Michael Koresky on The Sandpiper

A favorite story of film buffs and scholars is the Hollywood studio breakdown and the brief flowering of radical, daring cinema in its wake. The long and short of it goes that, by the mid 1960s, with the fully integrated studio system largely obsolete, movie executives were finding themselves at ropes’ end thanks to expensive flops and an overall decline in theater attendance. They were so jarred in fact that they went against their conservative instincts and turned to a younger generation of rebel directors, film-school brats who stuck their nose up at the establishment, finding true inspiration for their low-budget endeavors from foreign cinematic new waves and taking advantage of the loosening of strict regulations and censorship. While it’s true that this did lead to the careers of more than a few icons, like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, it also created an atmosphere where well-practiced industry workhorses could ply their trade in ways that brought out their idiosyncratic best—think longtime TV guy Robert Altman with M*A*S*H and McCabe and Mrs. Miller or John Huston with Fat City. In the simplest, most storied terms: directors, nay, auteurs, throwing off their studio shackles and assuming their rightful place as arbiters of a form once held in artistic bondage. The problem with this appealing apocrypha is that it adheres blindly to a philosophical auteurist purity that fails to take into consideration the realities of the system that made both these filmmakers’ careers and films possible. And if we view “great” directors’ films from a simplistic before and after perspective, what about those filmmakers who kept making movies, but whose careers never quite adapted after the change-up, the Cukors and the Kazans, the Joshua Logans and the George Stevenses?

A good test case would be Vincente Minnelli, one of those few dyed-in-the-wool studio filmmakers viewed with zeal as an auteur, thanks to an appealingly artisanal back-story (he was a window dresser and theater costume and set designer before a director) and the allegedly easily identifiable split between musicals (with their famously voluminous color palettes) and melodramas (more muted affairs than those of Sirk but still played to the hilt) that has seemed to largely define his career. Yet what about the noirish thrillers (1947’s Undercurrent; 1955’s The Cobweb), the family heartwarmers (1950’s Father of the Bride and its sequel, Father’s Little Dividend; 1963’s The Courtship of Eddie Father), the straight-faced period pieces (like 1956’s Lust for Life), and romantic comedies (1957’s Designing Woman)? There’s even a Lucille Ball-Desi Arnaz vehicle in the bunch, 1953’s The Long, Long Trailer. Which is all to say that Minnelli cannot easily be stylistically or thematically pinned down. Once some dismissed him as middlebrow studio stooge and today he is generally regarded as an important Hollywood artist who managed to put his personal stamp on numerous for-hire projects. The truth, as always, probably lies somewhere in the middle—a truth that in no way detracts from the fluid, painterly brilliance of his best films, especially Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, Gigi, and Some Came Running; that the majority of them are freer-formed musicals points to the possibility that in some later era, in which the director was regarded as having more artistic clout, Minnelli might have been given greater carte blanche to make more visually unbridled, albeit darker-toned films.

But Minnelli was never able to emerge from the studio wreckage of the 1960s with anything resembling a clear auteurist (stylistic or ideological) point of view. That Minnelli’s early sixties films seem largely overly preoccupied with the shortcomings and burdens of the male animal (the brawny melodramas Home from the Hill and Two Weeks in Another Town, and the Father Knows Best–ish Courtship of Eddie’s Father) probably had more to do with the era itself, reacting to the often female-centered domestic comedies and teen flicks of the fifties, than Minnelli’s own desires. Scholarly reading into his films excavates heaps of buzzwords like class, consumerism, Freudianism, nonconformity, and masculinity, all of which you’d be hard-pressed to not find applicable to random handfuls of Hollywood golden-era titles. So what can we do with a film like 1965’s The Sandpiper? This Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton sudser was made right in that not-so-sweet spot in the middle of the decade, when audiences refused to see anything that didn’t feature Julie Andrews spinning on a mountaintop and when producers were trying to find things to appeal to younger, more progressive audiences without giving up on their waning stars and once tried-and-true formulas.

