‘Boom!’ movie: Elizabeth Taylor & Richard Burton critical & box office bomb reappraised as ‘cult classic’ fare
If you’ve never seen Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton’s 1968 vanity production Boom!, don’t feel singled out. Boom! bombed at the box office almost as soon as it blasted on the screen. Since then, however, it has been rediscovered.
Directed by Joseph Losey from a screenplay by Tennessee Williams (based on his play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore), Boom! is a good example of a movie depicting art imitating life imitating art; one that deserves to be described in detail.
Sexually repressed temper tantrums and bronchial attacks
By then a two-time Academy Award winner, Elizabeth Taylor (Butterfield 8, 1960; Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 1966) plays Flora “Sissy” Goforth, a middle-aged, sexually repressed American (inspired by and written for Tallulah Bankhead) who has isolated herself on her own island on the Tyrrhenian Sea, where she has frequent temper tantrums and bronchial attacks. Something else: the much-widowed Sissy may – or may not – have murdered her husbands.
Boom! opens with Sissy in bed, writhing in agony while surrounded by small dogs. She screams into her intercom, “Pain!! Injection!!” We then see the gaudy but magnificent diamond ring on her finger. I immediately got the feeling this was real life disguised as reel life, with Ms. Taylor exploiting her various illnesses while displaying her world-famous gems in a humorous, outrageous way.
What we’ve got here is failure to communicate
Next, Sissy finds herself surrounded by incapable servants who don’t speak a word of English, while she herself can’t say much more than basta! in Italian. At one particular moment, she is on the phone giving instructions in broken Italian to the cook: “Bif! Beef! Goddamn it! They don’t even know their own bloody language!” she screams before slamming down the receiver.
This is where much of the film’s humor lies: having Sissy attempting to give the servants instructions in her limited Italian. The results are hilarious.
Hypodermic injections for breakfast & a mysterious drifter
Sissy is also a hypochondriac with a nasty cough and an even nastier disposition. When the dogs are barking and they disturb her self-involved concentration, she yells: “Shoot them or shut them up!” She spends her days and nights making private announcements on the loudspeaker, snapping menacingly at the terrified hired help, and dictating her memoirs – which sound like the ramblings of a self-absorbed madwoman – to her secretary, Miss Black (Joanna Shimkus).
While Sissy is getting her morning hypodermic shot, we see Richard Burton coming ashore, ignoring all the warning signs posted along the way. Elizabeth Taylor’s real-life husband at the time, Burton plays a mysterious drifter named Chris Flanders, who, after having intentionally stranded himself on Sissy’s private island, gets attacked by her guard dogs.
From a distance, Sissy eyes the stranger suspiciously, worried that he will sue her for damages. We later learn that they had met each other before under mysterious circumstances.
The psychic gay Witch of Capri
Sissy then invites the Witch of Capri (Noël Coward), who possesses some kind of psychic power, to dinner. This is when some fabulous flowing gowns come out. Sissy’s first dress is a caftan, designed by Annalisa Nasalli Rocca, that makes her look like a Kabuki dancer.
The Witch arrives carried on the shoulders of a muscular servant. He and Sissy have a private mating call, which is followed by him breathlessly sighing, “Sissy” as only Noël Coward can. Then some deliciously bitchy dialogue begins.
Beauty tips and the Angel of Death
After they dine on seagull eggs, and exchange witty remarks and beauty tips, Sissy asks the Witch what he knows about Chris. He tells her that her visitor is really the Angel of Death, who apparently visits women on the verge of their demise … or perhaps he is just someone who has a habit of suicide attempts. (I’m not quite clear what the Witch meant, even though I watched this scene three times.)
That evening, the Witch is seen roaming around at night howling “Sissy! Sissy!” He ends up in Chris’ bedroom, pleading that Chris go home with him to Capri. The Witch then collapses on the bed.
At that point, it’s Chris’ turn to wander around. He ends up in Miss Black’s bedroom. When he leaves, he is confronted by a sadistic guard (Ship of Fools’ Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Michael Dunn). Chris is threatened with another dog attack, but Miss Black rescues him.
Liz and Dick – and Noël
Soon, Sissy warms up to Chris. They begin to spout poetry to each other and suddenly become “Liz and Dick,” but with a slight twist: The famous twosome becomes a trio when the Witch gets a man crush on Chris and tries to put the make on him. Sissy sends the Witch packing fast.
Once the Witch is out of the way, Sissy dons her see-through nightie explaining, “If you’ve got a world-famous figure, why be selfish?” She then invites Chris to bed with her, saying, “I have a lot of art treasures, including myself.” Instead of submitting to her charms, he becomes not only the Angel of Death but the Angel of Larceny as well.
