Should James Cameron require any suggestions on how to structure a family saga featuring exclusion, rebellion, adolescence, revenge and racism without relying on repetitive action beats he could do worse than check out this towering epic. There’s a seamlessness to the screenplay that allows the director to move quickly along, drama and conflict that initially tear a family apart in the end bringing it back together.
The story charts the romance of Texan rancher Bick (Rock Hudson) to socialite Leslie (Elizabeth Taylor), their marital conflict as she exerts her personality in a male-dominated world, her battle with Bick’s older sister Luz (Mercedes McCambridge) for control of the household, and the infatuation of ranch hand Jett (James Dean) with Leslie.
First child Jordan (Dennis Hopper), pushed unwillingly into masculine pursuits by Bick, bucks his father’s long-term plan by determining to become a doctor. Second child Judy rebels against the extravagant lifestyle and opts, along with husband Dace, for a small spread, the cattleman’s version of a mom-and-pop operation. Third offspring Luz the Second (Carroll Baker) romances the older Jett, now an oil millionaire, and Bick’s business rival.
Racism and exclusion form the core of the picture. Leslie is shocked to discover her father’s employees living in abject poverty, that he will not countenance the cost of improving living conditions, partly on racist grounds, partly on the American principle that it’s every man for himself, a race in which losers are left behind like sores to fester. Jordan marrying a Mexican brings these issues to the fore, especially when his grand heritage cannot protect her from humiliating racism. Bick and Leslie bicker, fall out, make up, are exploited by their children, who can always find one or the other to take their side in any dispute.
Sure there are some terrific lines but the best scenes are simply visually dramatic. Luz, furious at Leslie encroaching on her territory, lames her rival’s favorite horse by riding it with spurs digging into its flesh. A huge crowd welcomes home a white World War Two hero, a handful of people the Mexican equivalent, only when the train pulls away do we see the draped coffin. The introverted by now incoherent Jett unable to summon up the words to complete his proposal to Luz the Second. Terrified four-year-old Jordan atop a horse, not being able, or willing, to ride the worst sin in Bick’s world.
Bick, restraining himself from launching into a fistfight with Jett in the wine cellar of the oil man’s opulent hotel, throws an item at racks of bottles, only to see it topple back, the camera remaining on Bick’s face as we hear the successive toppling of rack upon rack upon rack. Jett, all the wealth he could ever want, wakens from drunken slumber to an empty banqueting room, guests long departed.
A tiny house, as grand as it is, sits in the distance on a massive plain. The passing of time is delineated in relation to horsepower. We are introduced to Bick staring out of a train window watching horses which almost match the speed of the train. Then it is a plane which outruns a car. Finally, when speed, as a demonstration of inherent power, is no longer of the essence the family, in a car, is happy to be overtaken by a speedster.
The power of wealth, the power of power, its corrosive impact on those sharing in what it can bestow, the damage inflicted on those who get in the way, is the other great theme, spelled out not in dogma or speeches but in human cost. And no matter how powerful, someone is always bigger. The dominant Texan cattleman is easily overtaken in the wealth stakes by the oilman, whose political donations ensure tax exemption.
The vindictive Luz gains revenge on her brother by bequeathing Jett a small parcel of land, just enough to prevent the cattleman from owning everything as far as the eye can see and far beyond, just enough to cause irritation.
And this is before we come to the performances. It’s hard to choose between the three principals. Elizabeth Taylor (The Comedians, 1967), fiery, humane, loving, submitting unwillingly to the superior male, arguing her corner, fighting for the rights of others, brings a superbly complex character to brilliant life. But Rock Hudson (Tobruk, 1967) , in a less showy part, is just as good, conflicted, stubborn, initially shy, forced to take on inherited stances, only at the end standing up against what he formerly believed. And you can hardly take your eyes off James Dean, hiding behind a Stetson or a bottle of whisky, inarticulate, lost, greedy, infatuated.
John Huston used to aver that in any given scene the camera did all the work, that with three or four people to choose from, all on screen at the one time, the strongest performer would attract audience attention. Here, that attention constantly flickered from Taylor to Hudson to Dean, as, almost without exerting an acting muscle, they battled for screen dominance.
Taylor was ignored come Oscar time, but Hudson and Dean split the vote allowing Yul Brynner to sneak in, Mercedes McCambridge nominated in the supporting category, Stevens winning his second Oscar. The supporting cast had tremendous depth: Carroll Baker (Station Six Sahara, 1963), Dennis Hopper (Easy Rider, 1969), Mercedes McCambridge (99 Women, 1969), Sal Mineo (Escape from Zahrain, 1962), Rod Taylor (The Birds, 1963), Jane Withers (Captain Newman M.D., 1963) and Chill Wills (The Alamo, 1960). Fred Guiol (Shane, 1953) and Ivan Moffat (The Heroes of Telemark, 1965) adapted the Edna Ferber bestseller.
I saw this on the big screen in a 4K restoration which means it’s probably heading for streaming and/or DVD but if your local arthouse chances to program this any effort to see it will be well worthwhile.
As is by now traditional (well, it’s the second full year) this isn’t my choice of the top films of the year, but yours, my loyal readers. This is a chart of the films viewed the most times over full calendar year of January 2022 – December 2022.
Jessica(1962). Angie Dickinson plays a young widow who turns so many heads in a small Italian town that their wives seek revenge. The film had debuted at No 30 in the previous year’s chart so showed remarkable staying power.
Once Upon a Time in the West (1969). Sergio Leone’s masterpiece now acclaimed as the greatest western ever made. Top class cast – Claudia Cardinale, Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda and Jason Robards – and one of the greatest scores ever written courtesy of Ennio Morricone.
The Swinger (1966). Ann-Margret sparkles as author reinventing herself by writing a sex novel.
Fraulein Doktor (1969). Suzy Kendall as German spy outwitting the British during World War One.
Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humpe and Find True Happiness? (1969). Fellini-esque musical with abundant nudity as writer-director-star Anthony Newley tries to unravel the meaning of life.
Father Stu (2022). Under-rated biopic with Mark Wahlberg as unlikely priest.
Blonde(2022). Andrew Dominik’s controversial reimagining of the life of Marilyn Monroe with Ana de Armas
For a Few Dollars More(1965).Sergio Leone re-teams with Clint Eastwood in the second in the spaghetti western trilogy with Lee Van Cleef as a rival bounty hunter.
A Place for Lovers(1968). Faye Dunaway and Marcello Mastroianni in Vittorio De Sica doomed romance.
Fade In(1968). Burt Reynolds disowned this romance filmed against the backdrop of making the Terence Stamp western Blue but it’s better than he thinks.
The Secret Ways (1961). Richard Widmark in spy thriller set in Hungary during the Cold War and adapted from the Alistair MacLean novel. Senta Berger has a small role. Top film for 2021, so demonstrating the ongoing popularity of films based on the author’s works.
The Sisters (1969). Complicated menage a trois that borders on the semi-incestuous starring Nathalie Delon and Susan Strasberg.
Pharoah (1966). Epic Polish picture about political shenanigans in ancient Egypt. Another film with legs – it was No 3 in the 2021 annual chart.
