‘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.)
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.
Dir.: Joseph Losey.
Scr.: 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.
Boom! movie cast info via the IMDb.
Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor Boom! movie trailer and images: Universal Pictures.