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

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. 

Part One discussed the Casting of the Film.


Part Two: Shooting the Film


The trip to Paris was preceded by a month of location work.   Minnelli spent all of September 1964 filming on the rocky coastline of Carmel and Big Sur.   The gold-lit seascapes meant to convey Taylor’s Thoreau-like communion with nature.  The troupe then flew in early October for two months in Paris.  


From day one, the set became a sideshow, a media circus. The world’s most famous couple was besieged by paparazzi day and night.  Minnelli’s happy memories of working with Liz on the Father of the Bride comedies faded quickly.   Hapless to begin with, Minnelli found himself in the midst of a chaotic shoot, unable to assert his authority. He did finish, however, principal photography on time, in December.    A sneak preview in January led to reshoots of the Taylor-Burton love scenes at an Encino motel, using doubles.


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.


The shoot was turbulent, to say the least, from the start.  When Minnelli placed a large pillow behind Burton’s back to improve the camera angle, an angry Burton retorted, “Don’t give me this rubbish that it looks all right.   I know perfectly well that it doesn’t look all right.”   s always, Minnelli insisted on doing the scene his way, and Burton eventually subsided, but not before telling the director cynically, “For the money, we will dance.”


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.” 


When Burton missed a cue or blew a line, Taylor just giggled. “Oh, I’m so henpecked,” Burton said, tossing her a wounded look.   “I don’t know why I bother to act.” “You don’t!” Taylor retorted with sarcasm.    Burton then shut up, and Minnelli was dumbfounded by the exchange between the presumably lovebirds.   “The film was so bad that it nearly broke up our marriage,” Burton said later, “but the truth is, people didn’t know we couldn’t get any work, anywhere, not even in Europe.”


The director and male star shared one thing in common, though.   Like Minnelli, Burton was of poor origins and obsessed with money.   When asked what The Sandpiper was about, Burton said it was about $1.75 million and writing off some old debts.   Burton’s misgivings about the production were short-lived–money was the greatest balm for his fears.   Burton was overpaid and he knew it.   “It’s quite indecent,” he said in a moment of truth.    Despite some vocal arguments with Minnelli, for the most part, Burton did as he was told.    Being obedient meant the cash continued to flow faster and smoother.


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.


The Burtons shrugged off the criticism.  “Every once in awhile you have to make a potboiler,” Burton said. “We never thought it would be an artistic masterpiece,” added Taylor, “We did it for the money.”


Minnelli experienced other problems with his stars, who were always late on the set.   Asked by the press whether lateness was not common among super stars, Minnelli squirmed, “Not to the extent that we had in this situation.”   Nonetheless, when Minnelli talked to his crew, it was easier for him to rationalize the Burtons’ bad habits, claiming “Without them there is no picture!”


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. 


The vagaries and vicissitudes of the film industry are such that after making quick cash, Burton and Taylor quickly redeemed their damaged reputations caused by The Sandpiper. Their next joint project, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was based on Edward Albee’s acclaimed play, and was to be directed by Hollywood’s brightest talent Mike Nichols.   Both stars would be nominated for Oscar Awards and Taylor would win her second one, this time deservedly; her first Oscar was for Butterfield 8, for almost dying out o pneumonia. 


It was no secret that Minnelli wished to direct the screen adaptation, and to that extent, even contacted Henry Fonda and Anne Bancroft.   But he was not even considered.    At 62, with his career in se*vere decline, Minnelli felt that he has overstayed his welcome at Metro.  The time was right to part ways, before being asked to do so.