Water Gate Bridge / Battle at Lake Changjin II (2022). Another epic, non-stop action from the Chinese point-of-view in a sequel to one of the most famous battles of the Korean War.
Harlow (1965). Carroll Baker as the blonde bombshell who rocketed to fame in 1930s Hollywood.
Baby Love (1969). Morality tale as orphaned Linda Hayden tries to fit into an upper-class London household.
Moment to Moment (1966). Hitchockian thriller set in the South of France with adulterous Jean Seberg suspected of killing her lover.
Secret Ceremony (1968). Elizabeth Taylor, Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum in atmospheric Joseph Losey drama.
Lady in Cement (1969). Gangster’s moll Raquel Welch steals the show in Frank Sinatra’s second outing as private eye Tony Rome.
Subterfuge (1968). Suzanna Leigh steals the show as a sadistic henchwoman trying to prevent Gene Barry uncovering a mole in M.I.5.
P.J. / New Face in Hell (1967). George Peppard taken to the cleaners as down-on-his luck private eye.
The Golden Claws of the Cat Girl (1968). Cult French movie starring Daniele Gaubert as a sexy cat burglar. This was No 6 last year.
The Gray Man (2022). Spectacular Netflix misfire with Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans as rival assassins and Ana de Armas adding some spice.
The Brotherhood (1968). Martin Ritt Mafia drama sees siblings Kirk Douglas and Alex Cord falling out.
Some Girls Do (1969). Richard Johnson returns as Bulldog Drummond battling archvillains Daliah Lavi and Beba Loncar.
Pressure Point (1962). Prison psychiatrist Sidney Poitier treats racist patient Bobby Darin. Very unusual imagery.
The Double Man (1967). C.I.A. operative Yul Brynner battles Russian espionage in Switzerland with Britt Ekland providing the glamor.
Operation Mincemeat (2022). Re-telling of “The Man Who Never Was” World War Two plot that duped Hitler over Sicilian invasion plans.
Orgy for the Dead (1965). Bizarre cult horror tale where most of the female characters appear to be auditioning for a nudie film.
Texas Across the River (1966). Alain Delon acts against type in Dean Martin comedy western.
Richard Burton was at his box office peak. From Cleopatra (1963) through The VIPs (1963), Becket (1964), The Night of the Iguana (1964), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965), The Sandpiper (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and The Taming of the Shrew (1967) he had enjoyed massive box office success and notched up three Oscar nominations. He was being pursued for Camelot (1967) – the part he played on Broadway – and himself pursued the rights to Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer. But out of admiration for novelist Graham Greene he accepted, sight unseen, the leading role in The Comedians.
Director Peter Glenville, better known at the time as a stage director, owed his career to the two male principals. Alec Guinness had backed him for his debut The Prisoner (1955) and starred in his latest film, the farce Hotel Paradiso (1966). Burton had been one of his two incendiary stars of Becket (1964), a box office smash, as a consequence of which the director signed a four-picture deal with MGM. All three of his previous films had begun life as plays directed by Glenville.
Before the picture could get off the ground it faced a potential legal minefield from producer George Glass. He owned the rights to a short story The Prisoner, written by screenwriter Ernest Lehman (North by Northwest, 1959) and published in the January 1952 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine. It had since been turned into a television play directed by john Frankenheimer for the Playhouse 90 series in February 1957. Glass argued the new picture would infringe his copyright.
Although without doubt Taylor was the bigger box office star, the better remunerated and the more acclaimed, at least by Oscar standards (two wins to his five nominations), in their personal life the roles were reversed. “There seems little doubt,” wrote Burton biographer Melvyn Bragg, “that although he was drawn into what he saw as the mystery and fun of Elizabeth he was the dominating partner. She soothed him. She sought him in bars.” Burton himself said, “We never had any question of who was boss. She always realised I was to run the show.”
Whether that was the reason she took what was no more than a supporting role in The Comedians at half her usual salary (for the first time Burton on $750,000 versus her $500,000 was the financial top dog) is unclear, but she certainly, as was attested on The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, did not like to leave him footloose and fancy free on a film set where he could indulge his liking for liquor and pretty women. On her previous film, Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967) “she resented playing second fiddle” to Marlon Brando, and might have preferred making a picture where she regained a sense of her own importance, but instead she accepted a role that was not up to her usual high standard.
Director Peter Glenville (Becket) had not particularly wanted Taylor for the role, possibly feeling she might over-balance the project. It would be the couple’s seventh movie together, a pairing that was being discussed in the same hushed tones as the legendary Tracy-Hepburn. Alec Guinness was somewhat apprehensive about the film. Calls he had made to the couple’s suite at the Dorchester Hotel in London had gone unanswered and gifts returned. Burton was mortified. It turned out his staff had been too protective of their employer.
Shooting began in January 1967 before the novel was published. Although producers often purchased books while still in galley stage, they generally preferred the book to have acquired a substantial readership before embarking on a costly movie investment. However, Graham Greene could fairly lay claim to being the greatest living English writer and his involvement appeared to add gravitas to the project, although it would be fair to say that none of the translations of his works into movies had enjoyed anything like the success of The Third Man (1949). He had not written for the screen since Our Man in Havana (1960), also starring Guinness.
Unusually for a novelist, he had acquired a reputation for setting his stories in trouble spots. Often, he would take on a journalistic assignment from the likes of the British Sunday Times to investigate conditions in countries undergoing brutal change. His literary reputation often gave him access to the inner sanctum from which an ordinary reporter would have been barred. The author had adored Haiti before the Duvalier takeover and hated that Papa Doc ruled by terror, backed by the dreaded Tonton Macoutes. The Comedians was a determinedly political novel, the author hoping his expose of an “unique evil” might put pressure on the dictator.
Greene described Haiti as a “a tormented little country” and had feared for his life on his last visit. The author told an Italian journalist that he had clearly got under Duvalier’s skin. “A writer is not so powerless as he usually feels,” he once wrote, “and a pen, as well as a silver bullet, can draw blood.” Martha (the Elizabeth Taylor character) was based on a woman the author had known in Martinique who ran a hotel and had a son.
Initially, Glenville had envisaged making the film in Haiti, where the book was set, but, given the author had taken careful aim at country it was a concern that the dictator might take revenge on stars who had the audacity to film in his own backyard. Dahomey, in West Africa, about the size of Cuba, was its replacement.
When accidents plagued the shoot, and since voodoo was a story element, rumors spread that Duvalier had ordered witch doctors to curse the production. “Apparently voodoo spells cannot travel over water,” recollected Guinness, “and have to be operated at hand…(but) on the first day of filming one of the unit stumbled on the beach, possibly from a heart attack, and drowned in a foot of water before anybody could assist him. Several people complained of difficulty in breathing, suffering from acute headaches and deep depression; one or two had to be sent home….there was something a little sinister in the atmosphere.” Guinness, in conversation with the French Consul, was informed the country was still inhabited by cannibals, a threat he took seriously enough to warn actor Paul Ford’s wife not to sit around alone on her porch, but which was later discounted by the local archbishop as the kind of joke a foreigner would too easily fall for
Guinness also saved the director from drowning. Not realizing how treacherous the sea, with an infamous undertow, could be, Glenville had gone for a swim. Reading on the beach nearby, Guinness heard him calling for help and had to drag him to safety. Guinness suffered from a mysterious rash for four days.
