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In the late 1950's, Elizabeth Taylor was the world's biggest movie star. Not only were her films box-office hits, but she had received three consecutive Academy Award nominations, for Raintree County (1957), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). Taylor's personal life was as dramatic as her films. After a flamboyant marriage, she had lost her third husband Mike Todd in a plane crash. Then she'd taken up with Todd's best friend, crooner Eddie Fisher, who dumped his wife Debbie Reynolds, and mother of his two small children, for Taylor. The actress had gone from sympathetic figure of tragedy to home-wrecking scarlet woman.
After many years at MGM, Taylor was nearing the end of her contract (she had three years to go). She was eager to get free, so she could accept 20th-Century Fox's unprecedented offer of a million dollars to star in Cleopatra (1963). Hoping to capitalize on Taylor's sexual notoriety, MGM dusted off a property they'd owned for years, and made Taylor an offer she couldn't refuse: make BUtterfield 8 (1960), and they'd end her contract with it.
John O'Hara's 1935 novel BUtterfield 8 was based on the life and death of a real-life call girl named Starr Faithfull. Because of the restrictions of the Production Code, the novel had never been filmed, and even in 1959 some changes had to be made before it could be filmed. The film makes the call girl a "model," although it makes it clear she's a nymphomaniac and an alcoholic. The story focuses on her doomed affair with a married man, and grants them both a sort of redemption through the story's tragic outcome.
Taylor's conditions for agreeing to make BUtterfield 8 included shooting the film in New York, having Helen Rose design her costumes and Sydney Guilaroff do her hair, and giving husband Eddie Fisher a supporting role as her platonic pal. Fisher's performance was derided by the critics, and earned him an "award" from the Harvard Lampoon as the year's worst supporting actor. However, there were strong performances by Laurence Harvey as the married lover, and Mildred Dunnock as Taylor's mother.
Taylor may have given in to MGM's demands, and she worked hard to give the character some depth, but she was vocal in her distaste for BUtterfield 8's subject matter. "I hate the girl I play, " she told the press. She was even more outspoken to studio bosses. "This is the most pornographic script I have ever read," she raged. Author John O'Hara was sanguine about Taylor's remarks. "The cracks Miss Taylor has taken at my novel gave me some bruises which were healed by the MGM accounting department with their tender, loving royalty checks," O'Hara said. Taylor asked writer friends to make script changes, which she claimed as her own. But the film's producers rejected them without even looking at them.
The public, titillated by Taylor's own notoriety and BUtterfield 8's provocative subject matter, made the film a hit. BUtterfield 8 cost $2.5 million, and grossed $9 million domestically. Taylor's reaction to the box-office success was succinct: "I still say it stinks." And most critics dismissed the film as "glossy balderdash" (Alexander Walker), and "hackneyed" (the New York Times). But Taylor's performance also earned a few positive reviews and some contemporary critics consider her complex portrayal of the doomed woman one of her best.
After finishing production on BUtterfield 8, Taylor, freed of her MGM obligations, flew to London to begin work on Cleopatra. The production was trouble-plagued from the start, culminating with Taylor's near-fatal illness just a few weeks before the Oscars. With the scarlet woman now the subject of worldwide sympathy, the other best-actress nominees knew their chances were slim. From her home in Switzerland, Deborah Kerr let it be known that she thought Taylor should win. From her home in Greece, Melina Mercouri considered asking the other nominees to join her in withdrawing from the race in favor of Taylor. On location in Japan, Shirley MacLaine cancelled plans to return to Hollywood for the ceremony. The only other nominee besides Taylor who bothered to show up for the ceremony was Greer Garson, who was a presenter. A frail Taylor, her tracheotomy scar clearly visible above her Dior gown, accepted her Oscar with a whispered thank-you. Over the subsequent decades, Taylor would continue to grab headlines and awards, including a second Oscar for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). But in spite of later careers as a political wife, perfume tycoon, and AIDS activist, Elizabeth Taylor, long retired from the screen, remains the ultimate movie star.
Director: Daniel Mann
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay: Charles Schnee, John Michael Hayes, based on the novel by John O'Hara
Editor: Ralph E. Winters
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Costume Design: Helen Rose
Art Direction: George W. Davis, Urie McCleary, set decoration Gene Callahan, J.C. Delaney
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Principal Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Gloria Wandrous), Laurence Harvey (Weston Liggett), Eddie Fisher (Steve Carpenter), Dina Merrill (Emily Liggett), Mildred Dunnock (Mrs. Wandrous), Betty Field (Mrs. Fanny Thurber), Jeffrey Lynn (Bingham Smith), Kay Medford (Happy), Susan Oliver (Norma).
C-109m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Margarita Landazuri