boom! isn’t subversively good; it doesn’t drain us, either. So which is it? It's a splatter painting of a feature. We don’t entirely fault the stars of the film, Taylor and then-husband Richard Burton, for signing on. Why wouldn’t they, with an acclaimed director like Losey behind it and a playwright like Tennessee Williams (who had provided the source material for several of their best-regarded movies) giving his words to it?

 

Taylor and Burton are playing loud characters made of chintz here. But like the movie they’re too fascinating to be deemed outright bad. Still, you can see, watching the feature, why it helped expedite the notorious downturn of their once-hot acting careers. It would take another Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) to revive them. It never arrived.

 

Boom! takes place on a secluded Mediterranean island; there, a wealthy woman named Flora “Sissy” Goforth (Taylor) lives in a gargantuan and gaudy mansion that seems to take up most of the geography. We’re unsure how exactly she’s accrued all this wealth; if it is explained, I must have missed it in Williams’ bloatedly allegorical dialogue. What we do know is that Sissy is in ill health (i.e., prone to minutes-long coughing fits that climax in blood-stained tissues) and that she’s in the process of writing her memoir (i.e., yawping her recollections 

into an elaborate intercom system, which are then anxiously transcribed by her long-suffering, Joanna Shimkus-portrayed assistant, Blackie). 

 

Sissy has a propensity to yowl every word. She’s partial to garish sartorial displays. (The best one in the film is a headdress made of shells and other sea filigree that resembles a shrunken-down version of what I imagine to be the lost city of Atlantis.) Mostly silent servants scurry around Sissy like Cinderella’s mice friends. Is this abode its own sort of Hell, with its domineering owner its Satan? If this mansion is Hell, it’s a cool-looking Hell, to be sure — rife with strange decorative shapes, glittering surfaces, curtains blowing in the wind. Sounds cool, too: John Barry’s ominous music score rumbles in the background, stoking tension.

 

Soon, a mysterious man named Chris Flanders (Burton), whose nickname is, wink, wink, Angelo Del Morte, is clambering up the mansion’s down-below cliffs and announcing himself a guest, hardly deterred when Sissy’s guard dogs try to eat him up. Purportedly he’s an artist of some kind — someone familiar with the upper echelons of society. (Rumor has it that when a rich woman dies, he’s usually on the scene.) When it has become clear to Sissy that she has a visitor around before she's met him face to face, she muses to her underlings that it’s been a while since she’s taken a lover. Why not take him? Chris and Sissy soon develop an antagonistic-cum-romantic relationship. But of course that isn’t exactly what the movie is about when you have one character dirtying tissues with red and another who thinks “Angelo Del Morte” is a more concise nickname than even Chrissy. 

 

Williams is unsubtle and unclever about the fact that this is all an allegory for death or something like that; the dialogue is pathologically illogical. At first I thought it was strange that many of the conversations had by Chris and Sissy are more than anything non-sequitur-offs. But then I realized that if a line is incomprehensible, that’s because it means *something else* and I’m perhaps too shallow to figure it out. Yet even if I didn’t care to dig deeper, it's still fun to swim around in this shimmering muck. 

 

Boom! is fucked-up artsy-fartsy ballyhoo. It could be argued that the film could be viewed as a satire of that sort of thing (the thing probably being pretentious, "meaning"-laden European arthouse movies), which makes it better. But even on that front, Boom! flails. It’s best enjoyed as glamorous, wannabe-prestigious chaos cinematized. And with all the displays of expensive clothing and set-dressing, even a near-demonic burlesquing of the messy jet-set lifestyle Taylor and Burton famously lived. It’s like we’re hallucinating. B