Of course, Burton and Taylor were treated like royalty, They were met by President Soglo and given use of the presidential compound. And it was also a humbling experience. Washing was strung along lines in the presidential courtyard, the Queen’s closet was filled with “a perfectly ordinary rack of shoes.” Burton had mixed feelings, commenting in his diary, about the President: “his clothes were ill-made…he obviously likes women and was forever taking E (Taylor) by the arm…We both found the experience oddly moving. Here was this huge, mosaiced palace, only completed three years ago, and outside the immense Salle de Reception, capable of receiving 3,000 people at one time, there was washing on the line.”
But this treatment did not extend everywhere, and for the better. Most people in Dahomey had never heard of the couple so they were able to dine out without harassment. “Glenville noticed that the lack of outside stress helped them relax in front of the camera.”
But the heat was intolerable, temperatures some days reaching 110 degrees, hitting 138 degrees under movie lights. This resulted in no one dallying over takes. The situation was exacerbated by Burton’s drinking. “I hardly find him the same person,” commented Guinness, recalling the times the pair had occasionally spent together in the late 1940s when he was by far the bigger star. “Drink has taken a bit of a toll.” Breakfast for Burton on the first day of shooting was a Bloody Mary. On one occasion Burton was so inebriated he failed to turn up for a presidential dinner in their honor in front of two hundred guests. He was an ugly drunk and his wife bore the brunt of it. Being top dog financially and in terms of screen credit did not appear to bring him the solace he required.
The Burtons’ extensive entourage recruited an additional member with a specific skill. Photographer Gianni Bozzachi was “considered the number one re-toucher in Italy,” his job solely to ensure that any photographs of Taylor sent to the press were “as beautiful as humanly possible.” He became the couple’s official photographer, often taking candid pictures unobtrusively.
Bozzachi believed Taylor more beautiful in person – her left and right profiles were equally symmetrical, a rare physical gift – than on camera and was attempting to capture that inner beauty. He said, “without make-up she glows. There’s a sensuality always present.” But he also exuded a sensuality that disturbed Burton. That a tall curly-haired handsome young man was showering attention on his wife made Burton jealous.
Burton and Alec Guinness respected each other’s talent. In one four-minute scene where Guinness took center stage and Burton was simply listening, Guinness commented, “That was the greatest support I’ve had from an actor in my life.”
Burton was not particularly enamored of Dahomey. Although he retained a “certain amount of nostalgia” for the country, he also referred to the “dangerous sea,” the arrogance of the Americans, the “mad palace, the President and his dowdy provincial wife.” But then Burton in his diaries was particularly waspish. Guinness was even more forthright. “I was glad to leave Dahomey. I couldn’t help feeling it was sinister…ideas of voodoo are never absent from one’s mind.” The final stages of filming were completed in Nice.
In the wake of the violence in The Dirty Dozen (1967) and, more especially, Bonnie and Clyde (1967), which stirred up huge controversy, not least against the Production Code which had passed both films, MPAA president Jack Valenti took against the violence in the film and persuaded Glenville to “mute” one particularly bloody scene.
This proved a difficult film to market outside of the star names and the adaptation of a literary bestseller. However, Duvalier inadvertently helped, launching a furious tirade in the press against the picture, threatening legal action against what he termed “inflammatory libel” and exciting the U.S. media so much it triggered a four-part television series. There was a major article in Look magazine which had sent a reporter and photographers to the set in Dahomey. And the marketing team pulled off something of a coup in persuading the Museum of Modern Art in New York for the first time to devote a complete exhibition to a movie.
Despite the top-heavy English cast, the movie premiered in New York at the Coronet where it ran concurrently at the DeMille. Although it opened in the same week as Cool Hand Luke, it trailed the Paul Newman prison drama at the box office, taking $64,000 from two cinemas compared to $92,000, also from a pair. But that was still deemed a good result and initial U.S. first run bookings were brisk – the box office termed “socko” and “boffo.”
Post-production MGM had considered turning it into a roadshow for the U.S. market but decided against it. However, for the later British launch, in January 1968, it was blown up into 70mm and presented as roadshow in London’s West End at the Casino Cinerama and in various countries around the world. The American version, running at 156 minutes, was edited by nine minutes though the programme was effectively lengthened to accommodate the necessary roadshow intermission.
Though named by three critics as one of the top ten films of the year, the movie received no Oscar nominations. It proved to be Glenville’s last film although he lived for another 30 years.
SOURCES: Chris Williams (editor), The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale University Press, 2012) p130-131, 152-157; Melvyn Bragg, Rich, The Life of Richard Burton (Hodder and Stoughton, 1988) p223, 231-232, 236-237; Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger, Furious Love, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, The Marriage of the Century (JR Books paperback, 2011) p196-204; William J. Mann, How to Be a Movie Star, Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood (Faber and Faber, 2009) p378-379; Alec Guinness, Blessings in Disguise (Hamish Hamilton, 1985) p209-210; Leopold Duran, Graham Greene, Friend and Brother (Harper Collins, 1994) p153, 238, 258; “Burton-Guinness Teamed,” Kine Weekly, September 8, 1966, p4; “Burton-Guinness Teamed,” Box Office, September 16, 1966, p4; “George Glass Protests Metro’s Comedians Treads on his Teleplay,” Variety, October 26, 1966, p5; “Elizabeth Taylor to Co-Star in Comedians for MGM,” Box Office, October 10, 1966, p7; “Comedians Looms as Metro Roadshow,” Variety, April 12, 1967, p26; “Plan Comedians Premiere,” Box Office, September 11, 1967, pE3; “Urge Films Shun Shock’n’Violence for Own Sake,” Variety, October 25, 1967, p1; “Museum to Devote Entire Exhibit to Comedians,” Box Office, October 30, 1967, pE7; “Haiti Protests Showing of Comedians,” Box Office, November 6, 1967, pE4; “Comedians on Roadshow at London Coliseum,” Variety, January 3, 1967, p5; “Year-End Best Picks,” Variety, January 10, 1968, p8.
Over-long, over-hyped and over-cast. Pretty much an early example of virtue-signalling, exposing corruption in a dictatorship (Haiti), but offering more through the singular self-deception of the main characters. An element of sleight-of-hand is also practiced on an audience enticed by four big stars “above the title” comprising three Oscar winners and one multiple nominee. Luckily, the ironic in-joke of naming characters with traditional English names – Smith, Jones and Brown – would probably pass most people by.
Brown (Richard Burton), a hotelier, is present throughout but Major Jones (Alec Guinness) appears only briefly at the beginning then disappears until late on to spike the plot. Martha (Elizabeth Taylor), the adulterous love interest, pops up sporadically as does her husband Ambassador Pineda (Peter Ustinov). There’s not much of a story, Brown, cynical about the dictatorship, is friendly with a rebel leader, Jones is an ineffectual arms dealer, and missionary couple the Smiths (Paul Ford and Lillian Gish) offer comic relief until barbarity rears its head.
Great play is made of naivete but the film suffers from the Hollywood curse of only being able to examine foreign politics through the prism of a (white) American or Englishman. At the time it might have been shocking to see brutality so convincingly dispensed, and there is, also, in Mondo Cane fashion, too much time spent on strange ritual, but at the same time, of course, the U.S. was inflicting its own barbarities on the Vietnamese.
