By all accounts, the late Elizabeth Taylor was bawdy, generous, and glamorous, and of course beautiful, and she is all of those in her Academy Award-winning role as a prostitute in BUtterfield 8 (1960), based on the novel by John O’Hara. She is at her best in a movie no one seems to talk about. BUtterfield 8 is a poorly directed melodrama about several interesting pairings of people surrounding Taylor’s prostitute, who falls for a handsome businessman (Laurence Harvey), leans on a sympathetic childhood friend (Eddie Fisher) and tends to her mother. She’s hot-headed, voluptuous, and, unfortunately for her, drawn to a man as easily ignited as she is. The two of them make the most of it and you never really know what’s going to happen. With multiple layers fueled by a motel proprietor named Happy, an all-knowing mother, a know-nothing mother, and a biting best friend, with Fisher’s girlfriend hanging on to her man by a thread and Dina Merrill as the businessman’s wife, BUtterfield 8, which borders on camp, hinges on Taylor’s sizzling performance. She captivates in every scene, blending vulnerability with hardened exterior, until she spits out what we already know in a scene with Eddie Fisher. Building undeniable sexual tension with Laurence Harvey’s dominant figure, the climax comes when her own impetuousness backfires. The ending is a dud but she’s no venomous little vixen like she is in those awful Tennessee Williams tragedies.
I first saw Elizabeth Taylor as a youth in Lassie Come Home, an excellent movie, and, other than The VIPs, I don’t especially care for her movies. She did amazing charity in support of those with Acquired Immuno-deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and she shared a bond with the enormously talented Michael Jackson, another troubled former child star whose fame was larger than life. Over time, she became a sort of caricature of her former beauty. She was nasty in such movies as the unbearably neurotic romp Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and the overdone Cleopatra, and I suspect that she was an actress of her time: independent, talented, and beautiful but lost in a dark, tortured culture going from classic Hollywood glamour to bottom-feeding, back alley garbage. The underappreciated BUtterfield 8 turned out to be one of her best movies, roles and performances, reminding us that, while her pictures didn’t always live up to her beauty, it wasn’t entirely her fault. Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t just one of the screen’s last stars; she was luminous in her beauty and her spirit.