There are many reasons why an actress wins an Academy Award: a knock-out performance (like Catherine Zeta-Jones in "Chicago"), appearing in a role completely opposite their public image (like Donna Reed as a hooker in "From Here to Eternity") or a stunning transformation (like Hillary Swank in "Boys Don't Cry" or Sissy Spacek in "Coal Miner's Daughter") into another person.
In 1960, Elizabeth Taylor won a Best Actress Oscar for recovering from a near fatal bout of pneumonia and an emergency tracheotomy--it couldn't have been for her acting in "Butterfield 8" (1960), today's featured flick.
Based on the novel by John O'Hara, Liz plays Gloria Wandrous, "the glamour girl who wakes up ashamed!" Why? Is it because she tells people she's "a model" when she's really a high-end escort? Is it because her twitchy ma Annie (Mildred Dunnock) can't bring herself to admit her daughter is a call girl--and it might be partly her fault? Or perhaps Gloria is ashamed because the script by John Michael Hays and Charles Schnee makes her say stuff like "I've had more fun in the back seat of a '39 Ford than I ever could in the vault of the Chase Manhattan Bank!" and "Maybe it's too late for marriage, but it's not too late for love!"?
How did this turkey trot onto Liz's filmography? After 17 years, Liz Taylor's long-term contract with MGM was about to expire. Naturally, the studio wanted Taylor's last MGM movie to be a box office success. To the producer's way of thinking, Gloria's racy exploits--and the off-screen notoriety of Taylor's own behavior-- would propel "Butterfield 8" to box office gold.
Liz, however, balked at her assignment. She called the script "pornographic" and said Gloria was "a sick nymphomaniac". Threatened to be kept off the screen for two years, Liz gave in. Just as MGM hoped, audiences thrilled to the sight of Taylor screeching, "Face it, mama. I was the slut of all time!"--especially in light of the public thrashing she was getting for "stealing" crooner Eddie Fisher from wife Debbie Reynolds so soon after the death of hubby #3 Mike Todd. "Butterfield 8" became one of the year's top money makers and would earn Liz her third Oscar nomination. However, none of that cut any ice with Taylor, who repeatedly insisted, "I still say (the movie) stinks."
And she's right: "Butterfield 8" does stink--but in a good way! It's a Velveeta banquet with all the trimmings: censorious neighbors, long-suffering wives, snooty society doyennes, sex mad businessmen, broken dreams, cheap moralizing, throbbing music, bed hopping, boozing and Taylor flouncing around in a custom-made Edith Head wardrobe. "Butterfield 8" is the sort of Lifetime movie the Lifetime Channel would make if they had money.
"Butterfield 8", in case you're wondering, is the phone number of Gloria's answering service. That's where she gets her daily "modeling" assignments and messages from "friends". Among Gloria's many "friends" is Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey). The film suggests he's a bitter sad sack because A) he's married to rich heiress Emily Jesscott (Dina Merrill, who, in real life, was a rich heiress) and B) he has a do-nothing "son-in-law job". To cope with these humiliations, Weston drinks like a fish, acts like a jerk, insults his wife and visits hookers like Gloria. Still, wife Emily refuses to believe hubby is as bad as he is. When her rich ma tells her, "Somewhere, at this very minute, he's probably lifting a glass in a bar or some woman's skirt! Or both! And you know it!" Emily can only gasp, "Oh, mother! Don't be vulgar!"
While Emily refuses to follow her mother's advice and divorce Liggett, hubby and Gloria are having a wild night together. How wild? When Gloria wakes up, she finds her dress on the floor, ripped in two. Harvey has already left for work, so Gloria decides to makes herself at home: she pours herself a drink, checks out Emily's dressing room, looks for some smokes and brushes her teeth. Then she finds an envelope of cash with a note that reads, "Is this enough?" Miffed, Gloria writes "No Sale" in lipstick on a mirror, steals one of Emily's fur coats--a girl's got to wear something if she's going to hail a cab--and marches off. Later on, Liggett will insist the money was to replace Gloria's torn dress, not a payment for services rendered.
Although Liz vows to never see Liggett again, they meet up at the bar in a fancy restaurant.
"What's a nice girl like you doing in a place this?": Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey) makes Gloria an offer she can refuse.
"We didn't talk much last night, did we?" Liggett pants.
"Hardly. But be grateful for small favors," Gloria replies.
