“SHIT ON YOUR MOTHER!”
Adapting his play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore for the screen as BOOM, Tennessee Williams didn’t do a whole hellava lot to strengthen what’s a weak sister in his menagerie of bitches. He was in trouble right from the start—its first American production in January 1963 on Broadway starring Hermione Baddeley as Flora “Sissy” Goforth flopped. Then, a year later, another production, the infamous Tony Richardson version starring Talluah Bankhead and Tab Hunter, survived a mere five performances. (Talluah’s druggy baggage of camp plopped in front of Angel of Death Tab was, some viewers remembered, an incredulous dramedy to end all dramedies.) The least developed of Williams’s scolding egocentrics, there’s nothing deservingly elevated about Goforth other than where she lives and her money, little that’s humane or germane in the way she lurches toward the final curtain. With the material as awful as it is awfully roughhewn, perhaps the only way to achieve a minimal success with what’s left is with an actress of the caliber of the late Carrie Nye to do Goforth as a dying vamp drowning in acid and showboating her voice of gruff. She previewed these possibilities in, ironically, Liz & Dick’s Divorce His; Divorce Hers. Maybe Blythe Danner could have saved it as curiosity, just as she did for the playwright’s Eccentricities of a Nightingale, a revision of the better known Summer and Smoke.
For the movie, Williams claimed to have wanted Simone Signoret and director Joseph Losey wanted Ingrid Bergman, both settling for Liz. Via dress, hair and argot, she plays Goforth as moneyed goddess with conflicting winks at the gimcrackery. In flab-hiding whites and blacks, in ritzy lace and jewels, in kabuki and a multi-pointy tiara as genesis for the mother ship in Close Encounters, she’s got scenes requiring but not succeeding at calibrated camp: pushing buttons activating loud speakers throughout her Sardinia asylum to demand an injection to ease the pain from her terminal illness; using a microphone attached to the intercom to broadcast pertinent details of her to-be-published-posthumously biography and express a rare apology; picking up strategically placed booze so she can pour reinforcements without facing derision from the smirky servants. (She gulps repeatedly from a cordial shot glass during a sequence without ever refilling.) When purposely amusing, she’s a pretty good scream: demanding that the Angel of Death (Dick) empty his bags on the terrace, she spots his address book and opens it to see familiar names listed and recites them in half jest—while at the same time realizing she’s his next entry—“Lady Emerald Fouler. She’s been in Hell for ten years...Christabel Smithers...that name rings a long-ago church bell for a dead bitch too.” When Goforth isn’t teeter-tottering from William’s own fears of encroaching demise, when she’s a steady current of bitchery, Liz delivers equal to the verbalocity: on the sun-drenched patio, issuing instructions for the codeine, brandy and various newspapers she needs, and “g.d.’s” both a mobile and a shallow cut from the Krump diamond ring, she then mini-climaxes after colliding with one of her servants by braying out this supremely trashy pleasure: “Shit on your mother!” Having shattered one more word taboo*, she heads into one of Richard Macdonald’s classy sitting areas befitting her contemporary stature and casually announces to personal assistant Blackie (Joanna Shimkus), “You know what I need to get me over this depression this summer, what would do me more good than all the shots and pills in the pharmaceutical kingdom? I need myself a lover.” (A nearly verbatim lament from Williams himself.) Blackie dumbfounds by responding she doesn’t know what Goforth means by a lover—she’s only had one and that’s her husband Charles—and clever Liz, ignoring the upchucky virtuousness, redeems the following: “Beats me how you can have a husband named Charles and not call him Charley.” So matter-of-factly hitting the stress point of mock in the name that it boomerangs back at us. Damn if she doesn’t do great throwaway! (She’d also have a go at the name “Bernard” in Losey’s fruit cake Secret Ceremony.)
Soon in and then unsparingly Liz capriciously shifts into one ridiculous accent to another or to an affected emphasis on words to pretend an accent, often in the same scene or sequence. Feels and sounds like self-directed exhibition of the fickle and lazy gamut of her specialties going super shrill. Apparently Losey was also slurping the sauce to give a damn and reportedly she was irked to audible belligerence by his indifference to instruct what he wanted from her. (Defenders of Losey claim she was arbitrarily belligerent to him; they’d get along much better in Secret Ceremony.) Her enactments of the spasms of pain and dead woman wobbling are so defective that she’s a rotten funny, a midnight home movie. At times she presages what she’s going to look and sound likea few years later—rolls of flab, bloated face, hair clogged with falls and extensions, rouged up as a carny fag hag. She seems resigned to accept that she’s without lineage; there’s no pedigree—Williams empty of blueprint and expressive vogue, Losey too long an expatriate of Tennessee. And one last issue: No one denies the poisonous brew Liz and Dick became or the contempt they engendered, what with the boozed up power and control battles, slumming through the heavy weight of superstardom, making suckers of themselves in believing they could take the millions and the public wouldn’t mind. (In Gianni Bozzacchi’s My Life in Focus: A Photographer’s Journey with Elizabeth Taylor and the Hollywood Jet Set, he doesn’t give a lot of new details about the Burtons’ infamous drinking bouts but he provides a fair explanation about why they did so many bummers together: their marriage became a business requiring a lot of cash intake because their cash outflow was obscene not only with extravagant personal expenses but also as the bread and butter for their families, friends, employees and an ex, as Burton paid his first wife Sybil $500,000 per year for ten years, re divorce agreement.) Still boggles the more observant movie lovers that the real working girl in Liz didn’t at some point revolt over the ruins that became her career and in BOOM the insurgency needed to be fully unleashed.
Aficionados believe BOOM will eventually find an appreciative audience, less for the Douglas Slocombe visuals or Maconald’s digs or the “l’angelo della morte” art pieces or John Barry’s calliope and cimbalom-laden theme and much more for Liz’s “droit du domaine.” For quite some time John Waters hosted the botch at retro schlockfests, at which trashistas cheerfully gobbled up her Alexandre de Paris cracker factory moments. Finally, in the Shout! Factory blu-ray released in May, 2019, he’s permanent court jester as commentator. But John, having done this, it’s time to do Secret Ceremony and The Driver’s Seat.
*About the assertion that Liz was the first actress to say “fuck” on screen in BOOM, she responded, “Oh, I hope so.” This confirms the use of the word on set. I’ve yet to hear it in prints watched, as the breakthru is likely dubbed over or cut. In Google searches, many repeat the claim without bothering to pinpoint the scene it is in, which suggests they didn’t hear it, either.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2010 RALPH BENNER (Revised 6/2019) All Rights Reserved.