On the other hand, Brown is exactly the kind of foreigner who believes things must improve because, damn it all, he’s British and bad things can’t happen to a Brit in a strange land. He is convinced he will be able to sell a hotel located in a war-torn country, persists in believing Martha will abandon husband and son, and convinces himself he is the very man the rebels have been looking for.
Jones mistakenly believes everyone is taken in by his hail-fellow-well-met routine and his tales of heroism in World War Two jungles, thinks he is in with a chance with Martha and that his gun-running activities will avoid detection. The ambassador thinks his wife will not leave him as long as he turns a blind eye to her affairs. And Martha, probably wondering why she married such a buffoon, can’t work out to dump him. Everyone who has much to lose appears to be continually on a precipice and it’s hard to see what they could gain from their actions.
They are all misfits, “comedians,” stuck in the rut of their own destiny, unable to change.
Nobody is more gullible than those who dupe themselves and the film comes into its own when it sets personal delusion against political naivete. In narrative terms Jones is the most obviously unmasked but the others are no less shown to be foolhardy in their expectations.
This had all the hallmarks of a prestige picture, initially planned as a roadshow, around $2 million spent on the above-the-line cast, another chunk on buying the rights to the Graham Greene bestseller and assigning the author the screenplay, location shooting in Dahomey.
Don’t expect oratorical fury from Richard Burton (The Bramble Bush, 1960) nor outbursts of angst from Elizabeth Taylor (Secret Ceremony, 1969). There’s something almost comically homely in their deception and in the outwardly confident Brown perceiving Jones as a love rival. Alec Guinness (The Quiller Memorandum, 1966) is the big treat, an upmarket con man, his boisterous voice and mannerisms far removed from his more usual introspective performances. Peter Ustinov (Topkapi, 1964), a bit too fidgety for my liking, nonetheless attracts sympathy as the man who is batting above his weight in snaring a trophy wife he knows he cannot hold onto.
Burton was the odd one out in the Oscar rankings. Despite five nominations by this stage, he had never taken home the statuette. Elizabeth Taylor, by contrast, had won twice, for Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966), Guinness once for Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Ustinov also twice Spartacus (1961) and Topkapi.
However, in some senses if you remove the star turns, you are left with a rawer picture, and director Peter Glenville (Becket, 1964) captures much of the personal intensity of the novel. Taylor, in particular, misses the mark. Although playing a German, she never once bothers attempting an accent. Had Burton been the sole star, the movie would have worked much better since his low-key playing would not have been so much at odds with other actors.
There’s a host of striking turns from supporting stars, ranging from silent film star Lillian Gish (The Unforgiven, 1960) to Roscoe Lee Brown (Topaz, 1969), James Earl Jones (The Great White Hope, 1970), Raymond St Jacques (Uptight, 1968) and Cicely Tyson (Sounder, 1972).
Last week’s headline-grabbing articles about how few women featured in the rankings of top-earning movie stars, suggesting this was an age-old problem, overlooked one inconvenient truth. A century ago, actresses were the biggest earners in Hollywood.
In fact from Hollywood’s inception around 1910 and for the next sixty years actresses from Mary Pickford in the 1910s to Elizabeth Taylor either out-earned or equalled the male pay packets. I know. I wrote a book about it – When Women Ruled Hollywood (Baroliant, 2019). It was subtitled – “How Actresses Took on the Hollywood Hierarchy – and Won.”
The simple fact of the matter is that a woman – Florence Lawrence – in 1910 became the first Hollywood star, on the princely (or should I say princessly) salary of $50 a week, at a time when 77% of the female workforce survived on less than $7 a week. She was the equal highest-paid earner of the day.
When movies began, movie stars were not as highly paid as those who worked on stage. But, again, women were by far the highest paid earners. The number one star in vaudeville – the U.S. version of music hall – was Gertrude Hoffman on, wait for it, $3,000 a week (about $90,000 equivalent now). In 1911 the number one spot was shared – by two women. Sarah Bernhardt and Gaby Deslys now took home $4,000 a week. The following year Bernhardt was top dog again, on $9,000 a week and the next year again as the highest earner she pulled in $22,000 a week.
Movie stars of neither gender were earning that much but everyone knew what vaudeville stars earned so there was no shortage of precedent for actresses in the burgeoning movie business to ask for more. They employed a simple technique. They held studios to ransom. Give me more money or I jump ship.
In 1915, Mary Pickford broke all records for movie star earnings by taking in more than $150,000 a year. This was far more than male sensation Charlie Chaplin and even as his salary leapt upwards so did hers. In 1918 she picked up $1.8 million a year.
Despite the advent of top males in the 1920s of the calibre of Valentino, Lon Chaney, Tom Mix, Harold Lloyd and John Gilbert, women topped the earning chart once again. Gloria Swanson would have easily been the top-ranked earner had she accepted an offer of $18,000 a week but turned it down preferring to retain her independence. In her absence Corinne Griffiths came out of top with a $13,000 a week salary at First National.
In the early 1930s Greta Garbo topped the heap with $500,000 a year – for a 40-week deal. In 1935 Mae West took home $480,000, not just the highest earner in the movies, but the second highest earner, $20,000 behind publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, in the whole of the United States.
In 1936, when Gary Cooper came top with Ronald Colman second, women occupying the next three spots. In 1937 when Fredric March took the top spot, women placed, second, third, four, fifth and sixth. In 1938 Claudette Colbert was number one and Irene Dunne the topper in 1939.
Bing Crosby topped the bill in 1940, and the next year it was Colbert again. The war inflicted a number of anomalies on the business, mainly the arrival from radio of Abbott and Costello, top earners in 1942, with Fred MacMurray, without even taking top billing in most of his films of the period, hitting the earnings peak for both 1943 and 1944. Ginger Rogers was top in 1945, Joan Crawford in 1946 and except for a parachute payment to stop him leaving Warner Brothers Humphrey Bogart would have been pipped at the post by Bette Davis, with chanteuse Deanna Durbin top of the heap in 1948.
With demise of the studio system in the 1950s, female earnings tumbled except for Marilyn Monroe who ran top earners John Wayne and William Holden close. But in the 1960s Elizabeth Taylor out-earned everyone by a huge margin and Audrey Hepburn, Doris Day and Julie Andrews either earned or equaled the earnings of top male attractions like John Wayne, Steve McQueen and Paul Newman.
The advent of action pictures, which sold more easily around the world than comedies or dramas, ensured that from the 1970s onwards men mostly ruled the earnings game. But still stars like Barbra Streisand, Jane Fonda, Julia Roberts and Sandra Bullock held their own. And it was not so long ago that it was the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, thanks to The Hunger Games franchise, beat everyone.
You can buy my book on Amazon for about £10 and $12.
Shooting might have been less stressful and cheaper if director Martin Ritt had stuck to his initial schedule but when the shoot start-date was pushed back from late fall 1964 to January 1965 he lost original star Burt Lancaster (planning to play the original Englishman as a Canadian). At relatively short notice, Richard Burton stepped in, but for an eye-watering fee of $750,000, at that time the biggest salary paid in Hollywood. (Due to Ritt’s involvement there had been rumors Paul Newman would star.) And although Burton pushed for his wife Elizabeth Taylor for the small role of Nan, he was overruled on the issue of cost, and that audience expectations would be unfairly raised.
