There is a wonderful scene in the 1956 B-movie shlockfest The She-Creature where Ted Erickson first meets the lovely Dorothy Chappel, a dark-haired beauty who filled a sweater like no other before or since. Mesmerized, Erickson stares directly at the woman’s breasts, unblinking and hypnotized, as she cooly excuses herself and walks away. In The Sandpiper, Richard Burton can be seen with a similar gaze, perhaps with a little more slack in the jaw, as he stares at his new wife Elizabeth Taylor’s barely-contained figure. But instead of the calm, confident reaction of a woman of the world, Taylor squints her face into a question mark and looks down at her own breasts, clueless and confused.
Jean-Luc Godard once told Cahiers du Cinema that The Sandpiper was “a real amateur film on a Hollywood scale. A couple of bakers filming each other on Sundays.” Godard was being kind. The Sandpiper was a terrible idea from the start, little more than crude, cynical Hollywood product dreamed up by producer Martin Ransohoff, who wanted to cash in on the tabloid fame of Burton and Taylor. The Sandpiper certainly succeeded in that regard, selling plenty of tickets on release; even now, 50 years later, audiences won’t see a film but the tabloid headlines of two generations past.
Taylor approached The Sandpiper with a host of demands, such as how few hours a day she would work and how small the font for her costars’ credits would be. She and Burton had final choice of director, and after William Wyler declined, the film was offered to Vincente Minnelli. Depending on which biographer you read, Minnelli either took the job for money, because MGM had him on contract and he could hardly refuse, so he could enjoy the perks of filming at Big Sur and in Paris, or because of a long-standing loyalty to Taylor, whom he had directed in her first truly adult role in Father of the Bride 15 years earlier.
Whatever the reason behind his acceptance, The Sandpiper should have been a terrific fit for Minnelli, a film intended at the outset as being a “potboiler,” to use Burton’s own term. But Minnelli was completely out of his league against the whirlwind known as Liz and Dick, and Burton, combative and stinking drunk, lashed out when he sensed weakness. Reporters witnessed several spats during filming, including one, reported in Life Magazine, where Burton refused to follow Minnelli’s direction until he finally acquiesced, but only after announcing to everyone within earshot: “For the money, we will dance.”
The Sandpiper opens with a series of spectacular scenery shots, courtesy the terrific Milton R. Krasner. The title credits are framed within this top notch cinematography, glorious aerial shots without the usual wobbles and dizzy pans associated with the technology of the era. Sadly, these fine shots later give way to pedestrian rule of thirds nonsense, and the occasional shot where the subject is out of focus while setpieces or the backs of non-speaking characters are clear and center frame.
In The Sandpiper, Laura Reynolds (Taylor) is a naturalist, a young single mother who lives on the beach, painting watercolors and homeschooling her son, who she wants to protect from the hypocrisies of modern society. But Laura is no more a “free spirit” than the 20-somethings in Preminger’s Skidoo were hippies. In typical 1960s clueless Hollywood fashion, this starving artist who takes a series of hunky lovers also owns expensive beach front property and dresses like an upper-middle class housewife with a moderately funky sense of style. Her allegedly liberal beliefs include having no problem with her 9-year-old son is wandering around with a loaded rifle, shooting the native wildlife, and grabbing a young girl’s thigh under her skirt; in fact, Laura declares to the court that the girl wasn’t upset as she claimed, but secretly “delighted” with the attention, rendering an already uncomfortable scene absolutely horrifying.
Thus little Danny Reynolds is sent by the court to San Simeon, a Presbyterian boys’ school run by one Dr. Edward Hewitt (Burton). The good doctor is immediately smitten with the sexy single mom, and she feels similarly, which is conveyed by Burton and Taylor looking constipated and self-conscious. For weeks, he concocts a series of ridiculous reasons to visit Laura at her home, while his wife Claire (Eva Marie Saint) holds down the fort at the school, unaware of his pending transgression. Through it all, there is an unrelenting and very silly metaphor about birds and personal freedom, referred to a half dozen times before the titular sandpiper of the film arrives at Laura’s home with a wounded wing.
Burton unabashedly walks through his role except for scattered moments of scenery chewing. Taylor would have done well to follow his lead, but instead attempts to engage fully with the film, to disastrous results. Due to health problems and a rich, full schedule of tabloid baiting, Taylor hadn’t been in front of a camera for two years when she filmed The Sandpiper. Taylor stumbles and pauses as though she doesn’t know her lines, and her only attempt to convey the part of a young woman flush with energy, idealism and naivete is a slight, ditzy falsetto. In one scene, Taylor attempts to coax the healing sandpiper out of her home, cooing, “Don’t be afraid, baby,” in such a ridiculous voice that Burton has to stifle a laugh, which forces us to ask which is worse, the writing, Taylor’s delivery, Burton’s unprofessionalism, or that this was the take the filmmakers chose for the final cut.
During filming, Minnelli made small changes to the dialogue to parallel the real-life relationship between Burton and Taylor even more than the script already had; this was their “scandalous, adulterous affair” film, meant to reference their own tumultuous relationship. Sadly, Minnelli’s changes could have helped the film by upping the camp aesthetic, which Minnelli was undeniably a master of, but failed to do so. The Sandpiper positively begs for a director who never let the conventions of polite society get in the way of his art, and Minnelli, at least in 1965, was entirely unable to shake off decorum and give The Sandpiper the melodrama it so desperately needed.
The end result is a flat, lifeless film, what critic Eleanor Perry called “a $5.3 million sleeping pill.” Everything from Taylor’s so-called nude scenes to the attempts at showing wild, heathen revelry are dull, up to and including a series of beach-and-sax love scenes that contain all the passion of room-temperature potato salad, and are just as nauseating. Between these moments of tepid lovemaking are interminable pseudo-intellectual discussions, the good reverend learning to appreciate the benefits of secular humanism, the artist learning from her God-fearing lover that Jesus is just all right, oh yeah.
When the lovely Mrs. Hewitt is told of her husband’s infidelity, she flees in hysterics from the car, inadvertently becoming the audience surrogate, fulfilling our collective wish to run as far away from the film as possible. Vincente Minnelli was not so lucky, saddled with the thankless job of trying to glean some sexy melodrama out of the vulgarity he was handed, and having to rein in a pair of spoiled celebrity brats, perhaps feeling a bit like Dr. Frankenstein, knowing he was in part to blame for their creation.