Sandpiper, The: Minnelli’s Melodrama with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton–Part One

Part One: Casting


Almost every filmmaker has at least one movie he’s embarrassed about, a movie he’d like to erase from his filmography.   In Minnelli’s case, it’s The Sandpiper, a silly soap opera consciously planned to exploit the scandalous affair and then famous marriage between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.  Indeed, MGM packaged quickly the film as a showcase for Taylor’s and Burton’s respective screen images.


Producer Martin Ransohoff concocted the premise of the story, an ill-starred alliance between a voluptuous free spirit and a married clergyman, for which he hired formerly blacklisted writers Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson.   The hiring of these screenwriters was the first and last courageous act in this film, for neither writer did a decent job. 


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.


After his loan out to Fox for Goodbye, Charlie, Minnelli had no projects to justify the money MGM was spending on Venice Productions.   Like Wyler, Minnelli recognized immediately the script’s limitations, but he also realized that, after Courtship of Eddie’s Father and Goobye, Charlie, two stagy, mediocre comedies, The Sandpiper would at least take him on-location, off the lot.  


More importantly, Minnelli has not had a commercial hit in years, and The Sandpiper seemed to be the sure thing.    At that point in their careers, the Burtons, as the most celebrated couple in the world, could ensure the commercial success of any venture, good or bad, they undertook.    The film didn’t do anything for maintaining Minnelli’s stature in the industry, except serving as a reminder that he was still alive and kicking.


Eager to meet their director, Burton and Taylor invited Minnelli to come to New York at their expense, where Burton was appearing in Hamlet on stage.   Vulnerable, Minnelli needed the flattery involved in their treatment. He reciprocated with a typically gentlemanly approach, never telling Taylor that she was actually the second choice for the lead.   The Sandpiper had been designed for Kim Novak before she had a falling out with producer Ransohoff. 


With two mega stars, Minnelli insisted on a respectable supporting cast that included Eva Marie Saint as the pastor’s steadfast wife.  For the role of Taylor’s neglected suitor, a sullen artist who made sculptures of her nudity, Taylor proposed Rat Packer Sammy Davis Jr., who was then popular.   She had befriended Davis Jr. in New York and thought it might be fun to work with him.   Taylor disregarded Davis’s dubious erotic appeal and that as a black performer he would throw the picture off balance, turning the romance into an interracial affair, an idea that was not in the original script.


Like Minnelli, Ransohoff thought that casting Davis was a radical and even ridiculous idea.  He told Liz candidly: “I’m a liberal-I had hired Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, as co-screenwriter, but Sammy Davis Jr. as your love interest, in a 1964 movie, would have caused all kinds of grief.”   Taylor had to swallow her pride and forget about the Rat Packer.


Minnelli, too, objected to Davis, and instead cast Charles Bronson, before he became a big star with his 1970s vigilante actioners, the Death Wish film series.   Always loyal to his actors, Minnelli cast Meet Me in St. Louis’ Tom Drake for the small part of a Burton’s colleague, and James Mason’s son, Morgan, as Taylor’s unfettered love child.

Minnelli had hoped to shoot The Sandpiper soon and quickly, but it was not to happen.  First, Taylor wanted to be in Mexico while Burton was making John Huston’s The Night of the Iguana, fearing his co-star, Ava Gardner, might have an affair with him, so the film was delayed to accommodate her private life.   Then, t
o protect the Burtons from the Internal Revenue Service, it was decided to shoot some of the story’s California settings on a French sound stage, at the Boulogne-Billancourt studios.  Minnelli was all too happy to return to the locale he had used in The Reluctant Debeutane, six years earlier.   Bad as the script was, how could Minnelli resist going to Paris at the producers’ expense?


To ensure the requisite gloss for such a fluffy movie, Minnelli relied on a top-notch crew of longtime colleagues.    This film represented his eighth collaboration with photographer Milton Krasner.    George W. Davis and Urie McCleary, who had designed most of Minnelli’s pictures after Gigi, drew Taylor’s beachfront house.  Minnelli asked his favorite costumer, Irene Sharaff (who had also designed Cleopatra and was thus trusted by Liz Taylor), to try prodigiously to transform then then chubby-looking star into a glamorous beatnik.