Together they devour life! Or at least chew the scenery
Baroque. Opulent. Decadent. Berserk! I celebrated my birthday on 12 May by attending a rare screening of the infamous 1968 Joseph Losey film Boom! at The Institute of Contemporary Art with my friend Alison. I’ve long been curious about the film for its reputation as one of the biggest bombs in Hollywood history and because Pope of Trash John Waters (one of my heroes) has championed it so enthusiastically and persuasively as his all-time favourite movie. "I show it to every person I think I'm falling in love with,” Waters claims. “If they hate it, I don't talk to them anymore." And finally, it seemed like a nice way to pay tribute to the film's leading lady, Elizabeth Taylor, who died in March. (When I interviewed Waters for Nude magazine in December 2010, he recalled how in the 90s he finally met Taylor at a party and was able to profess his love for Boom! She was horrified and screamed, “That movie is terrible!”). I can confirm Boom! still hasn't lost its capacity to alienate and annoy: the screening Alison and I attended was sparsely-attended. The couple in front of us walked out early on.
The wonderfully lurid trailer for Boom!
A true “film maudit”, Boom! is mainly remembered as a disastrous star vehicle / vanity project for tempestuous then-married duo Taylor and Richard Burton, at what author Lee Server has called “their jet-setting, conspicuously-consuming, bad-movie making height.” Tennessee Williams himself adapted the screenplay from his flop play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Taylor plays ageing hedonist Flora “Sissy” Goforth, the much-married, drug addicted richest woman in the world (and it’s been argued, the most irritating woman in the world). From the windswept high solitude of her all-white villa on the edge of a cliff on a private island on the Amalfi Coast, the terminally ill Goforth is in denial about her imminent death, distracting herself by dictating her sensational Proustian memoirs into a tape recorder and directing her diva’s wrath at her long-suffering servants in fractured Italian (“Shit on your mother!” she screams at a maid who displeases her). "I need a lover," she growls to her secretary. Sure enough, she is visited by the enigmatic Christopher Flanders (played by Burton), a failed poet turned gigolo notorious on the international jet set as an ambiguous and parasitic Angel of Death who materialises whenever a wealthy woman is about to die.
In theory Boom! initially may have seemed promising. Taylor and Burton were show business royalty and the public was still entranced by their glitzy soap opera lifestyle. Taylor had triumphed in earlier film adaptations of Tennessee Williams plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly Last Summer (1959). Joseph Losey was a hip, art-y director of the moment, critically acclaimed for films like The Servant (1963). But considering the play Milk Train had failed on Broadway twice already in two different versions (in 1963 and 1964), it seems an odd choice as source material for a lavish big budget film adaptation. Tennessee Williams himself couldn’t be expected to be objective, but surely Losey, Taylor and Burton probably should have considered the play’s failure as an ominous premonition? The doomed 1964 Broadway production (which closed after only five performances) certainly sounds fascinating: it perversely partnered the odd couple of dissipated grand dame of the American stage Tallulah Bankhead as Goforth with wholesome 1950s teen heartthrob Tab Hunter as Flanders.
Tab Hunter as Christopher Flanders and Tallulah Bankhead as Sissy Goforth in the 1964 Broadway production of The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore
The resulting film is overblown, irresistibly absurd, high camp run amok and unintentionally hilarious. Losey depicts the Goforth mansion as a grotesque freak show deluxe, complete with a sadistic dwarf bodyguard in jodhpurs and riding boots, a pet monkey on a chain, a talking mynah bird in a cage and sitar-playing Indian musicians. A cadaverous-looking Noel Coward pops up in a dinner jacket as a gossipy gay socialite nicknamed the Witch of Capri. When Flanders first trespasses onto Goforth’s island, her savage attack dogs are released – just like Mr Burns does with his hounds on The Simpsons.
Taylor as Sissy Goforth and Burton as Christopher Flanders
Boom! feels drenched in a boozy / narcotic haze, which apparently extended both on and off screen. “They made this film drunk …” Waters has pointed out. The Burtons were famously hard-drinking, and Losey and the cast reportedly began each day’s filming with a round of Bloody Marys, and it shows. Drunken impaired judgement would certainly explain a lot. In any given shot it’s rare for a character not to have either a drink or a cigarette in their hand -- in Taylor's case, usually both (Taylor wields an outrageously long cigarette holder). The camera lingers over characters availing themselves of huge pitchers of Bloody Marys (which, it has to be said, look pretty tempting). There’s almost as much pill-popping as in The Valley of the Dolls. At one point Taylor washes down a fistful of pain killers with a gigantic snifter of brandy.
