Joseph Losey’s Boom! (1968) is one of the most famously criticized and misunderstood films from the late sixties. Its original $3.9 million dollar budget ballooned into 10 million by the time shooting stopped and that money was mainly used to pay the million dollar salaries of the film’s two stars (Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) and dress Elizabeth Taylor in her amazing Tiziani costumes (many designed by Karl Lagerfeld) and Bulgari jewelry, build a fabulous set and keep the Bloody Marys’ and champagne flowing from dawn to dusk.
Critics by and large despised Boom! and many viewers walked out of the theater before the film had ended utterly perplexed by what they had just seen. Boom! was an imaginative and wildly uneven European art film masquerading as a mainstream Hollywood movie and the general public just wasn’t interested. They wanted to see Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in more easily defined roles such as “tenacious slut” (Taylor) or “troubled saint” (Burton). And they longed for simpler drama with a basic narrative that was easy to follow. But by 1968 both Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton had grown weary of the typical roles Hollywood was offering them and they wanted to make more challenging films together.
Boom! would turn out to be one of the most challenging films that the actors ever worked on. But it would also receive the worst reviews of their careers and mark what many consider to be the decline of one of Hollywood’s most glamorous couples. A shared addiction to alcohol and Taylor’s growing reliance on prescription drugs was starting to take its toll on the two actors and their very public marriage.
Their combined wealth, fame and glamorous lifestyle made Taylor and Burton appear larger than life and at first glance unusual film projects like Doctor Faustus (1967) and Boom! appeared to be self-indulgent vanity projects made without much thought for the general movie-going audiences that had helped make them famous. Resentment seemed to be growing between the popular actors and their adoring fans. And critics were all too eager to take a swipe at Hollywood’s royal couple. Boom! became an easy target and it’s not too hard to see why.
The film was based on one of Tennessee Williams’ least accessible and most esoteric plays called The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore (originally published in 1963) and Williams was also responsible for the film’s script. After two failed Broadway runs of the play Universal Studios still thought they could turn Williams’ unusal play into a hit film starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Both actors had appeared in financially successful film versions of other Williams’ plays individually including, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Richard Brooks; 1956), Suddenly Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz; 1959) and The Night of the Iguana (John Huston; 1964) so Universal assumed they’d have another critical and box office hit with The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.
Taylor and Burton gladly accepted the exorbitant salaries Universal Studios offered them to star in Boom! and they looked forward to working on the project with exiled American director Joseph Losey. Losey had been making smart and successful films in Britain for years and the director seemed capable of effortlessly moving between dark psychological dramas with noir overtones such as The Servant (1963) and entertaining pop art extravagances like Modesty Blaise (1966). If Losey had been able to successfully mix multiple elements of his earlier films, as well as better manage his actors, the final results of Boom! may have been more rewarding but I personally think it’s one of the director’s most fascinating and inspired efforts.
The plot of Boom! focuses on the last two days in the life of Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth (Elizabeth Taylor). Goforth is a wealthy, self-absorbed and terminally ill woman who has buried six husbands and is spending the summer at her isolated coastal villa dictating her sensational memoirs to her servant Miss Black (Johnna Simcus). Her health problems and tortured memories cause her constant pain so she numbs herself with booze, pills, morphine, and shots of vitamin B administrated by her doctor. With “Keep Off” signs surrounding her property and a pack of vicious attack dogs controlled by an aggressive dwarf (Michael Dunn), Sissy Goforth assumes she won’t be bothered. But her isolated existence comes to an end when a handsome stranger named Chris Flanders (Richard Burton) unexpectedly arrives by boat.
Flanders is a poet who also makes modern Alexander Calder-style mobiles out of metal. These mobiles are designed to symbolize freedom and Sissy Goforth soon finds out that the artist has come to the island to free her from her shackled existence. After inviting her only close friend known as “The Witch of Capri” (played by celebrated playwright Noel Coward) for an unusual dinner of boiled “sea monster” and roasted pig, The Witch uses his powers of divination to inform Goforth that Flanders is also known as the “Angel of Death” due to his uncanny ability to arrive at the home of wealthy women just as they’re about to die and relieve them of their valuable possessions.
