THE PLOT: Wealthy but moribund authoress Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth (Elizabeth Taylor) lives alone in a fortress-like house on a remote Mediterranean island, dictating her memoirs to a bored secretary. One day poet Chris Flanders (Richard Burton) a young and virile man (yes, Richard Burton) with a reputation for bedding dying widows, swims to her door. They prat about for a bit on the terrace. Then Sissy’s mysterious neighbour The Witch of Capri (Noel Coward) comes to dinner, and the three of them prat about some more. And on the way home they stopped off at Blue Boar Services and Noel had a Coke float and it was good and then they went home the end.
Boom! is pretty much an archetypal Big Pretentious Late Sixties Film, and yet nothing quite like anything else. And it’s pretentious in the proper sense of the word, not merely ‘a bit clever’ but going all out to seem a bit clever, without actually bothering to put in any of that wearisome spadework that properly being a bit clever demands. We’re going for effect here all the way. The whole charabanc’s got high art cred in spades: that cast, respected claustrophobe-baiter Joseph Losey wearing the jodphurs, and a script drawn from The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, a play by Tennessee Williams, and no-one in the world of American drama falutes higher than Tennessee.
A big important film then, and as such the most costly of the infamous Thirteen Numpties turned out by the British office of Universal Pictures at the end of the 1960s. Oh, how will it all turn out? In summary: quite frankly, bloody hell. Georgie Fame belts out a number as we fly o’er the sea, Father Ted-style, and zoom in (there are plenty of zoomings-in here, as was the style at the time) on Liz’s modernist concrete eyrie, in which La Taylor spends much of the first act either sobbing noisily in bed or wafting about on the roof in kaftans. When she’s not doing that, we see her dictating her namedropping memoirs to Mrs Sidney Poitier in a style mixing Tristram Shandy with prime Niven, and going on something chronic about her previous marriages to ‘five industrial kings’ and a ‘young poet’. In short, Liz has a big old strop on her. Then Burton swims in.
Now, Liz may be a territorial old sow (she’s installed gun emplacements and a midget security guard to keep the riff raff out), but a crash-zoom into her eyes handily indicates suppressed lust. Well, it’d be a short film if it wasn’t there. Much arch banter is exchanged between the trespasser and the frowsty old bint, until – ‘Urgentissimo!’ – the call goes out for Coward, who arrives at the island on piggyback wondering ‘what the old bitch wants now’. Noel and Liz are fast buddies, and over the years seem to have developed a strange yelping custom, howling to each other like Joshua Yarlog, which they keep up through the picture but never explain.
At dinner, Liz gets all giggly and tries to impress Coward with her comedy tai chi routine. Noel bitches across the table. They chat about some no doubt deeply symbolic jellyfish and Noel tells a filthy anecdote revolving around the word ‘poisson’. Finally the dinner party gets all too much. Liz passes out and Noel starts doing owl impressions. Meanwhile, Burton cops off with Mrs P. Liz goes onto the roof and parps out a shouty, turgid soliloquy, before collapsing in her nightie again. A doctor is called, but Liz doesn’t want to know (‘Get your fat ass and sneaky grin off this terrace!’) and his x-ray camera gets lobbed over the cliff. So she’s dying. Won’t admit it. You have get the idea. You have no choice but to get the idea, so trowelled-on are the symbols.
A problem with the memoirs arises. How does Mrs P (whom Liz calls ‘Blackie’ – very Tennessee Willaims) know when she’s dictating or just soliloquising? Fortunately, Liz has an answer. She’ll raise her hand when she’s dictating, and have it down when she’s soliloquising. (This all really does happen.) By now she’s made Burton ponce about in a samurai outfit. Ah, is he the angel of death? Burton, with crushing inevitability, recites Xanadu. Liz: ‘Whaaaat!?’ Then Burton snogs her and Liz says ‘thank you’. Liz is now constantly coughing her guts out, meaning soliloquies take twice as long. The effect is of Lady Macbeth channeling Sid James. An inspired Goforth/’go forth’ pun is used at least three times. Finally, Liz drops off the symbolic twig. ‘Too tired!’ It’s over. We can go home now.
This is, you may have gathered, what Leslie Halliwell would have termed ‘metaphysical codswallop’, and rightly so. But this isn’t just any old codswallop. This is pan-walloped breast of finest transatlantic cod, lovingly drowned in a portentous whimsy and herb jus. This is self-consciously classy shite, which is the most delirious and inane shite of all. There’s the small matter of Tennessee Wig Walk’s wierdly mannered dialogue, ranging between dull and unbelievable ‘smart’ small-talk (‘See this ring?’ ‘Yes, it’s a very noticeable object.’ ‘Yes, I’d noticed you’d noticed.’) via pillockish aphorisms (‘What’s human or inhuman is not for human decision’), coasting on a few duff ‘shocking’ exclamations which range from the absurdly twee (‘I give not a tinker’s damn!’) to the wincingly crass (‘Shit on your mother!’) and stopping off for a Ginster’s in one of those sort of neverending, drearily symbolic conversations where the speakers change location about five times before they get to the end.
