Liz Taylor is Luminous in Butterfield 8



Directed by Daniel Mann

MGM, 109 minutes, Not-rated

★★★★ ½ 




Elizabeth Taylor was truly one of the screen’s most beautiful leading ladies. If you don’t believe me, watch the first five minutes of Butterfield 8 as the camera pans over her face and sheet-draped body as she awakes in the empty posh apartment of the man with whom she spent the previous evening. Taylor was 28 then, pretty much at her glorious prime and six years before she played a boozy slightly rumpled harridan in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? for which she won her second Best Actress Oscar.


The later was shot in black and white, but Butterfield 8 was bathed in rich technicolor. Taylor won the first of her two Oscars for this film. First, a word on the title. If you were born after 1963 you don’t remember when telephones were still few enough in number that you could call an (actual) operator and ask to be connected by giving the exchange name and a number of two, as in Colony 17 or Butterfield 8. The inside joke is that Butterfield 8 was allegedly a modeling agency; it was really a high-class escort service, “escort” itself being a nod-nod-wink-wink name for hooker. Gloria Wandrous (Taylor) actually does some modeling but she’s also under psychiatric care for her active libido. It speaks volumes about American society of the day that a sexually vigorous woman would be treated for such a perceived malady.


Gloria has other issues though, including an explosive temper and drinking too much. The bed from which she arises belongs to Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey) who leaves $250 by the bedstead before sneaking out. This leads to an outburst that is perhaps the film’s most reproduced still; when Gloria sees the money and note, she angrily takes out her lipstick and writes “No Sale” on Liggett’s elaborately framed mirror and storms off after grabbing a mink coat to cover herself. (Apparently the night before was pretty wild, as her dress was torn.)


Gloria lands in the apartment of her childhood chum Steve Carpenter (Eddie Fisher) for chaste consolation. You could say that so far Taylor was playing to type. She married eight times­–twice to Richard Burton–and Fisher was husband number four. Butterfield 8 gets much messier, as Liggett is married to Emily (Dina Merrill) whose family owns the chemical firm for which he works. Plus, Steve’s girlfriend Norma (Susan Oliver) is the proverbial nice girl who is tired of playing second fiddle to Gloria any time she commands Steve’s attention.


Steve might be the last person on the planet other than Gloria’s mother (Mildred Dunnock) who doesn’t know that Gloria is, in the parlance of the period, a tramp. The club owners know it, most of their patrons know it, Weston’s buddy Brigham (Jeffrey Lynn) knows it, and even her mother’s best friend, the snarky Francis (Betty Field) knows it. Weston, though, has become obsessed with Gloria and finds himself falling for her. Gloria dares hope that maybe Liggett can be her ticket to respectability because she's tired of being a tramp.


Butterfield 8 was based upon a John O’Hara story and is a searing tragic drama. As suggested, the values are those of an earlier time period, so expect the film to exploit thinking that today might seem head-scratching. Will Emily and Norma stand by their men? Can mama accept her daughter for who she really is rather than her willfully ignorant fantasy of her? Even the extras have issues, especially Happy (Kay Medford in a small but juicy part), an ex-vaudevillian who now operates a low-class motel that caters to surreptitious trysters.


This is an actors’ ensemble film and everyone in it is superb. Moreover, though the technicolor hues are vibrant, we view all the earmarks of film noir except the shadows. Maybe you won’t come away desirous of taking a course on psychology as understood in 1960–or maybe 1935, as O’Hara’s roman à clef was based on the unsolved murder of socialite Starr Faithfull–but I suspect you will find yourself so immersed in the film’s well drawn characters that you’ll forget to look at your calendar.


Rob Weir


Four Great Art Exhibits at UMass Amherst


If you’re in area, either as a resident or a traveler, this is a good time to head to the University of Massachusetts Amherst to partake of four shows. You can do them all in a morning or an afternoon and you’ll be treated to visual and thought-provoking images.