Goforth is sexually attracted to Chris but she’s deeply disturbed when she hears this news. She hasn’t finished her memoirs yet and she has no desire to leave the world and “go forth” into the great unknown. In turn, she refuses to feed Chris and spends her last hours verbally sparring with him (as the couple were prone to do in previous films such as The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Taming of the Shrew). This strange allegorical fable ends with Sissy Goforth drifting into oblivion as Chris Flanders guides her through her final moments and relieves her of her precious jewels, which he promptly throws into the sea.
Tennessee William’s script for Boom! is very similar to his original play but the title was simplified by using a word that Richard Burton’s Angel of Death character utters every time he hears the waves crashing against the rocks below the cliff-side villa. He explains to Sissy Goforth at one point that “Boom!” is the sound of “the shock of each moment of still being alive” and it’s meant as a wake-up call that will inspire the maudlin self-absorbed woman to appreciate her final hours on earth. Boom! rehashes many of the issues and ideas found in Tennessee William’s previous work such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which explored the lives of sexually frustrated and isolated individuals, alcoholism and terminal disease, a fear of death and an inability to let go of the past. But Boom! is more of a figurative fable that tackles Williams’ favorite themes in an abstract and metaphorical way. It was also inspired by Japanese Kabuki theatre and the structure of the film resembles traditional Kabuki plays as re-imagined by the American playwright.
The talented set designer and artist Richard MacDonald was hired to design the lavish set for for the film, which were built in Italy on the beautiful Sardinian coast. McDonald had worked with Joseph Losey on many of his best films such as Eva (1962), The Servant (1963) and Modesty Blaise (1966) but his set design for Boom! would become one of his greatest and grandest creations. In a style that’s reminiscent of the magnificent modern structures designed by architect Le Corbusier, MacDonald gave Sissy Goforth’s isolated summer home curving white walls, round windows and stark interiors framing numerous paintings and objects of art that were often meant to convey death. The structure is supposed to symbolically represent the transitional state that Goforth has found herself in and it’s surrounded by giant rock sculptures that are similar to the ones found on Easter Island.
Losey and the brilliant cinematographer Douglas Slocombe shot the film in spectacular Panavision, which captured every lush detail of the expansive set and gave the film an other-worldly look. Losey has long been one of my favorite filmmakers and in Boom! he resurrects many of the elements that made his previous films so interesting while exploring some of his favorite themes involving alienation and the artificial superiority often caused by class distinctions. Losey is truly a master of framing and composition, and in Boom! these skills are used to great effect in order to show the isolation faced by all the characters in such an expansive, yet claustrophobic space. Characters are seen peering through round windows and shot in distorted mirrors, which can represent a reflective moment or the distorted view that individuals often have of themselves and the world around them.
Losey also uses sound very creatively by having Goforth dictate her memoirs through the villa’s elaborate intercom system so they can be heard by her entire staff. Additionally, she controls the music heard in the film by turning the sound system on or off depending on her moods. When the camera zooms in on the sun or an electric light you can often hear a strange shimmering or buzzing sound in the background. And the repetitive noise caused by the sea crashing against the rocks is obviously an important metaphor for the natural ebb and flow of life on the island, which is a microcosm of the transitory world that we all live in.
John Barry is responsible for the film’s impressive soundtrack and it’s one of the British composer’s most experimental scores. Barry worked closely with Losey on the film and the director made many suggestions that were incorporated into the soundtrack. Unfortunately, the director’s focus on shooting the fabulous manufactured interiors and perfectly framing all the drama and action made him somewhat neglectful of his actors. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Johanna Shimkus and Michael Dunn are all talented thespians and Taylor and Burton are able to deliver truly great performances but in Boom! they often seem a bit lost and in need of direction. Despite this, Noel Coward is very funny in his role and he may have been the only person on the set who completely understood the humor in William’s original script.
It’s been assumed and confirmed by Losey himself that the cast and crew were often drunk from too much sea, sun, celebrity and booze during shooting and it’s a shame that he wasn’t able to better control his cast but I’m sure Taylor and Burton were not easy to manage at the time. On the other hand, Johanna Shimkus and Michael Dunn don’t fare any better so I’m inclined to blame the uneven performances from all of the actors on Losey’s direction. It’s unfortunate that the dark humor found in Williams’ original play seems as if it’s occasionally suffocating under all the artistry of the director’s elaborate production but at its best Boom! should make you laugh as well as think and the film accomplishes both.
