Boom [1968]

4/10 | 7.Oct.12
Boom

DIRECTOR: Joseph Losey | WRITER: Tennessee Williams | CAST: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Noël Coward, Joanna Shimkus, Michael Dunn | UK

It’s not enough that Boom* is a legendarily disastrous multi-million dollar box office flop that was based on an equally legendary Tennessee Williams flop, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore — which may hold some kind of Broadway record for flopping in successive years (in 1963 with Hermione Baddeley and CYT Paul Roebling in the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton roles, then again in 1964 with Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter) — but it’s been canonized by, among others, John Waters as one of the greatest camp masterpieces of all time. Well, there is no escaping the fact that the movie is an unmitigated disaster, but it doesn’t quite work for me as camp, either. For me to get that delicious jolt of pure malevolent schadenfreude with this kind of disastrous film (or play), I have to have the sense that the people involved are trying their hardest but they’re failing (and flailing) on a huge scale and just won’t give up. It has to be clear to me, in other words, that the actors, director, screenwriter — the whole lot of them — care about what they’re doing. In the case of Boom, unfortunately, it is abundantly clear that no one involved in the movie gave a shit.

I’ve read that Losey was drinking heavily during the filming and it shows; he seems not to be interested in much of anything, and in particular not in directing actors. Richard Burton is much too old to play the young and sexy Angel of Death and he coasts along intoning and looking bloated and, frequently, in his cups. Worse is Elizabeth Taylor who is obviously loaded through much of the film and waddles around on her short stubby legs flashing the enormous rocks on her short stubby fingers — I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: of all the major glamorous movie stars who’ve ever lived she is by far the least physically graceful — and she can’t decide what her character is, so for no discernible reason in the middle of one scene she starts speaking in a fake posh British accent that’s straight out of a Carol Burnett skit, while in others she shrieks like Shelley Winters (“Shit on your mother!” to a servant; “Get back in yer robe! Putcher cloes on!” to Richard Burton’s character), and there are stretches where I would swear she doesn’t even know what she’s saying.

Watching an actor play a character who is obviously drunk is one thing, but watching an obviously drunk actor not even try to act is just not fun or funny. On top of this, Taylor looks like she not only never lost the weight she had gained for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf two years earlier, but had gotten even heavier, which makes lines like “If you have a world famous figure why be selfish with it?” especially embarrassing when she’s backlit in a gauzy negligée. But worst of all is watching Liz and Dick act together — the only reason for this dog and pony show to begin with — since there’s no glamour, no pizzazz, no anything. They’re clearly trading on their celebrity as a couple to put them over and it just isn’t enough.

It’s not obvious to me how anyone could have solved the root problem with Boom: the screenplay. It is quite simply awful. Williams’ trademark heightened, poetic dialogue and imagery are flat and obvious and the screenplay is littered with clunkers like “What’s human or not human is not for human decision!” Even Noël Coward**, the only actor in the movie who is halfway decent, is saddled with lines like “I’ve always found girls to be fragrant in any phase of the moon” as he sniffs from a small decanter of ammonia, a habit he acquired from an elegant New Orleans gentleman from his past who would cry “poisson!” and sniff from a decanter of ammonia when he passed women on the street. (Yes, really. Could I make that up?) But Coward does toss off his lines amusingly in his affected, over-enunciated staccato: “When you called me this morning I was so relieved I could die. I shouted a silent hallelujah. To myself.”

The sets and costumes are ridiculous and for no reason. Why, for instance, does the multi-millionaire former actress have Easter Island moai on her private island summer retreat just a short speed boat journey away from Capri? And what is the floor plan of her house? It appears from the inside to be a series of airplane-hangar sized rooms that don’t seem to join together to form a single building. All in all I wasn’t expecting anything good, but Boom is mediocre not-good, not spectacular not-good; there’s nothing that’s so awful that it really stands out for its sheer awfulness. It’s just a mess with no spark of anything special. I guess there’s no denying that some of it is fun; it’s just not fun or funny enough for two hours.

* I assume the American release of this movie, Boom!, is more exciting than Boom, the title of the UK release that I watched.

** I just love Roger “Mere plot points are meaningless” Ebert: “A fey old charmer from the mainland — Noel Coward, no less — is invited to dinner.” Noël Coward’s character’s name is The Witch of Capri. Because he’s a gossipy bitchy old queen who lives on Capri. An island. A fact about the character that is repeated endlessly, and which is important because Flora “Sissy” Goforth — Liz — lives on a private island approachable only by launch from Capri, another island, which itself has been essentially an exclusive country club vacation hangout for the ultra-wealthy since the Emperor Augustus.

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