“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 Talluah Bankhead version, survived a mere five performances. (Talluah’s baggage of camp plopped in front of Angel of Death Tab Hunter was, a few viewers remembered, incredulous dramedy to end all dramedies.) The least developed of Williams’s scolding egocentrics, there’s nothing all that interesting about Goforth other than her success as a gold digger, little that’s humane or germane in the way she lives and lurches toward the final curtain. With the material as roughhewn as it is awful, she remains a curiosity piece requiring an actress of the caliber of the late Carrie Nye to Goforth as a repulsive dragster showboating to the max her slurry, affecting enunciation and gruff voice. She previewed these possibilities in, ironically, Liz & Dick’s Divorce His; Divorce Hers. Maybe Blythe Danner could have made it compulsively watchable, 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 wanted Simone Signoret and director Joseph Losey wanted Ingrid Bergman, both settling for Liz. Via dress, hair and argot, she plays Goforth as isolated moneyed goddess with conflicting winks at the gimcrackery. In fat-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 moments requiring but only briefly succeeding at parody: pushing buttons with her fat digits to activate an intercom in her Sardinia asylum to demand an injection to ease pain from her terminal illness; using a microphone wired to loud speakers to broadcast what aren’t very juicy details for her to-be-published-posthumously biography; fracturing Italian to a cook; picking up strategically placed booze so she can pour reinforcements without facing derision from the smirky staff, some of whom she sneeringly berates as “stronzi.” (Not exempt from being one, she gulps repeatedly from a cordial shot glass during a sequence without ever refilling.) Demanding that the Angel of Death (Dick) empty his bags on one of the the terraces, she spots his address book and opens it to see familiar names listed and recites them in half jest and half fear—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’s a steady current of verbalocity, Liz delivers: on the sun-drenched patio, she issues orders for codeine, brandy and various newspapers; she “God damns” both a flimsy mobile and a shallow finger cut from the Krump diamond ring; exiting the patio, she collides with a male servant and brays the 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.” 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 points of mock in the name that it ricochets back—at us. (She’d also have a go at the name “Bernard” in Losey’s fruit cake Secret Ceremony.)
Soon into BOOM Liz wantonly shifts into ridiculous accent or to affectation to pretend an accent, often in the same scene or sequence. The careens are self-directed exhibition as gamut of her specialties, sometimes fickle, sometimes so shrill they hurt our ears. Apparently Losey was also slurping heavily on the sauce to give a damn that, in what sounds like a dub, she elongates the needless question “What?” as if she’s channeling future interviews with Merv Griffin and Larry King. Reportedly she was irked to audible belligerence by Losey’s indifference to instruct what he wanted from her. (Defenders of Losey claim she was belligerent to him; despite problems with script, they’d get along much better in Secret Ceremony.) He surely didn’t offer corrective, allowing her enactments of pain spasms and dead woman wobbling to be so defective that she’s a rotten funny, a midnight home movie. At times she presages what she’s going to look like a few years later—rolls of flab, bloated face, hair clogged with falls and extensions, rouged up as a carny fag hag. You want her to unleash an insurgency against her own pasquinade, but she seems resigned to accepting that she’s going to play on her celebrity because she’s without the benefit of Williams’ lineage—his artistic goals for characters and the use of his sedulous expressive vogue by this time had wanned—and, also too late, perceived that Losey’s pedigree as expatriate director isn’t a compatible fit for the playwright’s penchants. 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 weight of superstardom, making suckers of themselves by believing they could take the millions and the public wouldn’t mind. In My Life in Focus: A Photographer’s Journey with Elizabeth Taylor and the Hollywood Jet Set, Gianni Bozzacchi 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 as well as apart: their marriage became a business requiring heavy cash replenishment because their outflow was obscene not just from the extravagant personal expenses but also from the burdens of being the bread and butter for their families, employees, a number of friends and an ex, as Burton paid his first wife Sybil $500,000 per year for ten years, re divorce agreement.
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 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. Okay, John, having done this, it’s time to do Secret Ceremony and The Driver’s Seat.
*About the assertion that she was the first actress to say “fuck” on screen in BOOM, Liz responded, “Oh, I hope so.” This confirms the use of the word on set. I’ve yet to hear it in prints watched, likely dubbed over or cut. In Google searches, many repeat the claim without bothering to pinpoint the scene the word is in, which suggests they didn’t hear it, either.
Text COPYRIGHT © 2010 RALPH BENNER (Revised 6/2019) All Rights Reserved.