Forgotten Classic: Boom!

By far the most interesting of the on-screen collaborations from Richard Burton and his then wife, Elizabeth Taylor (midway through their first marriage) is Boom! The couple teamed up with cult director Joseph Losey in this cinematic adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. The result was a wonderfully chaotic misfire – a failure at the box office and slated by critics, but Boom! is a fascinating piece and completely undeserving of this underwhelming reputation.

Sissy Goforth (Taylor) a terminally ill, multi-millionairess who lives on a secluded Italian island. Sissy is spoilt, temperamental – a woman driven insane by her impending death, attempting to prolong her life with her array of servants. However, the arrival of a mysterious poet (Burton), who has a dark reputation, heightens tensions on the island. The poet is nicknamed ‘The Angel of Death’ as he is known for arriving at the homes of wealthy older women soon before they die.

Losey’s film fuses over the top performances, luxurious settings, extravagant costumes and buckets of blatant symbolism, to create an unforgettable, one of a kind cinematic experience. I guarantee you that you will not forget seeing the visual spectacle of the incredibly flamboyant Noel Coward tucking into a giant sea squid, a slightly bloated Liz Taylor screaming “Monkey, off balcony!” or a weathered looking Richard Burton strutting about in a Japanese kimono gripping a samurai sword.

The reason I was so drawn to Boom! was largely because it is one of Taylor’s later and coincidentally most interesting roles. Yes, she had done the glamorous parts – the typical flashy Hollywood roles, but in my opinion none of them compare to the work in her later career (and I’m not talking about The Flintstones Movie). As well as Boom!, Taylor appeared in psychological horrors: The Driver’s Seat (aka Identikit, where she searches for the perfect man… to murder her), Night Watch (a tense paranoia infused, Rear Window style thriller) and Secret Ceremony (where she plays a prostitute mourning her recently deceased daughter – also with Losey directing) – fascinating roles that show her skill as an actress.

Boom! allows Taylor to completely let rip and chew the scenery as Sissy – the temperamental millionairess approaching death. Seeing Taylor verbally jousting with Noel Coward whilst wearing something that looks like a spiked disco ball on her head, sets Boom! out in a trashy league of it’s own. Sissy is a widow six times over, used to having any man she pleases, screams at her servants, owns an island, has a dwarf security guard and bellows dictation to her secretary who writes her memoirs. This role is so extravagant that John Waters’ has described it as the ultimate drag queen role and Taylor’s performance as Sissy evidently inspired many of Divine’s turns in Waters’ films.

Boom! is a visually rich film with every shot showcasing the glamour of the time. Filmed in the awe-inspiring, beautiful Sardinia – Sissy’s villa looms over the sea, with the sound of roaring waves being ever present throughout. This crashing of the waves, representing Sissy’s mortality fast approaching, is just one example of the hilariously heavy-handed symbolism throughout the film. In fact, nearly every single ominous line uttered by Burton’s Angel of Death is followed by a shot of the sea and an overdubbing of Burton simply saying “Boom!” –  Losey surely intended this to be stylish and somewhat chilling but the end result is simply highly amusing.

Despite the fact that Boom! was not filmed in a real villa, but simply in a roofless set, it did not stop the extravagant Burton & Taylor attempting to buy it. This is most likely because they were drunk – a typical morning on the set of Boom! involved several Blood Mary’s, which makes sense after seeing the end product.

Whether Boom! is a US attempt to lampoon the European art film or simply an attempt to bring some European class to American cinema, it never worked. The film was a massive commercial and critical failure and Losey proudly boasted that he was the first director to loose money with Burton & Taylor. Whatever its intentions – Boom! is a trash classic. Losey’s extravagant, yet symbolically blunt direction is entrancing, as is the sheer spectacle of Taylor’s ham-tastic tour de force!