Then there’s the eternal problem of film translations of Tennessee Williams plays: his dialogue (heightened, poetic, high-falutin’) doesn’t translate easily to the screen. The atmosphere of decadence and impending tragedy is laid-on thick; everyone seems death-obsessed and is apt to suddenly start philosophising in long, meandering soliloquies about the meaning of life. Waters has shrewdly argued Boom! should be approached as a “failed art movie”: certainly Losey (out of his depth and reportedly intimidated by Liz and Dick) seems to be striving for high European art cinema seriousness, layering on heavy-handed symbolism a-go go, soundtracked by a doom-laden John Barry score and the constant sound of waves crashing onto the rocks. The moments of Taylor suffering panic attacks on her balcony, for example, recall Monica Vitti’s existential nervous breakdown in Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1964 Il Deserto Rosso. (Maybe if Boom! was made in a different language, if Taylor and Burton were dubbed in Italian, the film would have felt less risible?).
Considering Boom! was primarily conceived as a showcase for Taylor and Burton, they’re surprisingly miscast. For one thing, their ages are all wrong: Taylor is too young and Burton too old -- the play was about the relationship between an older, dying woman and a much younger man. Sissy Goforth is supposed to be dying: when Tallulah Bankhead played the role onstage she was in her 60s and genuinely wraith-like, prematurely ravaged by emphysema and the consequences of a suicidally debauched lifestyle (it would be her last major theatrical performance and she would die within five years). The 35-year old Taylor, on the other hand, looks sun-kissed, plump and in robust good health even when coughing up blood in a consumptive fit or writhing in agony screaming for an injection.
Another bourbon, darling? Tallulah Bankhead towards the end of her life
Similarly, as an elite high society gigolo Flanders surely should be a bronzed Adonis, or something like Terence Stamp in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1968 film Teorema. Clad throughout in a samurai warrior’s robe (complete with ceremonial sword), Burton looks haggard and faded. It's he who looks like he’s dying, instead of Taylor. (We get a few fleeting glimpses of Burton swimming naked – they’re deeply unappealing).
Taylor pouts through the pain. Burton as the angelo della morte looks moodily into the distance
In any case, Boom! is overwhelmingly dominated by Taylor in full-throttle imperious, overripe, scenery-chewing diva mode. Camille Paglia has written of Taylor in another Joseph Losey film, Secret Ceremony (also 1968) as being “at the peak of her mature fleshy glamour.” That’s definitely true here, too. Shrouded mainly in floor-skimming caftans, with elaborate bouffant hairstyles augmented with hair pieces, Taylor is glamorous but prematurely matronly and slathered in thick make-up. Still channelling Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and shrieking like a harridan, Taylor’s Sissy Goforth is self-parodic, unhinged and drag queen-y: no wonder John Waters says Taylor’s appearance and abrasive performance in this film were a beloved source of inspiration for Divine. (Waters has said Divine was so influenced by Taylor that he smoked Salem cigarettes purely because they were Taylor's brand of choice).
So demanding ...
Boom! is recognised today as a camp classic (it ticks all the right boxes as listed in Susan Sontag’s 1964 Notes on Camp essay, especially in terms of “failed seriousness”). It certainly seems to have a queer sensibility, and perhaps the role of Sissy Goforth is best approached as a coded drag queen. Interestingly, Rupert Everett played the role of Sissy in drag in a 1994 British stage production of Milk Train. And famously the role of the Witch of Capri was originally conceived as (and played onstage by) a woman and in Boom! it’s played by Noel Coward. (The part was originally offered to Katherine Hepburn – who was deeply offended). There’s a jaw-droppingly tasteless and misogynistic scene where the Witch of Capri describes a friend who refers to women as “poisson” and sniffs from a vial of ammonia to disguise the scent of any menstruating woman who might pass by him on the street. Seriously – what the hell were they thinking?!
While by no stretch a "good" film, Boom! is incredibly beautiful to look at, weirdly enjoyable and frequently mesmerising in a way only a truly trashy bad movie can be. There's a wonderful tension between the film's high-minded, literary aspirations and its actual lurid vulgarity. Essentially a filmed play, Boom! is extremely talk-y, but Losey’s prowling camera and elegantly composed shots ensure it’s never dull to watch. The production values were obviously high, and they're visible on the screen: the jewels Taylor wears, for example, are all genuine, on loan from Bulgari and worth an estimated $2,000,000. The art direction, sets, exteriors and Taylor’s garish wardrobe (especially her eye-popping Kabuki ensemble with the exploding headdress) are incredible. (Some of Taylor's costumes were apparently designed by Karl Lagerfeld). Captured in glorious Panavision, the sun-drenched Italian Riviera locale is exquisite (Boom! is usually described as having been filmed in Capri, but the closing credits say it was filmed on location in Sardinia). Boom! is immersive, a noble and ambitious failure, a real experience. Like Elizabeth Taylor’s interpretation of Sissy Goforth, it’s simultaneously seductive and repellent. Boom! is finally majestic in its misguided awfulness.
Taylor in Kabuki costume and Coward as The Witch of Capri