Friday, December 24, 2021
Butterfield 8 (1960)
At the same time the major studios were tentatively exploring the radical idea of making grown-up movies for grown-ups. They were even starting to get interested in making movies that dealt with sex honestly and openly. In 1960 The World of Suzie Wong dealt with an American businessman who falls in love with a Chinese prostitute. In 1961 Breakfast at Tiffany’s was a major hit and although it is not openly stated in the film it is blindingly obvious that Holly Golightly is an expensive high-class call girl. Butterfield 8 was part of the same wave of Hollywood movies about sex.
Butterfield 8 is a steamy sex melodrama about a beautiful socialite, Gloria Wandrous (Elizabeth Taylor), who has slept with so many men that she describes herself as the biggest slut of all time. Her latest conquest is Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey) but this time it’s different. He’s the first man she’s slept with and then fallen in love with. Which would be a wonderful thing except that he’s married. And his wife Emily (Dina Merrill) is growing tired of his relentless pursuit of skirt.
Gloria has decided that Weston Liggett is the one man she wants and she intends to get him. She intends to have him all to herself.
This is obviously likely to end messily.
By the standards of 1960 Butterfield 8 is very open about sex. In the opening scene Gloria wakes up in bed naked and reaches out for the man she expects to find next to her, and that man is another woman’s husband. Remember that in the heyday of the Production Code married couples were not supposed to sleep in the same bed. Shortly afterwards we see Gloria and Liggett arrive at a motel in the middle of the day. For contemporary audiences a movie that made it absolutely crystal clear that a woman is having sex with another woman’s husband would have been pretty startling.
Butterfield 8 was at the time widely dismissed as a trashy movie based on a trashy novel. It has never quite been able to escape that reputation.
One of the problems is that Butterfield 8 really is trashy. It’s an overheated sweaty sex melodrama. I happen to like overheated sweaty sex melodramas. Butterfield 8 reminds me just a little of Valley of the Dolls - it’s a movie that takes itself too seriously and ends up veering into camp territory. Butterfield 8 is nowhere near as camp as Valley of the Dolls but it does have that slight tendency. It has a lot of overblown moments, and a lot of pompous dialogue. On the plus side there are some delightfully catty exchanges between Gloria and Norma.
If there’s an underlying theme to this movie it’s people being dishonest with others and with themselves about sex, and rushing to make judgments on others and on themselves about sex. Liggett loves Gloria but he won’t leave his wife for her because his wife Emily is the sort of virtuous woman that you marry whereas he considers Gloria to be a slut. Gloria’s friend Steve Carpenter genuinely cares about her and is sexually obsessed with her but he also considers her to be the kind of Bad Girl that men don’t marry. He also considers her to be a slut. And she considers herself to be a slut or a whore or both.
Gloria’s mother manages at one and the same time to think that her daughter is a slut and a virgin who is saving herself for marriage. She cannot accept the truth that Gloria has sex with men and enjoys it.
It’s interesting that Gloria doesn’t really feel guilty about having sex with a married man. What she feels guilty and ashamed about is the fact that she enjoys sex.
What can be said is that Miss Taylor really does steam up the screen. At this stage of her career she positively oozed sex. Fortunately that’s exactly what this rôle calls for and she goes all out.
And then there’s the matter of her co-star. Laurence Harvey is an actor a lot of people love tp hate. He routine gets described as wooden or dull. Personally I think that’s because the absurd histrionics of Method Acting were all the rage at the time. Harvey was a real actor and he gave subtle believable performances. He’s an actor I admire quite a bit but I have to admit that there are many who disagree with me.
I don’t think Butterfield 8 has had a Blu-Ray release but the Warner Home Video DVD offers an excellent anamorphic transfer.
Butterfield 8 isn’t a great movie but it’s a lot more interesting that it seems to be on the surface. For that reason it’s recommended.