Determined to have Gloria all to himself, Liggett gives her an offer he believes she can't refuse: a fancy apartment, charge cards, even Netflix (if it had been invented back then). Furious that Harvey thinks she can be bought, Taylor hisses, "Mr. Liggett! Put your assets away! You don't have enough! You couldn't match what I've already turned down!" And just so Harvey doesn't get any more nutty ideas, Gloria informs him, "I earn my living modeling clothes like these!" thrusting her cleavage in his face.
Gloria turns to leave and Liggett grabs her wrist. When he refuses to let go, Gloria digs her spike heel into his foot. If Liz thought the pain of this action would make Harvey back off, she was wrong. Very wrong. Instead, from the look on Liggett's face, it's clear it's turning him on.
"I want to grab you and carry you right out of this place right now!" Harvey throbs.
Dina Merrill (as understanding wife Emily) is horrified to learn her name will appear in the credits of "Butterfield 8".
Instead, after Gloria finishes her latest "modeling assignment", she and Liggett decide to run away together for a few days. Their first stop is a no-tell motel run by an ex-starlet named Happy (Kay Medford). Liggett is so anxious to hit the sheets with Gloria, he can't even wait for Happy to finish her latest story about her failed Hollywood career. Next, the duo visit Harvey's childhood home, where they kiss on the street, shocking all the neighbors walking by. Last, they arrive at Liggett's boat, "a rust bucket" that he declares is "all mine".
"A yacht!" Gloria coos. "You didn't tell me!"
"Well, it doesn't have any Van Goghs in it," Liggett admits. "But I do have two original copies of Playboy magazine somewhere!"
The smitten kittens have such a great time, that when they return to NYC, they decide they're in love. That means Liggett will leave his wife and Gloria will not only give up hooking, she will no longer need to see a mental health counselor.
Ah, but the course of true love rarely runs smooth for a hooker and her john--especially in the movies.
As "Butterfield 8" enters its final act, the flick starts to resemble the movie "Go Naked in the World" (reviewed in this very blog). The similarities are endless: Taylor is described as "the most desirable woman in the city" and Gina Lollobrigida is called "the highest priced woman in captivity" (actually San Francisco). Both women have "customers" who fall in love with them. Both movies feature the smitten kittens running off together. Both movies have characters that stand as warnings of how a life of sex-and-sin ends ( for Gina, it's a careworn hooker staggering down the street; for Liz, it's ex-starlet Happy who ends up "running a roadside brothel" instead of becoming a movie star). Both Harvey and Tony Franciosa get drunk, realize their hooker true loves have slept with lots of men (Tony's own dad was one of Gina's clients, too!) and realize they can't possibly marry such a disgraceful creature. When Liz and Gina learn this, they're heartbroken, devastated that even true love can't erase their hooking pasts. Alas, both Back Alley Sallies come to tragic ends. The men survive, of course, becoming sadder, but wiser, for the experience. Harvey even asks understanding wife Emily to reconcile. After all the hank-panky we've witnessed, there has be a moral in there, right?
Anyway, unlike her character on screen, Liz Taylor managed to overcome all the indignities she was subjected to in "Butterfield 8" and earned an Oscar Nomination for Best Actress. Before the big night, however, she came down with pneumonia, was put in an iron lung and almost died. It was a tracheotomy that saved Taylor's life. By then the public had forgotten all about Liz "stealing" Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds and praised her for surviving such an ordeal. The good wishes carried Liz to triumph on Oscar night. Her tracheotomy scar clearly visible, Taylor hobbled up on stage at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium and tearfully accepted her Golden Guy.
When Shirley MacLaine, nominee that same year for "The Apartment", learned Liz had won, she quipped, "I lost to a tracheotomy!"
Even Debbie Reynolds, spurned wife of Eddie Fisher, wasn't immune to the outpouring of support directed at Liz: "Even I voted for her," Deb admitted.
Although Taylor gave a listless, lackluster performance in "Butterfield 8", she didn't stuff this turkey alone. She had plenty of help along the way.
"Stuck in the Middle with You": Girlfriend Norma (Susan Oliver) stands between best pals Gloria and Steve (Eddie Fisher).
Laurence Harvey, for instance. As the married, obsessed Liggett, he needs to get a restraining order on himself. The way he follows Taylor around, you can tell his "problems" go far deeper than being married to a rich woman and having a "son in law job." Harvey was an expert at playing this type of sour, hollow social climber (see "A Room at the Top" and "Darling"), so he was basically on auto-pilot.