For this model The Sandpiper fits right in—a confusedly conservative attempt at a liberal-minded romance set in the Big Sur beach artist community, where a hippy-dippy Liz falls for Dick’s Episcopalian reverend, the starchy (and married) principal of her son’s boarding school. It’s a film that is rarely discussed with any seriousness by Minnelli scholars, getting nary a mention in James Naremore’s focused study The Films of Vincente Minnelli; relegated only to a listing in the bibliography in Joe McElhaney’s Senses of Cinema profile of Minnelli; tersely waved off as “a dreadful film” by David Thomson in his Minnelli entry in his Biographical Dictionary of Film; and dismissed as a “silly soap opera” by Emanuel Levy in his 2009 biography Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer, which also introduces the film by stating: “Almost every filmmaker has at least one movie he’s embarrassed about, a movie he’d like to erase from his filmography.” It’s also one of the rare cases where a film widely acknowledged as a black sheep, even by those who made and starred in it, was a financial success. The Sandpiper was, in fact, MGM’s biggest hit of 1965, despite scathing reviews and disavowals from everyone involved. “We never thought it would be an artistic masterpiece. We did it for the money,” Taylor was later quoted as saying—as though this isn’t the primary motivation in most industrial film endeavors.

Many laid the blame squarely at Burton and Taylor’s feet (in the Village Voice, Andrew Sarris, ever the auteurist, attributed the failure not to the once-great Minnelli but rather to the “whim of an alleged actress”) as a way of couching the film as nothing more than a frivolous star vehicle. Indeed the project originated with the on-and-off tabloid-beloved couple, who had director approval—William Wyler was their first choice, but the four-time Oscar winner called the script a “piece of crap.” Yet Minnelli, like so many of his contemporaries, was an old pro when it came to dealing with the egotism of his actors, over the years having had to maintain a semblance of control over Gene Kelly, Lucy and Desi, and even Frank Sinatra. One could clearly target the screenplay—written, surprisingly, by two blacklistees, Michael Wilson and “Hollywood 10” patron saint Dalton Trumbo—as a mess of ideological bull sessions between atheist painter Laura Reynolds (Taylor) and religious Reverend Doctor Edward Hewitt (Burton) that feature dialogue like, “The only way you can tame a bird is to let it fly free. It’s the only way you can tame anything.” (Really?) Or perhaps the blame lies with the ghastly scarlet caftans and sweater capes (which may conform with someone’s idea of primary-color Minnelli extravagance) and lumpy powder-blue sweaters costumer Irene Sharaff designed for Taylor and Burton, respectively. The supporting cast could catch a grenade or two: Eva Marie Saint’s surname is put to dull use as Burton’s ever-composed wife in a performance that seems 99-percent created in the ADR booth; a young and swarthy Charles Bronson squints his way through the part of hepcat Cos Erickson, a nonorthodox, rough-hewn woodcarver friend of Laura’s who’s primarily concerned with challenging the reverend on the virgin birth and whittling nude sculptures of Liz Taylor from hunks of redwood; and ten-year-old Morgan Mason (son of James) somehow manages worst-in-show as quite probably cinema’s least convincing child-with-a-dark-side, delivering all his lines (even when supposedly quoting Chaucer passages from memory) as though he had been beamed with a softball not moments prior. Perhaps only Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster get off the hook for their catchy Oscar-winning theme song, “The Shadow of Your Smile,” forever after a sultry standby in piano lounges—even though here it’s ground into oblivion by constant trumpet-solo renditions on the soundtrack.