It didn’t matter, though, if Ritt refused to cast Elizabeth Taylor. He got her anyway, and her vast entourage, generally happy to remain out of the way but occasionally arriving on location in the middle of Dublin in her white Rolls-Royce sending fans into convulsions. There were two schools of thought as to which woman caused more disruption: the jealous wife exerting 24-hour surveillance on a husband with a wandering eye or one of his previous lovers, Claire Bloom, who was playing Nan. (The name changed from Liz in the book.)
“It was not a happy picture and the central reason fort that was: Claire Bloom,” averred Burton’s biographer Melvyn Bragg. “The real problem was not from Bloom but from Elizabeth Taylor’s jealousy,” claimed Sam Kastner. That Burton incurred Bloom’s wrath was not without doubt. But it wasn’t the first time. Prior to Taylor, but while he was married to Sybil, Burton and Bloom had been lovers.
Burton was “not prepared for Bloom and found it very difficult to handle.” The pair had met on a touring production of The Lady’s Not for Burning in the 1940s but their romance remained unconsummated. A few years later in the early 1950s the affair began in earnest and continued on and off for five years. When both were cast in Look Back in Anger (1959), Bloom expected them to pick up where they had left off. But that notion was dashed when Burton appeared, still married, on the arm of Susan Strasberg (Sisters, 1969).
The other elephant in the room was, of course, Burton’s alcohol intake. A very heavy drinker, verging on the alcoholic, his hand had begun to tremor until he received liquid sustenance. If Burton had an equally boisterous co-star as in Peter O’Toole in Becket (1964) or a very indulgent director as with John Huston in The Sandpiper (1965), his drinking would not attract comment. But “Martin Ritt did not approve of Burton’s heavy drinking and Burton resented that.”
Never mind Burton’s issues with ex-lover and wife, he was having difficulty delivering the performance Ritt demanded. The director wanted a stripped-down character, minus the oratory which had made the actor famous, the acting so flattened as to “make him anonymous.” Author John le Carre would have preferred James Mason or Trevor Howard for the “embattled” personas they presented, and which would have fit more into the director’s perception of the character. “For Burton this time there would be no strong sex, no oratory, no action, no charm.” The director wanted that Burton intensity, but coiled, not sprung. As the production wore on, director and star were barely speaking. “Ritt had come to despise Burton whom he saw as a spoiled and self-indulgent actor who had dissipated his talent.”
The initial screenwriter Guy Trosper made changes that seemed out of kilter with the book, for instance sending Leamas to psychiatric hospital rather than jail for punching the grocer. When he became ill he was replaced by Paul Dehn who did not veer so far from the book. Le Carre was brought in at the last minute at Burton’s insistence to do rewrites. But that merely added to the existing aggravation. While waiting for nightfall to shoot the escape sequence, Le Carre was obliged to keep the actor company, trying to consume most the available whisky so that Burton did not go on set drunk. While little of Le Carre’s rewrites found their way into the finished product, he did provide a new scene for Fiedler (Oskar Werner).
Ritt had a revolutionary picture in mind, not just filming in black-and-white to downplay the glamor of the espionage business as evidenced by James Bond, but to employ “a point of view that’s never been found before.” He was not a believer in the end justifying the means nor of depicting the enemy as rabid. “Most of the time,” he explained, “you have actors playing Communists as if they’d just switched over from playing Nazis in World War Two pictures…the Communists in this picture are people and one of them at least …is an honest, ethical man.”
While the decision to film in black-and-white was a creative decision, intended to give the film a realistic edge, he knew it would not necessarily go down so well with the end user, the exhibitor. “The needs of creative people and the needs of exhibitors are completely different. Exhibitors want pictures and creators want to express themselves and those two factors don’t always satisfy each other.” Although the movie was Oscar-nominated and critically well-received and did well in key city first-run, it was condemned by exhibitors in small towns, one of whom discouraged others from booking it and complained that the black-and-white aspect made the film impossible to view on old projectors.
Author John le Carre was an unknown, two previous books published to no great sales. But The Spy Who Came in from the Cold proved a phenomenon. Debuting in the number spot in February 1964, the book spent 35 weeks topping the hardback bestseller chart. It ended up the hardback number one title in the U.S. during 1964, a quarter of a million copies sold, winner of the Edgar Award for Best Mystery, initial paperback order topping two million copies, five million books in print by the time the film appeared. So it seemed all the more astonishing that the movie rights had been snapped up for a mere $21,000 (with escalating clauses based on sales that took it up to $38,000). Martin Ritt claimed glory for that astute purchase, making a bid to a hard-up author when the book was in galley form. “When I bought it nobody else was running to buy it,” claimed Ritt. But it turned out the real star was Kay Selby, a Paramount story editor, who had dug it out of a pile of novels submitted. Le Carre did not make the same mistake again, movie rights for his next book The Looking GlassWar were sold for $400,000 and the paperback rights for the same
When the film had still been a relatively low-budget production, Paramount planned to film exteriors in London and interiors in Hollywood. But Ritt wanted “to capture the full brunt of the winter atmosphere for dramatic emphasis” and there was very little Hollywood could bring to the party to recreate an actual bleak British weather.
The bulk of the film was shot in Ireland at the defunct Ardmore studios in Bray – Ritt rented them from the Official Receiver, the first production there since November 1963 – and on location in Dublin, the historic Cornmarket standing in for Checkpoint Charlie while with the addition of breezeblock, barbed wire and an iron ladder, Dublin Square was transformed into the Berlin Wall, though some scenes set in East Berlin were shot in the London Docklands.
However, shooting kicked off in London, at Shepperton studios on January 9, 1965, before switching for two months to Ardmore, wrapping up there a week early, heading for location filming in Amsterdam (briefly) and 9-10 days in Garmisch (Germany) before returning to Shepperton in April. Ritt brought the picture in under budget.
Paramount launched a teaser campaign in November 1965 New York – the idea stolen by United Artists for A Fistful of Dollars the following year – with a 1,000-strong two-sheet poster campaign in the city’s subway, promoting the film but missing out the opening date and the cinemas it would play, that information supplied closer to the launch which took place over the lucrative Xmas period in 1965, coincidentally just in time to qualify for Oscar consideration.
And also in time to face a spy box office tsunami called Thunderball and the roadshow epic Doctor Zhivago among the 20-plus movies launched for the festive season. In fact, the Bond films had triggered a resurgence of spy pictures. As the Ritt picture got underway, others on the starting grid include “The Matt Helm Project,” The Ipcress File, James Garner in Welcome Mr. Beddoes (A Man Could Get Killed) and Masquerade starring Cliff Robertson. In addition the potential line-up also included female spy Christy O’Hare, Aaron Rosenberg’s Smashmaster and Strangers on a Bridge; the first two were never made, the last one taking over half a century to hit the screen as Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.