Dina Merrill, meanwhile, as the most understanding wife in the world, is so selfless and clueless, you want to slap some sense into her. Clearly the invention of a male scriptwriter, Emily firmly believes her hubby's drinking, sour mood and fondness for hookers is her fault. Instead of being a part of Liggett's world, the filthy rich Jescotts sucked poor Harvey into their world. Seriously? It doesn't look like Liggett was dragged into his life of wealthy non-purpose against his will. As he explains to a friend, "Bing, do you know three of the most over-rated things in the world? Home loving, home cooking and security."
Then there is Eddie Fisher. As an actor, Eddie Fisher makes a good singer. His character Steve is Gloria's childhood friend and suppose to be the voice of reason and common sense. In reality, he's just a whiney pipsqueak trapped between two demanding women: Taylor (who always expects him to bail her out whenever she's in a jam) and girlfriend Norma (Susan Oliver), who expects him to marry her. Naturally, the ladies don't like each other and Fisher has a hard time playing referee between them.
"Is she or isn't she a tramp?" Norma asks Fisher.
"I never liked that word," Steve mumbles as a way of defending his gal pal.
"Unhappily Never After": Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds weren't smiling for long.
On another occasion, Gloria lifts a glass and says, "I hate to drink and run. To the three of us."
Steve replies, "One for all and all for one."
"The question is: which one?" Norma snarks.
Fisher is so inept in his part, you wonder why he was even allowed on the set. Turns out, MGM hired Fisher to appease Taylor and ensure she honored her contractual obligations. In short, Eddie was Liz's babysitter as well as her costar. No wonder the only emotion Fisher could conjure up was irritation--and Eddie had plenty of reasons to be irritated: his career and reputation died after hooking up with Liz. Nobody would buy his records, his contracts were canceled and he became a punch line for years (Don Rickles once said Eddie Fisher marrying Liz Taylor "was like me trying to wash the Empire State Building with soap"). By 1963, Liz had tired of him, leaving Eddie for Richard Burton (a move I heartedly approve).
Although critics called the flick "trash", "dreck" and "sumptuously sordid", like the best of Junk Cinema, "Butterfield 8" nevertheless offers bad movie fans several profound points to ponder:
"Such Good Friends": Liz, Eddie and Debbie before the scandal hit.
* If being a hooker is an awful way for a woman to live (and it is), how come it isn't awful for men to frequent hookers?
* How come the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences never nominated or awarded Liz Taylor for her best work? Her performances in "A Place in the Sun", "Giant" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" were much worthier of an Oscar than "Butterfield 8" or "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
* How is it that Liz Taylor won two Oscars, yet Richard Burton was never awarded one?
* Why is playing a hooker such a good way to win an Oscar? Think about it: Donna Reed, Shirley Jones, Liz Taylor, Jane Fonda, Janet Gayner, Helen Hayes (!), Susan Hayward, Jo Van Fleet, Mira Sorvino, Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger all won Oscars playing ladies of the evening. Meanwhile, Elisabeth Shue, Sharon Stone, Shirley MacLaine, Jodie Foster and Julia Roberts were all nominated for playing hookers. The only man nominated for playing a hooker is Jon Voight for "Midnight Cowboy".
* Why are there so many movies about hookers and johns who fall in love? I don't think it happens a lot in real life, but in the movies it's as common as the day is long: hooker Kim Basinger and cop Russell Crowe fall in love in "LA Confidential", hooker Jane Fonda and cop Donald Sutherland fall in love in "Klute", drunk Nicholas Cage and hooker Elisabeth Shue fall in love in "Leaving Las Vegas", rich Richard Gere and poor hooker Julia Roberts fall in love in "Pretty Woman", MP Michael Caine and hooker Sigourney Weaver fall in love in "Half Moon Street", soldier Montgomery Clift and hooker Donna Reed fall in love in "From Here to Eternity", hooker Kim Basinger (again) and cop Richard Gere fall in love in "No Mercy" and married couple Ernest Borgnine and Stella Stevens in "The Poseidon Adventure" met when he was a cop and she was a hooker.
"We'll drink to that!": Gloria and her many "friends".
* Is "Go Naked in the World" a rip-off of "Butterfield 8" or is "Butterfield 8" a rip-off of "Go Naked in the World"? They both came out in 1960, after all.
So movie lovers, this is where I leave you, at the end of another moralizing trashfest about a fancy hooker, the john who loved her and her sad, sordid end. Perhaps what "Butterfield 8" was really about was the old saw on how money can't buy happiness. Or, to put it another way, "Money can't buy happiness--unless your favorite hooker's named Happiness."
SAVE THE MOVIES, TOO.