Elizabeth Taylor is the undeniable star of Boom! and the film spends most of its 110 minute running time focused on her. Since she looks fabulous in the film it’s easy to understand why. Taylor gives a completely over-the-top and scene-chewing performance that must be seen to be believed. But it’s also a daring role for an actress who was much younger than the character in Williams’ original play. In one of the movies most unforgettable moments, Taylor has an extended five-minute coughing attack and you can’t help but assume that she’s actually choking to death on the set or attempting to throw up an unwanted lung.
The role of Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth struck a little too close to home for Taylor and she saw a lot of herself in the character. It’s worth pointing out that the script forced the actress to talk on and on about Goforth’s numerous dead husbands who were abusive and suffered from impotence (two things Taylor had supposedly experienced herself) as well as her “one true love” who was an adventurous mountain climber that fell to his death. As much as Elizabeth Taylor passionately loved Richard Burton, she was also still troubled by the unexpected death of her previous husband, Mike Todd. Todd had been an adventurous man himself who was killed in a terrible plane crash years earlier but his death still deeply bothered the actress. Many of Taylor’s monologues in the film were supposed to be humorous but when the director tried to get Taylor to lighten up and have more fun with her role she would often become morose, withdrawn or overact.
Richard Burton told Losey later that Elizabeth had been haunted on the set of Boom! by the specter of Mike Todd, which could possibly explain the uncomfortable distance between Burton and Taylor that seems strangely apparent in the film at times. Burton’s part was a lot less demanding and in many ways, it resembled the phantasm-like role that Taylor previously played in Burton’s own film version of Doctor Faustus. His character was actually a much younger man in the original play and Burton expressed concern about taking the role but he managed to make the most out of his part and the actor actually gives a very measured performance in the film.
Burton’s Angel of Death doesn’t speak often but when he does his words are carefully chosen, even when he’s arguing with Sissy Goforth. One of Burton’s greatest gifts was his voice and it’s smartly used in Boom! as a tool to seduce Taylor’s character with. As mentioned above, Burton’s Angel of Death also repeats the phrase “Boom!” over and over again, and in the end it is his booming voice that guides Sissy Goforth towards her death and into the great unknown.
Besides providing some unforgettable eye-candy, the elaborate costumes in Boom! add an important element to the film. Since the structure of the script and the original play resemble a modern take on traditional Japanese kabuki plays, Burton’s Angel of Death is dressed in a black kimono throughout the movie. But instead of carrying a scythe, he carries a Japanese samurai sword.
Taylor also insisted that her own character was dressed in white and black flowing costumes throughout the film, which were supposed to represent death shrouds. Taylor is also seen wearing an elaborate kabuki-inspired costume during her memorable dinner scene with Noel Coward and she additionally pretends to act out a bit of kabuki theater after she’s had a few too many cocktails.
Even though Boom! has suffered from negative criticism since its original release, the film does have a few noteworthy defenders. Burton believed that Taylor delivered one of her greatest performances in Boom! and Tennessee Williams thought that Boom! was “an artistic success” and he hoped that eventually it would “be received with acclaim.” Film critic Andrew Sarris criticized what he thought were the film’s “metaphysical posturing and pretenses,” and the “tendency for nothing much to happen for the longest stretches” but he also complimented Losey’s skilled use of mise-en-scène and his ability to create “glamorous fantasy.” The film also happens to be director John Waters’ favorite film and he has even championed it at universities. Waters’ considers Boom! to be the ultimate “failed art film” from the sixties. But even with its apparent failings, I think it has a lot to recommend it.
If you’re not interested in contemplating the larger ideas that Losey and his cast and crew were trying to communicate with Boom! you can still appreciate the film purely for Taylor’s show-stopping performance, John Barry’s experimental score, MacDonald’s stunning set designs or the jaw-dropping wardrobe. Many people consider Boom! to be a “camp classic” and if the original humor of Williams’ script is lost on you, you might still discover plenty of unintentional laughs as well.
Losey’s Boom! is currently only available in widescreen on a PAL Region 2 DVD from the Dutch company De Filmfreak Distributie and it currently sells at Amazon for $28.99. You can also still find copies of the original Universal Studios video of Boom! selling at Amazon for ridiculous prices. Hopefully a Region 1 DVD of Boom! will be released in the future.
If you’d like to see a clip from the film you can view one at the official De Filmfreak Distributie site linked below: Clip from Boom!
NOTE: This text was published as part of the soundtrack notes for the official CD release of John Bary’s score for Boom!.