Burton was Oscar-nominated, but in the year when Thunderball (1965), Torn Curtain (1966), The Silencers (1966) and Our Man Flint (1966) all featured in the top ten films of 1966, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold did not prove a counter-programming smash, sitting at 32nd in the annual chart with $3.1 million in rentals. Although the movie was critically well-received and did well in key city first-run, it was a bust in smaller towns. Don Stott of the Calvert Drive-In in Prince Frederick, Md, complained “it was one of the lousiest pictures I’ve ever had my displeasure to exhibit and lose my shirt on…the print was so dark…it was barely visible.” Added Arthur K. Dame of the Scenic Theater in Pittsfield, N.H., “it comfirms the fact that we are not going to do well with spy films.”
SOURCES: Adam Sisman, John Le Carre, The Biography (Bloomsbury, 2013) p258, 266, 273, 277-280; The Richard Burton Diaries (Yale University Press, 2012), p79-80; Melvyn Bragg, Rich: The Life of Richard Burton, (Hodder and Stoughton, 2012) p200-203; Sam Kashner, Furious Love (Harper Perennial, 2019) p120-131; “Burt Lancaster Plans More Pix Of His Own,” Variety, January 1, 1964, p27; “Bestseller at $20,000,” Variety, March 25, 1964, p15; “Broadway,” Box Office, April 20, 1964, pE5; “Director Martin Ritt: Big Dig Is Scripts You Can Sell to Producers,” Variety, May 13, 1964, p13; “Six for Paramount in Alien Locales,” Variety, July 15, 1964, p18’“Richard Burton Receives Role in Spy by Martin Ritt,” Box Office, August 24, 1964, pW1; “Voices in the Diplomatic Pouch,” Variety, December, 9, 1964, p7; “Ritt Starts Spy Who Came in from the Cold in London,” Box Office, January 18, 1965, pE5; “Spy Success Sires Speedy Sequel, Le Carre Learning Loot Lesson,” Variety, February 17, 1965, p3; “Martin Ritt May Wind Berlin Wall Episodes on Spy This Month,” Variety, February 24, 1965, p28; “Paperbacks Up their Covers and Advance $,” Variety, March 3, 1965, p1; “Burton Winds Irish Shooting Spy Film,” Variety, April 14, 1965, p20; Maxwell Sweeney, “Harassed Irish Studio Revives,” Variety, May 12, 1965, p54; “Kay Selby’s Coup,” Variety, August 11, 1965, p3; “Subway Posters First Step in Promoting The Spy,” Box Office, November 29, 1965, pA2; “Review,” Box Office, December 20, 1965, 1965, pA11; “Three Paramount Pix To Open in N.Y. Dec 23,” Box Office, December 20, 1965, pE16; “Martin Ritt Is Promoting His Spy for Paramount,” Box Office, December 20, 1965, pE12; “Espionage Shown in Its Dirty Clothes,” Variety, December 22, 1965, p4; “The Exhibitor Has His Say,” Box Office, June 13, 1966, pA4 and October 10, 1966, pB4; Big Rentals of 1966,” Variety, January 4, 1967, p8.
I was probably as surprised as anyone to discover that far from being a flop, Secret Ceremony was in fact a hit, taking $3 million in rentals in the U.S., ranking among the Top 20 foreign movies at the French box office, and hitting the target in Italy, Germany and Australia. Yet, outside of France, it was universally derided by the critics.
Joseph Losey (The Servant, 1964) held the unusual position of being a cult director working in Britain. He was the “object of a vociferous cult….his following grown in scope and size with each new film” and, conversely, as his popularity among the arthouse fraternity increased, he attracted more critical ire. Courting popularity by entering the spy genre with Modesty Blaise (1966) and linking up with the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton box office colossus for Boom! (1967) seemed to go against the critical grain. Losey ascribed the critical coruscation Boom! received as less to do with the merits of the film itself than “people using the opportunity to launch personal attacks on the Burtons.”
Boom! had been packaged John Heyman, who coupled acting as agent for Burton and Taylor with being the producer, not necessarily a good combination. Universal was convinced it had “Virginia Woolf in color,” a reference to the previous enormous hit, although the box office told a different story. Jay Kanter, Universal’s London production chief who greenlit the project, commented: “When the Burtons were involved a lot of my judgement was colored by the magnitude of the star she (Taylor) was considered to be.”
So it was something of a surprise to find Losey and Taylor teaming up again for Secret Ceremony. Of course, it may have been the money, Taylor at this point still holding out for a million-dollar purse. Heyman said, “We were regarded as whizz-kids just for making two consecutive films with Elizabeth Taylor and bringing them in under budget.”
Losey’s world reflects a “highly selective form of naturalism.” Except for Accident (1966), from Sleeping Tiger (1954) through to Secret Ceremony, Losey worked with the same design consultant/production designer Richard MacDonald whom the director treated as a sounding board, to “test (ideas) and reject them in the telling.” This is a director for whom “patterned exoticism is extraordinarily precise.” A more important collaborator had been playwright Harold Pinter who had fashioned The Servant (1963) and Accident, bringing to both films his distinctive ear for dialogue. He was hardly required for Boom! whose screenwriter was the even more famous playwright Tennessee Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951) and for Secret Ceremony Losey went elsewhere for his screenwriter.
Losey was among the string of American talent who taken refuge in Britain in the wake of the anti-Communist hysteria of the late 1940s/early 1950s – others included producer Carl Foreman (The Guns of Navarone, 1961), and directors Cy Enfield (Sands of the Kalahari, 1966) and Edward Dmytryk (Mirage, 1965). By the time of Secret Ceremony, Losey had been working in Britain for nearly a quarter of a century and established himself as a director of distinctive vision, a critical fave in his adopted homeland, wildly appreciated by the French, with an occasional box office home run.
But although regarded as a British film-maker, Losey made Secret Ceremony – and Boom! for that matter – exclusively with Hollywood money, the budget 100 per cent supplied by Universal, that studio having decided that anything coming out of Britain would appeal to younger audiences. There was an untapped pool of talent available in British television who could be hired for substantially less than their U.S. counterparts. In three years Universal’s London production unit, headed by Jay Kanter, spent $30 million on a dozen projects. The biggest budget was allocated to Boom! with $3.9 million followed by $3.5 million to The Countess from Hong Kong (1967) starring Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren. The Night of the Following Day (1968) cost $1.5 million as did Fahrenheit 451 (1967) and Three into Two Won’t Go (1968). Secret Ceremony came in at $2.45 million.
Robert Mitchum and Joseph Losey went way back to a time in Hollywood when both were working their way up the RKO ladder. As well as Losey, Mitchum had been friends with many who would fall foul of the blacklist including screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Dmytryk and Howard Koch (Casablanca, 1942). When Mitchum’s dalliance with drugs brought him a jail sentence, Losey visited him and brought him chilli from a famed restaurant.
Mitchum was recommended for the role in Secret Ceremony by Roddy McDowell, a friend of Taylor, who had been working with the actor on Henry Hathaway western Five Card Stud (1968). Mitchum received the job offer while on holiday in Mexico. For two weeks’ work he would earn $150,000. The role itself was scarcely onerous, drawing on aspects of the loathsome character he had created for Night of the Hunter (1955), but it did require an English accent of some kind and to his amusement Mitchum found himself on the telephone, like a salesman listing available product, going through the variety of accents he bring to the part.