All roads lead back to Minnelli, whose inability to harness all this junk into anything more meaningful than a chance for Dick to tremble with repressed desire and for Liz to angrily boast her cleavage (in a scene in which an ex-lover nearly tears her top off in an attempted rape) is indicative of, well, nothing much more than the genius idiocy of the system. Everything is there because it’s supposed to be: heavenly opening and closing shots of the rocky cliffs and crashing waves of Big Sur at dawn and sunset; faux-devotional images of the area’s thriving bohemian artists’ commune and its incipient flower children; a dignified black buddy (the not-long-for-this-world James Edwards) who stands around mostly to respond to the main characters with a shrugged off “cool, baby”; perfunctory flesh vs. the spirit themes; pulse-slowing fireside love scenes; some off-handed references to Thoreau to bolster its hermit seductress protagonist. Few studio filmmakers are immune to this sort of laziness at one time or another, of course, especially so late in their career (Minnelli had only two movies left after this), but it must have seemed especially conspicuous in the year when U.S. audiences were discovering such game-changers as Schlesinger’s Darling and Lumet’s The Pawnbroker.

The thudding execution of The Sandpiper is most unfortunate, though, for the way it squashes the areas of interest that peek out like mice from the torn burlap of its fabrication. Though spoken through Elizabeth Taylor’s weird London-by-way-of-Arkansas patrician accent, Laura’s dialogue occasionally happens upon genuinely progressive nuggets; her rationale for becoming a recluse is founded less on Thoreauvian principles than on feeling driven to society’s margins by bestial men, whom she remarks have always treated her like a plaything, passing her around like an amusement. “Men have been rubbing up against me since I was twelve,” she states in one of the film’s starker revelations; she decries the idea that a woman is nothing other than a wife or mother; and later she even wards off a stalking man while brandishing an axe. The plot’s instigation hinges on Laura’s distaste for man’s brutality, as it’s revealed that her declaration that “men are the only animals who kill for fun” is what drives her home-schooled little boy to nab a gun and shoot a precious deer (just to see what the fun is all about), the event that precipitates the authorities’ taking him from Laura and placing him in the San Simeon boarding school that Burton’s Hewitt lords over. When Laura first walks into his office, Hewitt is stopped dead with passion, despite her bedraggled hair and purple smock—but in addition to her voluptuous Elizabeth Taylor-ness, he is also fascinated by Laura’s “naturalist,” anti-religion stance and her fierce independence: she has never been married, and happily retorts that her son’s father did not abandon them; rather, she left him.

Despite all this, Laura, being actually Liz Taylor in a barely concealing caftan, melts in Burton’s arms; he does, after all, look dishy in his clerical collar and wears his constant look of pockmarked imploded guilt quite attractively. And Burton’s character is the more aggressive of the pair, ultimately: after an early, ostensible business meeting between the two of them in her cluttered beachside shack (he wants to commission paintings from her for a chapel that’s in the works, saying knowledgeably that purer religious art has always been done by nonbelievers), he turns to her on his way out the door and states, without warning but with creepy, Burtonian grandeur and a steely, sweaty gaze: “I want you, Laura.”

Over the past century or so, perhaps audiences have so come to accept Hollywood romance as inherently unconvincing claptrap (there’s no need for filmmakers to make audiences believe that two people love, or even like, each other if we’re trained to expect that we’ll be just put through the paces time and again) that the lack of spark in Laura Reynolds and Edward Hewitt’s affair might not even seem a liability at all. The Brief Encounters and Before Sunrises are few and far between. In such an entertainment as The Sandpiper, it’s the surrounding details that are supposed to make all the difference: a memorable theme song, popping costumes, a lovely setting and evocative scenery. Perhaps that’s where discussion of Vincente Minnelli—not just the director himself, but all those Minnellis who threw up their hands at burdensome star vehicles like this one—belongs. Rather than figure out a way of bringing some vitality (mid-sixties-specific or otherwise) into this dreary project, he simply went back to the playbook. The only character who seems compelled to do anything spontaneous is the titular bird itself, which at one point, amidst a sensual fireside chat between the leads, flutters over and lands on Taylor’s head, and remains perched there like some ridiculous cowlick for the remainder of their conversation. Neither actor flinches. Clearly this was intended to happen (and must have taken multiple takes to get right), as it shows that the broken-winged sandpiper, which Laura was nursing back to health with the help of some scotch tape, was in fine fettle. Yet the unexpectedness of the gesture is refreshing in a film—and studio system at large—always too bird-brained to let its actors break away from the ordinary.