Let’s start with the show that closes soonest. The Augusta Savage Gallery is located in New Africa House and features Theater of the Streets: Social Landscapes Through the Lens of Jill Freedman. Few have done street photography as well as Freedman (1939-2019), because she was not afraid to venture into social fringes or where the action is. Though this show features shots from the late 1960s into the 1970s, many of her shots, including a police shakedown and a violent arrest, are sadly as fresh as your daily news feed. 




Gay rights became a full-fledged movement after the 1969 Stonewall Riots, but it still took courage to be out. “Greenwich Village Couple” intrigues in that its crossdressing male stares defiantly at the camera, while his more conventionally dressed partner leans away from the lens.



Freedman had a keen sense of irony. “Free Information” was taken in a seedy area of the subway and needs no further commentary from me. “Peep Show” is simply a great shot packed with humor. 




For pure artistry, though, “Poor People’s Campaign,” so named for the 1968 encampment on the Washington DC mall that took place after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King. But Freedman captures something more wistful and sublime, a Black man playing his flute in a quiet place: the Reflecting Pool doing its thing as well. 




This show closes on March 11, so hurry if you want to see it.



The Hampden Gallery exhibit Shadows in the Cave presents paintings from Williamsburg, MA artist Alan Fortescue in which he takes a look at the American Dream lost, found, and frustrated. 


You will be drawn to his bold colors, many of them illuminated by after-dark street lights, before you catch on to his vision. His ethos is akin to that of Edward Hopper, whether the street is Chicago, New York, or State Street in Northampton.




This show is on view until April 15, but check the location before you head over. When I was there the Hampden Gallery had relocated to Bartlett Hall because flat-roofed Hampden Hall had sprung a major leak that necessitated moving the show.


The University Museum of Contemporary Arts in the back of the Fine Arts Center is the site for the other two shows, both of which are on view until May 1. 


The first, From My Heart to You–Dance and the Unifying Force of Social Consciousness captures the exuberance of African-American dance. The rather wordy title sounds heavier than it is. Any politics were of the cultural variety and within the two artists, not in your face.




 The first part spotlights the watercolors of Richard Yarde (1939-2011). If the backgrounds remind you of quilts, you’re right; his grandmother’s needlework inspired them. If I tried these dances, I’d be in traction! 




The second artist is photographer Barbara Morgan (1900-92) and her subject is the sublime Pearl Primus (1919-94), perhaps the foremost African-American practitioner of modern dance ever to grace the floor. Unlike white modernists such as Martha Graham, Primus was rooted in literal and metaphorical ways. Her center of gravity was low, her stance bold and wide, and she usually performed barefoot, as if she was trying to conjure the earth through the floorboards. Metaphorically, she was also grounded to her African roots. 




Both Yarde and Morgan taught at UMass from time to time, though Primus also took her substantial skills to other 5 Colleges schools.



The final show, also at the Museum of Contemporary Arts, is quite different. Nicole Eisenman: Prince has a punning title, as the Brooklyn-based Eisenman (b. 1965) has co-curated and contributed to a show featuring prints, both from the UMass collection and on loan.  When it comes to prints, Eisenman has chops and then some. She’s a RISD grad who has won such major awards as a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Carnegie Prize, and MacArthur Fellowship. 


Her work has been influenced by Expressionism, especially that of Germany, but also by sketches, cartoons, and caricature. It’s a large show that includes others in those genres. Sometimes Eisenman wears her politics on her sleeves. Take “Tea Party” for instance. We are not talking china cups and crumpets. A more direct nod to Expressionism is found in her wonderful “Man Holding His Shadow,” and haven’t you always wondered where shadows are stored? 



“Stick and Foot Guy” is influenced by block cuts and cartoons and two untitled works by cartoons crossed with nightmares. 




The show also includes works Eisenman and co-curators admire, including prints from Max Beckmann, Mabel Dwight, Edvard Munch, and many others. As a teaser, here’s one from an artist previously unknown to me: Benton Murdoch Spruance. His “The Bar at Doyles” (1939) is a delightful lampoon of male bar culture. Belly up to the bar boys. 