Whether it was almost having to sell himself to the director or some previous incident, Mitchum and Losey did not resume their friendship. In fact, their relationship was the polar opposite. “He was very unpleasant,” recalled the director, “it was extremely hard for me to work with him.” Losey never found the source of Mitchum’s contempt. “In some curious way I must have made some mistake with him; I don’t know what it was.” Even attempts to recall Mitchum’s collaboration with Charles Laughton on Night of the Hunter failed to break the ice. Losey believed that Mitchum played tough to mask “an intense sense of failure.”
Mitchum wasn’t above sneaking away from the set. On one occasion taking himself off to visit old friend Robert Parrish, he knocked back some tequila and complained about the movie. On the Holland section of the shoot, Mitchum got into a food fight with a hotel diner. In the end, Losey was so disturbed by Mitchum that he was grateful when he departed as per contract despite the fact that some scenes had not been shot, including, according to the actor, the bathtub sequence, which would have accentuated the incest theme rather than the hint of lesbianism. Mitchum’s epitaph to the movie was that he talked Mia Farrow out of True Grit (1969) claiming Hathaway was a terror to work with.
The bath scene turned out to be the cause of some marital anguish. The set was cleared for its shooting of the scene after Taylor froze on emerging from her dressing room to see so many people gathered. But this was hardly Taylor at her beautiful best as she had been gaining weight. Even so Losey filmed her at times as though she was the grand Hollywood star with hair framing her face and the camera glimpsing her cleavage, but at other times her weight was a source of determining her character, when she eats with her mouth full and belches.
Halfway through filming Taylor was afflicted by severe physical pain and she was rushed to hospital for a hysterectomy, an operation that lasted over three and a half hours. Complications followed the surgery and she was given drugs that caused her to hallucinate. Writing in his diaries, Richard Burton noted: “This is the first time I’ve seen a loved one in screaming agony for two days, hallucinated by drugs, sometimes knowing who I was and sometimes not, a virago one minute, an angel the next.” She went from commanding him to leave the room to crying out for him to return. Sometimes she believed she was on board their yacht, other times that a film was playing on the switched-off television set.
The loss of her uterus may have affected her performance since in the film she plays a mother who has lost a child and in reality was a woman who had lost the ability to have another child.
The film exacerbated the tensions in the Burton-Taylor marriage. It was usually Taylor who was the one who had to keep a watchful eye on her partner in case he strayed. In this case, ironically, it was Burton who exhibited the jealous streak. The way Losey had whispered in the actress’s ear to build up her confidence during the bath scene while getting rid of extraneous crew found its way back to Burton who misinterpreted the action as intimacy. “My wife and Joe Losey are having a professional love affair,” he claimed. He spent a lot more time than usual on the set of his wife’s film. He even offered to take on the Mitchum role.
Losey had long been fascinated by a strange-looking house in West Kensington, London, and managed to hire it for the shoot. Debenham House in Addison Road, between Holland Park Avenue and High St Kensington, is one of a handful of truly Gothic London buildings. The church used was in Little Venice, St Mary Magdalene in Rowington Close, also in London, and the antique shop was located at the corner of St Stephen’s Mews and Westbourne Green. When the production shifted to Holland it was to the coastal town of Noordwjik with use made of the Grand Hotel there.
By the time the film opened, Taylor found herself in the middle of a storm over foul language (“gutter talk” in Variety parlance) for which she was seen as the “chief exponent.” It was an ironic position for Taylor to find herself in given her expletive-ridden performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) had not only been critically acclaimed and a huge box office hit but seen as helping to break down the censorship barriers. However, it appeared that the “urination expression” and a word that was prefixed by “bull” were beyond the pale and Variety proclaimed that it was “evidently assumed that if a star of her (Taylor’s) magnitude can be gotten to speak the words, everyone else – actors, actresses, distributors, exhibitors and the public – will be accustomed to strong lingo in pix.” It was hardly coincidence that on the same day that this article was the leading story on the trade paper’s front page that inside six out of seven New York critics gave Secret Ceremony a drubbing, the exception being Renata Adler of the New York Times who called it Losey’s “best film in years.”
Even producer Heyman had his doubts about the material. “It should have been the story of two people who need and trust each other,” he said, “until one leans on the other a little bit more than she should. Unfortunately, the kind of sympathy which Losey shows for people in real life was absent from the relationship which is what I think made it unacceptable.” He summed up, “A cold picture.” (This has the taint of someone trying to work out why the film was a critical failure because otherwise I think Heyman got it exactly right for the movie I saw I did not view as cold nor unacceptable.)
And neither, strangely enough, did the public. Although making a poor showing in Britain, it was not a box office disaster. That was averted by astute marketing, the potency of the stars and a public who, not for the first time, ignored the critics. The movie broke records when it opened at the New York arthouse pair, the Sutton and the New Embassy, and further afield in cities like Dallas. Arthouse success would have been anticipated but nobody would have expected that when it went wide in New York the second week improved upon the first. As well as a decent showing in the States, it hit the ground running around the world, and “ought to be credited” as one of Universal’s “most successful pictures from either domestic or foreign source.” In the French box office rankings, it placed above The Detective (1968) and Hang ‘Em High (1968) and just below The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Acclaimed by that country’s critics, the Academie du Cinema named it best foreign film with Taylor and Farrow taking the gongs for best foreign actresses.
When Universal sold the movie to television for $1.25 million, a fee which certainly provided the picture with a decent extra profit margin, fourteen minutes were cut out and replaced by a 500 lines of extra dialog and a filmed discussion of the psychological issues raised, prompting Losey to demand his name be removed, claiming it “exactly reversed the meaning an intention of my film.”
SOURCES: Lee Server, Robert Mitchum, Baby I Don’t Care, (Faber and Faber, 2001) p169, 232, 509-512; Sam Kashner & Nancy Schoenberger, Furious Love, (JR Books, 2011)p240, 242-243,2; Alexander Walker, Hollywood England, (Orion Books, 2005) p200, 345, 354-257; “Screen: Secret Ceremony,” New York Times, October 26, 1968; “Joseph Losey Following Has Grown,” Box Office, October 28, 1968, pE1; “No End to Gutter Talk,” Variety, October 30, 1968, p1; “N.Y. Critics This Week: Ouch,” Variety, October 30, 1968, p12; “Secret Ceremony Sets House Mark at Sutton, New Embassy,” Box Office, November 4, 1968, pE2; “Secret Ceremony Setting New Records in Dallas,” Box Office, January 13, 1969, pSW1; “This Week’s N.Y. Showcases,” Variety, February 5, 1969, p9; “Jay Kanter,” Variety, February 26, 1969, p78; “Kanter No Martyr,” Variety, March 19, 1969, p26; “Ceremony, Z Nab Kudos,” Variety, May 7, 1969, p107; “French Filmgoing,” Variety, January 28, 1970, P27; “Paris First Runs,” Variety, April 29, 1970, p76; “Losey Wants His Credit Blipped from Vidversion of U’s Secret Ceremony,” Variety, September 16, 1970, p70; “All-Time Film Rental Champs,” Variety, October 15, 1990, pM184.
