I just watched BUtterfield 8 in honor of Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011). Now that I’ve finally seen this film, I have just one Elizabeth Taylor film left to see: A Place In the Sun. In BUtterfield 8, Taylor was gorgeous in every dress, at every angle. And her eyes really were that purple-blue, in color. I’ve always wondered how it was possible for eyes to be that blue. Maybe it’s some Hollywood trick, but if so, I prefer not to know.
Like Suddenly, Last Summer, and to some extent Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in BUtterfield 8 Elizabeth Taylor plays a fallen, over-sexed women that men are always falling over (except of course gay Paul Newman). I finally learned BUtterfield 8 is the name of a telephone exchange that Taylor’s character Gloria Wandrous asks to take messages and pass on calls from her many beaux. I’d always assumed it was the address of a brothel (which is not entirely incorrect) or a group of eight call girls, kind of like The Magnificent Seven.
At any rate, Butterfield 8 was filmed in 1960 and exudes Mad Men glamour. Rather, Mad Men glamour is based largely on Butterfield 8. The character Norma in the film has Joan’s style but Peggy’s priggishness. Weston, the romantic lead played by Lawrence Harvey, is like a British Don Draper. He’s got a rich wife–a less pretty version of Betty Draper –who shoots skeet in New Haven and whose family got Weston a job that’s not really a job. He drinks scotch and knows how to wear an overcoat. He’s a womanizer acting out of an existential crisis that (unlike Don Draper in the later seasons) he doesn’t try too hard to understand.
In many ways, Mad Men is an attempt to give Butterfield 8 the grittier, less moralistic ending it deserves. The film’s downfall is that Elizabeth Taylor is breaking boundaries but the plot woven around her can’t bend enough to give the film the ending that the dynamic character of Gloria Wandrous truly merits. The allure of a 1960s adult drama like this or Suddenly, Last Summer, which was shot in 1959, is that it insinuates instead of announcing. For viewers today, this is both enthralling and frustrating. The whispered hint becomes far more dark and erotic than all the full frontal nudity and open sex talk in today’s films. Although the hints enthrall, they also confuse as audiences today misinterpret hidden codes (Is she really a prostitute? Oh she’s just a slut? Is that all?).
The early 1960s are a fascinating moment of transition. In a bold scene that’s still a bit shocking today, Elizabeth Taylor shakes her mother out of denial by screaming: “Mama, face it, I was the slut of all time!” To say the word “slut” instead of the more polite “tramp” or “woman of ill virtue” was bold and surely lent Butterfield 8 its scandalous status, like Clark Gable’s utterance of “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” in Gone with the Wind. A reference to Playboy magazine also made Butterfield 8 risqué.
Butterfield 8 was an adult movie: lots of sex, lots of problems caused by infidelity, lots of incompatible people looking for love. There’s even a good psychiatrist and a good reason for Gloria’s sluttish behavior: it’s revealed that she was sexually abused by a family friend when she was 13. In films today, it’s almost a cliché that a female character who sleeps around has a history of sexual abuse. But this was unexpected and socially conscious at the time. Providing the character of Gloria with this serious backstory was very modern and forward-looking in 1960.
Yet the film has a less sophisticated 1950s ending. Gloria realizes that self respect makes a woman more beautiful than any makeup, fur coat, or man. She goes off in search of this self-respect by abandoning the only real love she’s ever had. Of course her man feels threatened by this and ruins everything, then tries to apologize and marry her, but it’s too late. He’s already made her feel like a whore (because her checkered past made him feel like a less of a man) and so she does the only thing a “fallen woman” can do in a Hollywood film shot in 1960: she drives her car off a cliff and dies.
The character of Gloria was living life on a highwire, so the sudden tragedy is not totally out of character. Taylor plays her beautifully. I believe Taylor’s performance. The kind of self-respect that Gloria is seeking is sincere. In the 1980s, this character would have said “fuck off” to the rich asshole whose jealousy blinded him to her worth and would’ve gone off into the sunset… or like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, it would turn out the asshole was also a knight in shining armor. In a film of the 1990s or 2000s, this character would be a hardened survivor and somehow get revenge on her childhood sexual abuser. She would possibly take her mother to task for being such a negligent parent instead of begging her forgiveness in a surprisingly touching scene between Gloria and her mother. I believe Taylor because her acting is genuine and involves her entire body, her voice, her spirit.
But I do not believe the last ten or fifteen minutes of the film where Weston chases after Gloria on the highway and unknowingly forces her off a cliff. The epilogue in which he tells his Park Avenue virtuous wife that “Gloria was all sex and devil-may-care on the outside but inside she longed to be respectable” is incompatible with a 2011 mentality. As the viewer, watching today, we love Elizabeth and root for her. We love the insinuated sex, the quaintness of the moral dilemma. It’s not like she’s a REAL whore. She refuses money and “she chooses the man.” The idea that a woman could be sexually liberated and choose her lover is not novel to us. It’s accepted now that women have sexual agency and can take initiative. Gloria’s self-loathing and low self-esteem are also familiar themes in plays and films now. But the whore-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype gets a little tiring when the whores always end up dying at the last minute.
It was a messy, explosive ending, but now it seems like too tidy a resolution. The fallen woman dies a saint, redeemed at the last minute by her good intentions of self-actualization, without actually being required to self-actualize. What’s more, the real villain is never brought to justice: the real villain is the suffocating morality of 1950s Protestant propriety. This film is imperfect because it starts out subverting conventional middle class morality but ends up reaffirming it.
It’s a small shame that Elizabeth Taylor didn’t have the chance to be in a perfect movie. She was such a perfect actress.