At one point Liz turns into Griff Rhys Jones in that Not the Nine O’Clock News yoof programme parody. (‘Everyone off the terrace!’) At one point Burton finds himself having to say ‘Radiation vibration sensation!’ with feeling. Dear Noel gamely cracks appalling alleged witticisms. (‘The wicked old Duke of Parma – I always called him the Parma Violet!’) Everyone explains exactly how they feel and what they think to each other all the time, like this was The Young Doctors: Late ‘N’ Lewd. Smilin’ Joe Losey works his way through a veritable Rover assortment of ’60s director’s tricks from zooms up the nose to sitars on the score, and proves the old adage that bad high art and bad sci-fi tend to look pretty much the same – like Zardoz, in fact.
It is of course perfectly easy for this much talent, holed up on the one location, to set each other’s egos off in a chain reaction of ever-increasing creative nincompoopery, and this is exactly what happens (see also Heironymus Merkin). But what a location it is! It’s that architect-designed runway-cum-villa off the coast off Sardinia that always crops up in programmes about architecture, complete with fountain, pergola, mynah bird, a high tech reception desk for Liz to sit behind and gurn like Joan Rivers, which also does mood music (circus pipe organ and ‘In a Persian Market Place’), and an odd egg-shaped concrete podule full of booze. It’s a brilliantly strange, bleached out gaff in the grand ’60s style (the Burtons tried to buy the place after filming there) and the eye certainly gets well-acquainted with it as it wanders round the screen during those endless bloody speeches about the sea, the sea, can’t you hear it?
Granted, the roof top is somewhat prone to gales, but oddly this doesn’t drive them indoors, and they gamely sit round the breakfast table while their coffee pours horizontally – just like imperial phase Dallas. If that’s not enough in the way of gaudy, calorific Pontefract cakes for the eye, there are always the 1001 frocks of Liz. Selected from a massive walk-in wardrobe, her accoutrements range in stupidity from some simple, huge owl sunglasses with the thick white rims to a ludicrous Ronco spark plug headdress resembling her own exploding brain immortalised in tin foil and daisies. By the half way mark, Liz has a different ‘look’ almost every other shot.
Then there’s her hair (by Alexandre of Paris – presumably Alexandre prefabricated most of it in Montmartre, then had it flown out to Sardinia in sections and reassembled on site). Liz’s wigs are a good five pounds of solid horsetail (even an all-black hijab still has to stretch over that hair). Against all this finery, Burton falls back on three looks – junior Milk Tray man, a fetching pink towelling robe for the man who has everything short of a sense of dignity, then that samurai outfit he sports for most of the film. A limited repertoire, but the lad works it for all it’s worth.
Ah, the Burtons. Who in hell picked this vehicle for them? Critics complained the play calls for a properly old woman and a reasonably young bloke, but the pair came as a twofer back then (only the sort of twofer that ends up more expensive than if they came separate). They were at the height of their bankability as a couple, coming off the impeccable Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, another film-of-the-play where they spend most of their time shouting, but significantly a film of a good play where they’re given decent things to shout. There is ham everywhere! Liz is the worst offender, shrieking and yelping and resembling Tina Turner when she’s tottering about the front room pissed.
The film is of the type, ‘dense’ in both senses, that invites daft obsessive symbolist ‘theories’ on a par with Outpost Gallifrey, so here’s one for them: this is Fawlty Towers six years before the fact. It’s simple. Liz is clearly Fawlty, with all that embarrassing bad tempered leaping about. Mrs Poitier is the long-suffering and reasonably sensible Polly. Coward is some weird combination of the Major and Misses Gatsby and Tibbs, and that midget security guard is Manuel. Burton is, of course, the medallion man off of the Psychiatrist episode. ‘Pretentious, moi?’ All right, it’s an easy target. Too much was at stake and nothing went smoothly – it was a case of ‘Action G&T’ as Losey’s on-set boozing began to catch up with him, and with that of Burton, who was probably drowning his sorrows when he found out Tennessee really wanted Sean Connery to play his role (also turning this project down was Topol – for what role we’re not sure).
As for post-film reps, Coward didn’t care, Losey, after finishing his second film with Taylor for Universal (the relatively humdrum Secret Ceremony) came back with The Go-Between, and Burton enforced the follow-on with Where Eagles Dare (and, er, Candy too). Liz was the one whose rep really suffered. After caterwauling in that metal shop-floor crash helmet, the market fell out of her bottom and cameos-‘n’-crapola was largely the order of her day. Boom! did give her some lasting notoriety, however, making her – the claim went – the first female star to say ‘fuck’ in a major motion picture. Roy Castle writes: ‘Ah, that haunting Tennessee Williams dialogue, eh Norris?’