Few stars were as willing to trade their glamorous screen persona for a decent role as Elizabeth Taylor, here eschewing the trademark hip swivel, low cut dresses and elegant costumes for a clumping walk, frumpy look and eating with her mouth full. After a chance meeting on top of a bus with rich waif Cenci (Mia Farrow) middle-aged prostitute Leonora (Elizabeth Taylor) swaps a dingy bedsit for life in a massive mansion, cupboards stuffed full of furs, all her needs met. Cenci seeks a mother; Leonora, whose daughter drowned aged ten, seeks a child substitute.
Soon Leonora is prisoner to a fantasist, her own identity swamped by Cenci’s needs, accepting the role of “mummy” as the price of a life of luxury until she learns that what appears so freely given can be as easily taken away. This cloistered life is creepy. Cenci has rape fantasies. To a pair of interfering and thieving aunts, Leonora pretends to be Cenci’s dead mother’s cousin.
The fantasy conjured is threatened by the presence of Cenci’s poet stepfather Albert (Robert Mitchum) who intends to become the girl’s legal guardian. He talks like a child molester, “the extraordinary purity of my longings,” but given the depth of Cenci’s fantasies Leonora initially discounts inappropriate behavior on his part especially when Cenci wishes to become inappropriate with her. If Leonora stands in Albert’s way it is only to have the girl – and her wealth – to herself.
A psychological drama that appears more like a stage play in structure, skirting around core issues in favor of later revelation, and in essence making a good effort at dealing with behavioral problems which would find greater currency today – inherited mental illness, PTSD, low self-esteem, abuse, and incest. Though the last area is hard to specify, on the basis that, technically, Albert is a stepfather rather than a father, underage sex would appear to be more likely.
In an era when permissiveness virtually ensured audience shock, director Joseph Losey makes a decent stab at presenting the impact of sex on the vulnerable, despite her apparent steely exterior Leonora damaged by life as a sex worker, Cenci pretending to be younger as if that can sustain her innocence, not realizing how appealing that would be to a predator.
At once hypnotic and impenetrable, this is director Joseph Losey (The Servant, 1964) at his best, a story that by its subject matter must remain obscure, a mother-daughter relationship that should be twisted but reveals nothing but tenderness, ending for a time the torment of the emotionally unfulfilled, but when bonds appear to be strengthened they are fragmenting. However, the film is let down by the script and the somewhat grand guignol setting. Losey is wonderful at times with nothing to say just a prowling camera, only two lines of dialogue exchanged in the first 15 minutes. You would certainly file it under “eclectic.”
The two main performances are electric. This is Taylor at her powerhouse best, her profession not glamorized as in Butterfield 8 (1968) and no male to bring to heel, and her last scene with Cenci is extremely touching. This was a bold role, too, for Mia Farrow after the success of Rosemary’s Baby (1967) turned her into a box office star. She brings believability to a difficult role, especially as she is far from the spoiled child one might expect.
Robert Mitchum fans must have received the fright of their life to see their hero not just with uncomely beard but portraying a sinister character, not an out-and-out villain which would have been acceptable, but fast forward a couple of years and you can see evidence here of the kind of portrayal he would evince in Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Look out for Peggy Ashcroft (The Nun’s Story, 1959) in a smaller role, her first film in nearly a decade.
This weekend I am one of the very few male speakers at the “Doing Women’s Film and Television History” international conference being hosted by Maynooth University, Dublin, on July 10-11. Naturally it is a virtual conference but it is packed with speakers from all over the world who have been researching issues relating to women working in film and television. I am not an academic so it is signal honor for me to be invited to speak at a university-run conference.
My topic is “When Women Ruled Hollywood” which looks at female salaries in the movie business from 1910 to 1970. Although most people think women were hard-done-by in Hollywood and generally considered as second-class citizens, I found this was not at all the case. In the 1910s, Mary Pickford earned double the earnings of Charlie Chaplin. In the 1920s, the top earning star of either gender was Corinne Griffith.s
At the start of the 1930s, Greta Garbo was the dominant figure when it came to salaries. In 1935 Mae West was the second-highest earner in the whole of America, beaten only by William Randolph Hearst, immortalised as Citizen Kane.
In the annual salary league for the remainder of the 1930s and 1940s, Claudette Colbert (twice), Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers, Joan Crawford and Deanna Durbin all topped the rankings and in the years when males came out on top the female stars were not far behind.
While female salaries dipped in the 1950s, by the 1960s women were again beating the males at the salary game, Elizabeth Taylor way ahead of everybody, Audrey Hepburn on $1 million a picture, Julie Andrews out-earning Paul Newman in Torn Curtain and newcomer Barbra Streisand reaching unheard-of commercial heights.
I had written a couple of business histories of Hollywood, the research for which took me back to 1910 and in the course of writing those books I discovered information about salaries that would have been out of place in those works, so I dug around some more and came up with the information for this talk.
If you want an idea of my speech, you can check out this short sample on Youtube.
A couple of years ago, I wrote a book about cinemagoing in 1950 in my local town of Paisley in Scotland which at that time had eight cinemas screening over 1200 movies a year to the 93,000 inhabitants. Six of the theaters were first run and two second-run. A standard program consisted of main feature, supporting feature, newsreel and cartoon and in two cinemas a serial.
I got so engrossed in my research for this book that I went back to the source a second time and examined what happened in pictures houses for the following year. This treasure trove of cinematic memories turned into a bigger book with double the number of illustrations and also included a section on reminiscences and a look back to when the two biggest cinemas in the town had opened in the 1930s.
Anyone who was born outside the capital cities of their countries and a few other major cities besides will know that way into the 1970s there was a food chain in operation for movie distribution. Although the reference books and Imdb will show movies as having been made, for example, in 1951, most cinemas would not get to screen them that year. In Paisley, for example, only 11.5 per cent of the movies made in 1951 appeared in the town during the same year. More people went to the movies in those days than now – two or three times a week was not uncommon.
The biggest films of 1951 in Paisley included musical Annie Get Your Gun, marital comedy Father of the Bride with Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor, Deborah Kerr and Stewart Granger in MGM blockbuster King Solomon’s Mines, Gregory Peck as Captain Horatio Hornblower, John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in John Ford western Rio Grande and Greer Garson in sequel The Miniver Story.
Also topping the popularity league were Mario Lanza in biopic The Great Caruso, British war film Odette starring Anna Neagle, Alfred Hitchcock thriller Stage Fright with Jane Wyman and Marlene Dietrich, Anglophile Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in thriller State Secret, David Niven musical Happy-Go-Lovely (filmed in Edinburgh), Cecil B. DeMille Biblical epic Samson and Delilah, John Garfield in The Breaking Point – a surprisingly speedy remake of To Have and Have Not – and comedy duo Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in At War with the Army.
The year’s number one star in Paisley was Jane Wyman – judged on how many days her pictures played in the town. In second spot came John Wayne. Joan Bennett was third. Glenn Ford and Virginia Mayo rounded out the top five. Cowboy star Gene Autry topped the B-movie brigade.
Among the serials show were Batman and Robin, The Purple Monster Strikes, Atom Man vs. Superman, King of the Rocket Men, The Adventures of Sir Galahad, Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars, The Monster and the Ape, Pirates of the High Seas and The Daughter of Don Q.