In the case of Boom!, no one can blame a careless screenwriter for not being faithful to Tennessee Williams’ original tale – as is the case in some of his other works.
As mentioned further above, this time Williams himself wrote the adaptation of his play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore*. And it is his very dialogue that makes this confusing story so delightful. Here’s one example: when Sissy clumsily crashes into a servant carrying a tray she angrily shouts, “Shit on your mother!”
The title Boom! comes from something Chris repeatedly says whenever the topic of conversation gets particularly philosophical. It might also mean what it sounds like when your life is coming to a sudden end.
I should remark that the title of Williams’ original play is included in the film’s dialogue. That’s when Sissy says to Chris: “You counted on touching my heart because you knew I was dying. But you miscalculated with this one. The milk train doesn’t stop here anymore.”
Tip-top Elizabeth Taylor
Credit must be given to Elizabeth Taylor’s performance. It is tip top. In one scene she has a bronchial attack and starts coughing like mad; that turns into a grand-scale respiratory fit, with Taylor displaying some quite believable acting chops. On the other hand, also expect long sequences of Taylor being Taylor as she moans and shouts and brays her dialogue with gusto.
I’ve always liked Michael Dunn, but Williams never writes dialogue for men as well as he does for women. As a result, Dunn and Richard Burton are given very little to chew on.
Not helping matters is that director Joseph Losey (The Servant, Accident) didn’t seem to get a grip on Williams’ material, choosing just to unleash the performers so they’d go their own way. (Interestingly enough, the cast is supposed to include Howard Taylor – Elizabeth’s real-life brother – though I could not find him on screen.)
Below: Boom! movie trailer, with comparisons to Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton pairing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as the narrator explains that Burton’s character “walked a vague line between lust and saintliness.”
Cryptic but enjoyable ‘Boom!’
Something else worth noting: Created by Richard MacDonald, the modernistic high-walled sets of the island house give the impression of large spaces overlooking the crashing waves below.
Well, I would be a liar if I said I understood Boom!. I don’t. It made no sense to me. But the key to Boom!‘s pleasure is not to think about it, but just to enjoy it.
As for the name Sissy Goforth, I interpret it as “Sissy … Go Forth and Die.”
The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore
* The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore opened on Broadway in 1963, with Hermione Baddeley in the lead.
Directed by Tony Richardson (Tom Jones), and starring Tennessee Williams’ inspiration and original choice, Tallulah Bankhead, a revised version of the play was staged in 1964. Tab Hunter was Bankhead’s co-star.
A 2011 revival of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore starred Olympia Dukakis.
Director: Joseph Losey.
Screenplay: Tennessee Williams.
From his play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor. Richard Burton. Noël Coward. Joanna Shimkus. Michael Dunn. Romolo Valli. Fernando Piazza. Veronica Wells. Howard Taylor.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor Boom! movie trailer and images: Universal Pictures.
I saw this a couple of times when it opened and some of it was pretty laughable and I don’t care what anyone says, it’s a bad movie, but Taylor does put on quite a show for us and she is ripely gorgeous, but that is all that this thing has to offer. To somewhat contradict myself, I do find it odd that I remember so much of this film so many years later. I’d like to see it again, but it seems very unavailable. This was pretty much the beginning of the end of Taylor’s heyday. She was truly among the great movie stars of all time and probably the last that came out of the Hollywood studio system. I used to work for a theatrical labor union and I briefly met her once backstage long after Boom when she appeared in The Little Foxes on Broadway. She was very funny and quite vulgar & very down to earth. She was terrific. I also lived across the street in a ground floor apartment from what was then known as the Martin Beck theater and it was a hoot watching her leave the theater every night through massive crowds that filled the street preventing any traffic on West 45th St. between 8th & 9th. She always had a cowboy hat on (John Warner days) and had two strong bodyguards on each side of her and her feet never touched the ground while they worked their way through the crowds as she signed autographs. She was quite short, so I don’t think that many close up even realized that she was not walking. Fun times.
Seems to be the inspiration for the Brangelina bomb By the Sea (2015)
Doing research on the Cote d’Azur, and this article came up on Google! The Witch of Capri did it, I guess…LOL!
Howard Taylor is at the very beginning of the movie, talking to Burton on the boat that picks him up. He has cropped black hair and beard, and bright blue eyes. (Gorgeous!)
I LOVE this movie!!!
The shots are SO gorgeous, Losey really knows how to fill the screen.
Taylor and Burton are my faves, and the casting was superb. (Noel Coward!)
