BUtterfield 8 August 15, 2016
Gloria Wandrous wants to be loved. To be more than a teasing sex bomb with a soft spot for clinging white lingerie. But being a high-class prostitute nearing thirty, she doesn’t know how to be anything besides the real-world exemplification of a wet dream. All her life she’s been the town tramp, the girl young men go to before settling down with the girl next door, the girl old men go to when their wives no longer carry a youthful, sexual spark. “Face it,” she moans to her mother after admitting that she’s looking for a change in her life. “I was the slut of all time.”
Being the slut of all time hasn’t much fazed Gloria through the years — she’ll never really stop getting off on the constant attention she receives from the opposite sex — but when she falls in love with a married millionaire, she finds herself ready to give up her life of shallow pleasure-seeking in favor of the domesticity that’s always hung around in the back of her pretty little head. She’s too infatuated to realize that her lover most likely will never leave his wife, though; and that, much as we wish she would accept it, will destroy her.
In 1960, Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t all that different from Gloria, at least in the eyes of the prying public. In just two years, she had gone from grieving widow to seductive home wrecker, famously stealing matinee idol Eddie Fisher from the beloved Debbie Reynolds (with whom he had two children) following the plane crash death of her third husband, Mike Todd. BUtterfield 8, produced chiefly as a contract obligation, was detested by Taylor; it cashed in on the public’s hissy reception to her newfound, mangled public persona.
But she won the Oscar for her performance as Gloria Wandrous anyway, famously beating out Shirley MacLaine for her work in The Apartment, Billy Wilder’s tragicomic ode to alienation in the Big Apple. Many, including Taylor herself, consider the win to have been more a result of sympathy voting than actual merit — shortly before the ceremony did she suffer a near lethal pneumonia scare — but BUtterfield 8, regardless of its quality, hosts one of her greatest performances. As Gloria, Taylor is conniving but vulnerable, sexually confident but romantically anxious; underneath her maintained façade of availability and self-possession is a very real sense of eroding conviction.
Taylor is the most authentic thing about BUtterfield 8, which is otherwise a standard soaper only elevated by its leading lady and its visually pleasing A-treatment. It deviates greatly from John O’Hara’s novel of the same name, which was set during the height of the Great Depression and sneakily used the overwhelming anxiety of 1930s America as a way to parallel Gloria’s own romantic paranoia. It cheapens our heroine’s quandary of self-identity with a conclusion characterized by unconvincing tragedy.
But like a B-level Bette Davis vehicle, BUtterfield 8 nonetheless entertains, its shoddiness hardly mattering because it’s too over-the-top to leave us bored, and because Taylor, always beguiling, is at the top of her game, terrifically sexy and incomparably riveting. Support lent to her by Laurence Harvey, as her married suitor, and Fisher, as her supportive best friend, is concrete, and Mann’s direction maintains a nice foundation between camp and dowdy glamour.
One can’t blame Taylor for despising BUtterfield 8 — how low it was for MGM to use her personal life as a way to further its own status — but it’s soap opera of the gratifying kind, with all the monologues and all the romantic interludes necessary to moisten our most hushed down guilty pleasures. It’s a tawdry, mink covered, diamond wearing time