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“Beyond bad… the other side of camp… a perfect movie, really.” Schlock-loving John Waters’s verdict on Boom! is pretty much the mainstream take on this 1968 monstrosity, a vehicle for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton that is so monumentally kitsch that everyday adjectives aren’t up to describing it.

Camp or kitsch? Why not both? If camp is unknowing whereas kitsch is deliberate, this has to be the latter, since it’s an out-and-out attempt to fix Tennessee Williams’s unsuccessful play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore by making it even more grandiose and exaggerated than it was on the stage.

You may hate it but you cannot deny its spectacle. The great Douglas Slocombe is the DP and shoots it in gorgeous, vivid Technicolor. John Barry did the lush score. Director Joseph Losey has gone for a mannered giallo, or a psychedelic kabuki, in his retelling of Williams’s story about a fading actress (Taylor) forced to pause dictating her memoirs when an interloper, a young poet (played by the not-young-enough Burton), arrives unannounced on her sun-drenched private island in the Mediterranean.

Christopher Flanders (Burton) may well be the angel of death, it’s suggested several times, and this may be the last performance for the ailing, histrionic Flora Goforth (Taylor), who may be named thus because she is indeed about to go forth, into eternity. Or possibly it’s a joke reference to her tendency to instruct people to go forth (and multiply).

She’s a harridan, a tartar, a virago. The locals on the neighbouring islands refer to her simply as “the bitch” and the only people who will put up with her are those who are paid to do so, like her secretary Miss Black (Joanna Shimkus), various other members of staff, who keep leaving, and her gossipy old friend, who she calls the Witch of Capri, played by a flouncy Noël Coward as if he were breaking in someone else’s false teeth.

It’s the Witch – who enters in dinner jacket on another man’s shoulders – who informs Mrs Goforth of her new arrival’s unfortunate tendency of turning up at the houses of wealthy women of a certain age just before they croak. But it’s entirely her decision to dress Flanders entirely in black – Japanese robes with accompanying samurai sword. It can’t be an accident that he looks like the Grim Reaper. If that’s what he really is, she’s not going to let the opportunity pass without filling him in with a few home truths about life, death and all that.

Richard Burton in black Japanese robes with samurai sword
The angel of death?

For all the fol de rol and symbolism, fabulous sets and exquisite décor – Goforth’s house high on a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean has an entirely white interior and is sparsely decorated with tech and antiques – not an awful lot happens from the moment Flanders arrives until the curtain goes down. Goforth and he flirt and spar, she asserting the sensual magic of being in the moment, he flintily countering with a stoic fatalism. Taylor gets into some spectacular costumes. Burton rolls the words around in his larynx. Both actors play up massively to their public images of themselves – one of the opening shots is of Taylor’s hand wearing the massive diamond ring Burton gave her when they married. Coward does something similar in his scenes, where he’s always in a tux and invariably waspish.

It’s the last days of Blanche Dubois, in some respects, or the last days of Tallulah Bankhead, more precisely, since that’s who Williams originally wrote the play for, basing Mrs Goforth on Bankhead herself.

Coward had been to see the play and found it “intolerable”. He left after 20 minutes. You might be inclined to agree and bail out before the end. And to an extent you’d be right. After about 45 minutes it has laid out its stall, positions have been adopted and it seems clear which way this is going. But it’s at this point that Taylor switches things up a gear by going into an elaborate gothic routine of panting and emoting like a crazy woman. Garment rending can only be minutes away.

Who else of her status at this stage in her career would do this? And get her husband to help her? Together they sail right off the edge of the world.

Boom! – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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