Rob Weir


Harlem Shuffle and Razorblade Tears




By Colson Whitehead

Doubleday, 336 Pages.




By S. A. Crosby

Flatiron Books, 326 pages.



Here’s a tale of two books, one of which is written by Colson Whitehead, one of the great writers of our time; the other by S. A. Crosby, who is best known for gritty crime novels. In this case, though, it pays to know your genre. Both books develop strong central characters and are excellent reads, but the prize goes to Crosby for sticking with what he knows.



Whitehead’s tragic hero is Ray Carney, who he follows from 1959-64. He is an African American furniture store owner striving for respectability, though he does a bit of small-time fencing on the side. Everyone, it seems, has racket of some sort going in Harlem, so why not? Ray’s flaw lies in assuming he’s playing two equal halves against the middle, but he also assumes the halves are the same size. This puts him in a limbo in which he's too small to be the player he’d desperately like to be, but too decent to be a thug like his cousin Freddie. Harlem Shuffle is about who cons who, who has to follow the rules and who doesn’t, who has dreams and who has power, and the consequences of being on the wrong side at a given moment in time. Plot devices involve stolen jewels, dope peddling, cops on the take, the fragility of Black/White alliances, rival crime gangs, the 1964 Bedford-Stuyvesant riots, and how some cons transcend race. Can Ray survive games bigger than he? What about his marriage and his two children? Can he save Freddie?


Harlem Shuffle has echoes of Do the Right Thing and Whitehead is good on that score. He’s also superb at capturing the cusp-of-the-counterculture zeitgeist. It’s when he shifts into caper mode that the book loses steam, though even then Whitehead has his moments. Those moments are inconsistent, however, because caper crime isn’t his métier. When he goes there, he invites comparison to those who specialize in such works. Whitehead is a always better than middle of the pack, but his mistake is like Carney’s in thinking he can straddle the two halves. This makes Harlem Shuffle a good book, but not his best work. That’s another problem; when you set the bar as high as Whitehead has, we expect more than middling.



Razorblade Tears covers some of the same turf, albeit under different circumstances. Ike and Mya Randolph are grieving over Isiah [sic], their dead 27-year-old son who was murdered, along with his White husband, Derek. They are also raising their son’s daughter Arianna (via a surrogate). In this story, Ike is the man with middle-class pretensions. Though he got into trouble when younger, he now owns a landscape business and so disapproved of his son’s lifestyle that he refused to accept it. (Mya works in a hospital and embraced both young men.) Ike’s world is rocked when he finds racist and homophobic slogans sprayed on the boys’ vandalized graves.


Like it or not—and he doesn’t—Ike’s world collides with that of Buddy Lee Jenkins, Derek’s father. Ike recognizes Buddy immediately as poor White trash, plus his self-inflicted tattoos betray that Jenkins is also an ex-con. In his search for revenge Ike wants no part of Buddy and decides to go it alone. But when he finds the situation is bigger than he imagined, he and Buddy become unlikely partners who do battle with a motorcycle gang and some very, very nasty White nationalists into guns, running meth, and prepping for the coming war against people of color. Like the Ku Klux Klan, they’re not fond of gays either.


Buddy is essentially a gung-ho cowboy, but the tight-as-a-drum Ike isn’t much better. Ike doesn’t hesitate to rough-up a bunch of hipsters reluctant to say anything about Derek at the bakery where he worked or pick a fight in a gay bar. Once again families are at risk when violence comes to their respective doors.


Those squeamish about body counts probably ought to avoid this book. The biggest difference between Crosby’s approach and Whitehead’s is that, as a crime writer, neither Crosby nor his characters pull punches or hesitate to spill blood. To reiterate, Crosby is grittier than Whitehead and unafraid to wend his way to a darker ending. Crosby is, however, open to charges of trying too hard to be too contemporary by ticking PC boxes—there’s also a transgender character—but I found his straight-forward and less elegiac approach more appropriate for the genre.


Rob Weir