You often hear about films being described as primarily an actor's showcase or star vehicle, often created to introduce new stars to the public. Daniel Mann's 1960 film "BUtterfield 8" could certainly be classified as such, with its promotional material clearly intended to highlight Elizabeth Taylor. Of course, by then the actress had nothing to prove, having already secured 3 consecutive Oscar nominations for Best Actress. With this latest film, the studio (MGM) was definitely anticipating a 4th, having tied down the actress to the project under contractual obligations (which she famously resented).
As it turns out, Elizabeth Taylor ended up winning her first Oscar for the role, playing a woman named Gloria Wandrous. Gloria is a high-class call-girl, who starts to change her attitude towards her lifestyle after an encounter with a wealthy man named Weston Liggett. Unfortunately, her new beau is a married man. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Gloria must then decide whether to pursue the opportunity for true romance and happiness (despite its homewrecking implications), or continue to endure the societal scorn and personal shame of her scandalous but profitable profession.
We're introduced to Gloria after a one-night stand with Liggett, waking up in his upscale New York apartment. We see her quietly rummaging around the room, going through a typical morning routine that feels almost improvised in its naturalism, a credit to Taylor's acting sensibilities. The peace is disrupted however, when she reads a note that alludes to a payment for her sexual favours. Furious, she uses her lipstick to scrawl "No Sale" on his mirror.
As she leaves with his wife's mink coat (to replace her torn dress), the film already begins to feel somewhat contradictory. Despite the constant acknowledgment of her not-so-secret lifestyle, the film takes a initially timid approach to Gloria's sexuality. It's a problem that persists throughout the narrative, as the film struggles to decide what it wants to be. Early in the film she seems to be nothing more than your average socialite, at odds with some of the more crass scenes in the film's latter half. When she eventually exclaims to her mother "I was the slut of all time!" it feels terribly out of place.
There's really no getting around it, the film falters due to its poor writing. It tries to be a character study but it mistakes its few melodramatic speeches and obvious moralizing for actual character development. It's a near miracle that Elizabeth Taylor manages to be effective at all, as you can practically feel her straining to make sense of Gloria. Is her lifestyle dangerous? Is she ashamed, or proud? These are all questions that are brought up in the film, but never fully clarified. The script (co-written by Charles Schnee and John Michael Hayes) is just too concerned with its shallow "hooker with a heart of gold" agenda, which makes it all the more bewildering when the film eventually vilifies her.
One could argue that the strict production code limited the filmmakers here, but there were already similarly themed films that would put this one to shame. For example, there's 1959's Room at the Top. It features Laurence Harvey in another lothario role but much more convincingly, as well as a fully realized female character in Simone Signoret's Alice Asgill.
Then again, maybe the quality of "BUtterfield 8" didn't matter at all. It still won the Oscar and was a box office hit for MGM. Even I would admit that in spite of its glaring flaws, it's eminently watchable. That's all due to the allure of Elizabeth Taylor, one of the most effortlessly compelling actors to ever grace the screen. If you want to know what a "star vehicle" is, look no further than "BUtterfield 8".
This film is part of The Matinee's Blind Spot series.