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BUtterfield 8, the film for which Elizabeth Taylor won her first Oscar for Best Actress in 1960, is a troublesome film. It has some flashes of brilliance, where Taylor is clearly at the top of her game, but with so few strong performances around her, BUtterfield 8 fails to go from ‘just good’ to ‘great.’
The film was adapted by John O’Hara’s novel of the same name, centering on a call girl named Goldie Wandrous (Taylor), who falls in love with Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey), who, of course, happens to be married. Goldie is also best friends with Steve Carpenter (Eddie Fisher), who grew up with her and is always there to help when she is in need.
BUtterfield 8 is just under two hours, but it feels much longer than that, with all of its twisted subplots that get in the way of the audience learning any more about the complexities of Goldie’s life. Liggett’s subplot involves his inability to get out of his overprotective wife’s shadow, while Steve’s girlfriend had just given him an ultimatum: her or Goldie. While these both could show just how important Goldie is in their lives, I think this is possible without diverting the audience’s attention from her. Even in the last act, director Daniel Mann and screenwriters Charles Schnee and John Michael Hayes seem more interested in showing us how Liggett’s character changes in the last act than focusing on Goldie’s broad character arc. The movie should have ended when Goldie is finally able to change her lifestyle, for which she pays the ultimate price. Honestly, I could care less what happens to Liggett after that.
It could be argued that Goldie is meant to be seen as some disembodied spirit, floating from person to person and tying these subplots together. But, I’m sorry, with Taylor giving such an incendiary performance, I want her onscreen as much as possible. Plus, considering the lack of star power around her, the film needs it. Laurence Harvey, who would later go on to give a great performance in The Manchurian Candidate (1962), is partly why the film’s emphasis on Liggett is so hard to swallow. The scenes with his wife (Dina Merrill) are difficult to watch and even when he tries to give Taylor a dose of reality, Harvey is hardly believable. Fisher, in one of his rare film appearances, gives an adequate performance for his part, but the scenes with his girlfriend, played by a dull Susan Oliver, are hard to watch. In fact, it feels like all the women in this film except Taylor are hard to watch. Maybe that’s why she won the Oscar over Shirley MacLaine’s performance in The Apartment. At least MacLaine had a wonderful ensemble to act with. For Taylor, this film rests entirely on her shoulders.
Taylor fans should eat this film up. It has its fair share of iconic Taylor moments, like the entire opening sequence where she wanders around Liggett’s penthouse and writes “No Sale” on his mirror and that great line, “I’m not like anyone. I’m me!” Overall, though, it hasn’t aged well and too often takes our attention away from Taylor and her fantastic character. BUtterfield 8 is worth checking out once, but even that might be too much for some.
Although the original DVD of the film has been out of print for years, Warner Bros. recently made it available in the TCM Greatest Classic Legends: Elizabeth Taylor collection.