Sandpiper, The (1965): Minnelli’s Melodrama, Starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor

In Vincente Minnelli’s “The Sandpiper,” Liz Taylor plays a flamboyant single mother who lives in a Big Sur beach house amid a close-knit community of bohemian artists. Richard Burton was cast as an Episcopalian minister, the third clergyman he had portrayed since his romance with Taylor had begun, including The Night of the Iguana and Becket.   The minister and his devoted wife (Eva Marie Saint) operate a private boys’ school, and when the wife finds out about the tumultuous affair, the reverend leaves her for an uncertain future.

 

Burton and Taylor, who had director’s approval, first turned to William Wyler, but the notoriously cantankerous director told them bluntly that the project was inane, “a piece of crap,” to use his words.   As a replacement, the Burtons settled on Minnelli, who had successfully directed Liz Taylor twice before, in Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend.   Idle and readily available, Minnelli was more than happy to accept the offer.

 

Regardless of quality, all the movie exhibitors were anxious to show The Sandpiper in the theaters.   MGM scheduled the film as a big summer release with a steamy ad campaign–“She gave men a taste of life that made them hunger for more!” The film opened at Radio City Music Hall, the first Minneli film to be shown there since The Bells Are Ringing in 1960, and broke box-office records.

 

The reviews were derisive, and some downright nasty.  Time declared: “How wanly art imitates life.   The Herald Tribune’s Judith Christ wrote: “This is the most perfectly awful movie of the past several seasons.    Miss Taylor and Mr. Burton were paid $1,750,000 for performing.    If I were you, I wouldn’t settle for less for watching them.”    Most critics showed contempt for the script’s fatuities and giggled over the overripe curve Taylor displayed in her semi-nude scenes.

 

The Village Voice’s influential critic, Andrew Sarris, lamented Minnelli’s diminished status in the New Hollywood: “Metro’s most flamboyant stylist has been reduced to accepting assignments at the whim of an alleged actress he virtually started on the road to stardom.”   Sarris pointed out that, “the studio’s honchos will credit the Burtons for the good business and blame Minnelli for the bad reviews.”   “Ironically,” Sarris wrote, “Minnelli was the only person connected with the production who has ever shown any genuine feeling and flair for the medium.”

           

Predictably, The Sandpiper was critics-proof and made a lot of money.   For an artist of Minnelli’s pride, the success was further humiliation, because it was the picture’s appalling reputation that accounted for its mass appeal.  Viewers went to see the movie to find out whether it was as risible and unwatchable as the critics had said.

           

Worse, Minnelli inadvertently turned his star vehicle into a black comedy.  The Sandpiper could be perceived as a self-parody of Minnelli’s other films about artists and nonconformity. Taylor’s opulently scruffy home and the free spirits at Big Sur were preposterous, and the film is just as bad as the artwork, painted by Taylor’s protagonist, oils of seaguls and little boys.

 

Minnelli could not prevent his actors from showing contempt for their ridiculous lines they were given.   Consider Taylor’s metaphoric bubble–“the only way you can tame a bird is to let him fly free.”    Once Taylor proves irresistible, Burton trumps her, begging the deity to “grant me some small remembrance of honor.”  Then Taylor delivers a fake feminist monologue about married women’s barren lot, while the Big Sur surf is pounding the sands of her own cove.

 

In another scene, parading in lurid lavender wardrobe, Taylor smooches with Burton while a wounded fowl nests in her raven tresses.    She then sports a violet-blue bra when she fends off a randy ex-lover by brandishing a dainty hatchet.   Rather insensibly, Liz was outfitted in caftans, some of the worst to be ever designed by Sharaff, that only emphasized her physical shortcomings.   Liz’s long hair, flowing gowns, and soft lighting could not conceal her overweight, which became a subject ridiculed with nasty jokes in Hollywood.

 

Worse yet, the erotic heat that allegedly prevailed between the stars off screen remains invisible.    Onscreen, their affair is carried on in almost business-like manner, with no erotic charge.   The high-priced celebs seemed to be sleepwalking through their paces, indcluding their romantic scenes.

           

Minnelli knew that The Sandpiper was not good for a smart actor like Burton, who was totally bored by it.    For diversion, Burton adlibbed, acting his life through the lines, which gave the performance a resonant subtext for those who cared to look.    Unlike Burton, Liz enjoyed the experience, realizing that, despite the media blitz and popularity, she could not get a job due to her poor health.     Deeply in love, Taylor was just happy to be on the same set with Burton, especially that she got paid lot of money for that. 

           

Minnelli found the story’s premise ludicrous and outdated.   The dialogue was so awful that he was embarrassed to rehearse it.   The script was turgid and cliché-ridden–“I never knew it could be like this. Being with you is like having the whole world in my arms.” 

 

As cruel as the reviews for Cleopatra were, with critics describing Taylor as “overweight, overpaid, and under-talented,” they were mild compared to those of The Sandpiper.    The movie became the couple’s most misconceived teaming.   When Taylor read one decent review of the film, she laughed hysterically, threatening to sue for libel.   Taylor knew she was no good, and that the whole movie was awful.

 

Though a critical flop, The Sandpiper made more than $10 million at the box office, benefiting the Burtons as well as Metro. Audiences flocked to see the couple in their first pairing on screen after their respective divorces. Next to Doctor Zhivago, The Sandpiper was MGM’s top-grosser of 1965, yielding $6 millions in domestic and $4 million in foreign and TV revenues.   Due to the studio’s bizarre accounting system, however, MGM declared a loss and Minnelli never saw a penny beyond his basic fee. 

 

Cast:

 

Laura Reynolds (Elizabeth Taylor)

Dr. Edward Hewitt (Richard Burton)

Claire Hewitt (Eva Marie Saint)

Cos Erikson (Charles Bronson)

Danny Reynolds (Morgan Mason)

Ward Hendricks (Robert Webber)

Walter Robinson (Tom Drake)

Larry Brant (James Edwards)

Judge Thompson (Torin Thatcher)

Phil Sutcliff (Douglas Henderson)

Voice (Peter O’Toole)

 

Credits

 

Produced by Martin Ranshoff and John Calley

Assistant Director: William McGarry

Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson, based on the story by Ranshoff, adapted by Irene Kamp and Louis Kamp

Cinematography: Milton Krasner

Art Direction: George W. Davis, Urie McCleary

Set Decoration: Henry Grace, Keogh Gleason

Music: Johnny Mandel

Songs: “The Shadow of Your Smile,” music and lyrics by Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster

Editing: David Bretherton

Costumes: Irene Sharaff

Print process: Metrocolor

Recording Direction: Franklin Milton

Hair Stylist: Sydney Guilaroff

Makeup: William Tuttle

 

Running Time: 116 Minutes