Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Butterfield 8 (1960) "La mujer marcada"

Director: Daniel Mann
Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey, Eddie Fisher, Betty Field, Mildred Dunnock, Dina Merrill

 The movie starts with Gloria Wandrous having a bad morning. She wakes in a strange apartment with no more cigarettes so slugs down some 20-year-old scotch instead. The whisky and the apartment belong to Weston Liggett, who brought her there the night before in a mutual blackout. After ripping her costly gown off her back and doing who knows what else, he had the nerve to tuck $250 into her clutch bag with a note asking 'Enough?' Wounded to the quick, she scrawls 'No sale' across his mirror in frosted pink lipstick, grabs a decanter of hooch (age unknown) as well his wife's best fur to throw over her slip, and hails a cab home. As she explains it later, 'I borrowed something spiteful and elegant.' Gloria was a call girl who, the double-talking script insists, is not a call girl at all. Rather, she gets paid to model chic frocks at chic bistros all across midtown Manhattan, where she sips Champagne perched atop pianos and flirts with the ad execs and Wall Street's finest. But she still lives officially with her mother (a poor old thing), though few are the nights she sleeps there. She takes lovers (many if briefly), but her only pal is songwriter Steve Carpenter, a relationship that might make sense if he were presented as gay; instead, he's saddled with jealous girlfriend Norma. Harder to fathom than Gloria's source of income is her attraction to the perpetually scowling and sulking Weston Liggett. He's a Yale man married into money and serving as a functionary in a company owned by his wife Emily's family. With her old-money breeding, she feels like she's making him suffer; at one point her own mother sets her straight about family solidarity. Yet when she discovers her mink missing, she goes crazy. I thought that this was the wrong detail on which to hang the turning of the plot; even if it wasn't insured, it's no more a loss than a nylon windbreaker for a woman of her wealth. The bond between Gloria and Weston is plainly sexual at first. In the most memorable scene, he twists her wrist while she grinds her stiletto heel into his instep. He hates her for so freely granting her favors but loves her for granting them to him. And so it goes, with both of them undergoing crises neither of them has enough maturity to handle, and for which resolutions must be sought in the mechanics of melodrama.  When, in a rare moment of truth telling, Gloria's mother slaps her. Gloria exclaims, 'If only you'd done that before!' She can't simply be a free-thinking woman who enjoys the high life her looks can buy her, but a self-loathing and self-destructive victim of sexual abuse by one of her mom's beaux when she was only 13.  Butterfield 8 pretends to take a hard look at big-city social mores in mid-20th-century America but really delivers a clucking sermon. The run-of-the-mill sexual messes the characters find themselves in are hardly fodder for the judgments visited on them. A movie that was received as 'daring' in its day now dates badly, revealing the 'racy' writer John O'Hara was.

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