IMDB lists Boom! as being released in 1968, which would have been when I was 9 or 10, in 4th ot 5th grade. It seems to my recollection it came out at least a year or two earlier. My mother took me to see it because she thought it had important things to say, as she did many times later in my youth with other movies. She told me it was about the Angel of Death and when it was over, I must say that the movie left me disturbed and puzzled. I was glad she took me to see it because she often made a point of pushing my envelope and I knew that there were things I would later grasp. And so I have just watched it for the first time since, a few minutes ago and am baffled by how the critics could have so uniformly panned it. There must surely come a day wherein this movie will be reexamined and its genius realized.
I have read the play but it was decades ago at a much younger age and I probably missed a lot there and have forgotten a deal of it as well. So I can’t offer conjecture on how much the movie adheres to the play but what seems to be clear to me is that Flanders is an Angel of Death and not just some opportunistic homeless bum living off the table scraps and what he might pilfer from dying rich females around the world. There has to be something more to his ability to show up at just the right time than a sharp pair of ears. The incomplete list of names she reads from his address book only seem to be ladies that have passed in his presence and indicative of there being a supernatural timeliness of his visit. Conversely, his address book doesn’t seem to be anything other than these deceased females.
He is presented as too omniscient of his immediate surroundings to be just very observant or insightful. How would he know the true details of a murder that only Sissy would know? Or that she has the pistol in her hand in her dress? He has too much insight into animals and people around to be only a crafty manipulator. Sissy is psychologically dancing with him, wanting sex from him but wanting to be sure she maintains control. But sex for her is not something she really enjoys, it is a tool and validation. Miss Black on the other hand does not ask for it and doesn’t even know she wants it but Flanders does and takes care of her needs.
Neither is he a thief. He would have been telling her the truth about the cash the old man gave him as Flanders helped him to commit suicide. Flanders didn’t keep the cash but rather passed it to the next person he encountered who needed it. If he leaves Sissy’s mountain with her jewelry it too will be given to someone in need of it.
Is Flanders a supernatural being? Probably not. Is he purely human? It seems impossible. Is he a mix of humanity and a supernatural being? It would seem so. Was he born that way? Maybe, but it isn’t a calling he discovered until later in life when he helped the old man die and his calling was revealed to him by a holy man afterwards. Maybe his exclusive selection of females is a result of his male human part. His almost violent reaction to the Witch’s calling him the Angel of Death tells us it is not a role that as a human he is entirely comfortable with.
He has come to Sissy because he knows she is fighting death and refusing to come to terms with it. In the course of her brief stay, he uncovers her humanity, softens her, and for probably the first time in her life, she does truly love someone because she has simultaneously come to terms with her death, discovered her the ability to love, and the first object of this love is Flanders, her Angel of Death.
Flanders resurrects both Miss Black and Sissy, one so that she might live and the other so that she may die more happily, not entirely peacefully, but a more complete person.
And if one thinks of Flanders as her true Angel of Death, then the dialogue and acting doesn’t seem ‘over the top.’ Rather, it is the psychological dance between a world famous woman who lived larger than life with a supernatural being that has come to take it away from her. Initially she thought she would toy with the possibility of his mission but on some level she knows what the inevitable outcome is and her consciousness of this grows. It seems entirely possible to me that the interactions of this woman and this being might be dynamic and loud.
As best as I can recall, I don’t think the play had much of this import. But as I said, that could well be a faulty memory and immaturity of youth. As such, it reminds me of The Shining, a movie that I thought advanced the plot of the book beyond the author’s intentions and ultimately was a much better work of art, nuanced and more rich.
LOVE IT! Watched it throughout my life at different times and places. It influenced how I lived. At one point I was going to legally change my name to Goforth. Then a casual friend (male) in a mink coat at a party told me that it sounded “Biblical”. The film still inspires me beyond belief as all works of art do.
Requiescat In Pace, Elizabeth. We’re Sitting Shiva for you.
Esse complexo e fascinante filme, marcou o declínio da carreira de Elizabeth Taylor, juntamente com bebedeiras e analgésicos. Sou Fan de Elizabeth. O Homem Que Veio De Longe e Adeus Às Ilusões, foram terrivelmente incompreendidos pela crítica na época. Hoje, felizmente, temos uma nova visão.
Hi, Where did you buy/rent this movie? Sounds interesting. I cannot find it anywhere.
Also, where is Part I of your review?
Danny - this is one of my very favorite Elizabeth Taylor films. Much of what you say in your review is quite profound in the way you appreciate what SO many do not. I think it takes very special people (I am one, too…..hehehe) to find the high level of entertainment to be found in this film. Film maker, John Waters (Hairspray, Pink Flamingos, etc.) often cites this film as his favorite. By the way, Howard Taylor, Elizabeth’s brother, is the “captain” of the boat that takes Chris/Richard to Sissy’s/Elizabeth’s island and ends up throwing Chris’/Richard’s luggage overboard. Thanks for a great review!