BUTTERFIELD 8 is famous today as the movie that won Elizabeth Taylor an Oscar she didn’t deserve, thanks to Academy voters giving her a sympathy victory after she barely survived pneumonia and a wicked emergency tracheotomy. Actually she’s very good, possibly worthy of a nomination were there not at least eight excellent competitors that year. Taylor famously dissed the movie and her work in it (“I still say it stinks!”) and reportedly was so irked by being contractually obligated to take it that she wouldn’t even speak to director Daniel Mann during production.
Taken from a 1935 John O’Hara novel, it deals with a party girl/model/tramp named Gloria Wandrous (bonk!) who gets involved with a cynical married socialite: cue the expected bummer outcome. It’s the kind of sin that for an audience of 1960 must be defined as ‘sordid’, yet also fetched up with glossy color camera work (nominated), spendy costumes and jewelry, a red sports car, and skeet shooting (something rich people do).
The heel is Laurence Harvey, on his big roll (Room at The Top,The Alamo) before people tired of his cutting nastiness (on screen and off; Harvey was notably vicious to his leading ladies) and he gets the hardest-to-swallow dramatics. Mr.Taylor #4, the hapless Eddie Fisher, co-stars—he’s about as cinematic and compelling as a coffee table. Dina Merrill is wooden as the spurned wife: maybe her off-screen pedigree as E.F.Hutton’s daughter and heiress to the Post Toasties fortune got in the way of convincingly relating to tough times? Nice work from Mildred Dunnock, Susan Oliver and Betty Field.
The script has some fun banter between Taylor and assorted cast members, especially in the first half-hour; she handles these barbs with career-earned chops. At 28, she also looks pretty darn hot, even though she poked fun at her budding double-chin, calling it “Butterball 8”. Some of the heavier drama works, other chunks get your eyes into roll position, for sure the overbearing music score from Bronislau Kaper does more than its share of damage.
There was another Sturm und Drang John O’Hara slog that year, From the Terrace: did that guy ever write anything happy? That one submerged Paul Newman in rich duds and soapsuds, but wasn’t as much fun as this number, which rang in at #6 of the year’s big moneymakers, grossing $21,600,000. People wanted to see Liz in a night-slip, were pre-scandalized by her treasonous lariat job stealing Fisher from Tammy aka Debbie Reynolds, and were primed to hear her declare “Mama, face it: I was the slut of all time!” That line always gets camp-followers to wee-wee, but there’s also Harvey spitting “I only did—what I did last night—because you were—so much in my heart—I exploded!” With Kay Medford, George Voscovec and a fur coat.
The other Best Actress nominees that year were Greer Garson (Sunrise at Campobello), Shirley MacLaine (The Apartment), Melina Mercouri (Never on Sunday), and Deborah Kerr—her sixth time (The Sundowners). Plus there was the great work from Brigitte Bardot in La Vérité, Lee Remick in Wild River, Nancy Kwan in The World of Suzie Wong, Jean Simmons in Elmer Gantry and Hayley Mills in Pollyanna. At least Hayley snogged a special Oscar.
Enduring the headlines and bad lines of this melodrama got Liz freed up for her million dollar sign-on to Cleopatra, and the woebegone Mr.Fisher was soon packing his sheet music to make way for a certain Welsh tenor.