Tuesday, October 23, 2018

The Shadow of a Smile in Big Sur

 Big Sur is a heavenly spot on the California coast, a place of rugged rocks, crashing waves, and twisted cypress trees. It has always had an artistic soul, and a penchant for welcoming hippies and mystics. Naturally, the movie-making community is not immune to its charms. On a recent trip to Big Sur, which included wine, burgers, and a brilliant sunset at the legendary Nepenthe, I couldn’t help associating the natural beauty of the locale with memories of one of the worst movies I ever saw. Oddly, I watched it at Radio City Music Hall on my very first visit to New York City. The year was 1965, and the film was The Sandpiper. It starred the then-notorious Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, playing out their personal love affair in glorious Technicolor.

Here’s the plot, such as it is: Elizabeth is a free-spirited artist with a beach shack and an out-of-wedlock young son. Richard is a starchy Episcopal priest who runs a boarding school in Monterey. Some run-ins with the law mandate that her son be enrolled in his school. Sparks fly, despite the differences in belief and lifestyle, and soon Burton is pining as only Richard Burton can pine. One major problem is that he’s already married, to the saintly (of course) Eva Marie Saint. What to do?

The central act of the movie consists of lots of scenery, lots of pining among the pines, and some symbolic claptrap involving a sandpiper with a broken wing. There’s also a scene immortalized in a Mad Magazine parody I remember from back in the day: Zaftig Liz is depicted by Mad artist Mort Drucker as shrinking a pair of women’s slacks until they are doll-sized, then putting them on and walking around in them. Taylor may have had a beautiful face in 1965, but figure-wise she was hardly a woodland sylph.

Of course this sort of movie from the mid-Sixties had to end on a sad, poignant note. In this it was helped immeasurably by the film’s secret asset, its soupy, string-heavy score. The Sandpiper was nominated for, and won, a single Oscar, for the hit song, “The Shadow of Your Smile.” It was composed by Johnny Mandel, best known today for his evocative  “Suicide is Painless” theme from M*A*S*H.

Looking at The Sandpiper’s credits now, it’s depressing to see all the major showbiz names involved in this turkey. The MGM release, starring Hollywood’s most famous (and well-paid) romantic couple, was given the full-blown Golden Age treatment. The director was Vincente Minnelli, who was much better served by his work on big, bright musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis, An American in Paris, and Gigi, but also helmed his share of powerful dramas. Producer Martin Ransohoff had a distinguished career, and the estimable Dalton Trumbo apparently had a hand in the script.

Despite all my snarky comments, lovers of the lugubrious might find themselves enjoying The Sandpiper. My family and I were actually at Radio City Music Hall to see the famous Rockettes do their pre-show high kicks. When the film came on, we decided to watch for a bit—and then couldn’t tear ourselves away. A Noel Coward character once quipped, “Strange how potent cheap music is." The same thing goes for lousy movies: if they’re really, really bad, they’re sometimes irresistible.

Of course, someone who wants a completely different view of Big Sur should check out a Roger Corman psychedelic classic from 1967, The Trip. Big Sur was also the site of Roger’s famous personal experiment with LSD. But that’s a story for another day. 

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