First to acknowledge the unusual title, “BUtterfield 8” derives from the telephone exchange name for wealthy Upper East Side Manhattan residences. The capitalized letters are in reference to the old telephone dials, and many times in the film Taylor’s Gloria Wandrous asks the operator to redirect her to that line.
The film opens with Gloria awakening in a rich Manhattan apartment after a one-night stand and is offended to find he’s left her a cheque for $250. Rather than take the cheque she takes a mink coat, her dress having been ripped and leaves. She later meets up with the man Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey) who confronts her for her sleeping around habits and they decide to continue their relationship, during which Gloria falls for him only to discover he’s married. In a subplot, a childhood friend of Gloria’s Steve Carpenter (Eddie Fisher) is being pressured into marriage by his girlfriend Norma (Susan Oliver) who fears he may have feelings for Gloria himself. So it’s a contest of whose relationship will be broken up whether knowingly or not by Gloria.
I can’t help but feel the drama in this film is very dated. The conflict seems to hinge on Gloria’s promiscuous lifestyle and how much it’s frowned upon, and the inevitability that she’ll have to change her ways by falling in love with a man. It reminds me in some ways of the later film Breakfast at Tiffany’s though in this case the protagonist’s socially unacceptable behaviour is on the surface rather than implied. This isn’t necessarily to say that the film is right or wrong in its attitude towards sexual promiscuity, but I do feel if the lead character was male there wouldn’t be as much harshness directed at their actions. At the very least they would be portrayed as comical. This is one of the early films to use the word “slut” which is quite appropriate for the amount of slut-shaming that takes place. More than once Gloria’s mistaken for a prostitute, hell it sets off the whole story. There’s a clear message that what Gloria does is wrong, her dismissing attitude towards it, eventual realization of the error of her ways, and the ending which I’ll delve into later, feel almost propagandic. And it doesn’t help that the character drama isn’t very interesting either. Steve and his annoyingly paranoid girlfriend exist only to propose a choice, an option other than Liggett for Gloria to choose. And Liggett himself is quite forceful to the point of obsession. He’s not likable and sadly Harvey lacks the on-screen charisma to make you invest in this kind of personality. He just comes off particularly in the climax as a lesser Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo.
Given the portrayal of her character I can see why Elizabeth Taylor wasn’t particularly fond of this film. Gloria is a “home-wrecker” and whether she ends up with Liggett or Steve she’s ruining someone’s relationship. And that kind of idea couldn’t have come at a worse time than when Taylor was caught up in a scandal for seemingly having broken up the marriage between Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds -Fisher who even appeared in this movie as one of her potential suitors! For all the discomfort she must have had working on the film, Taylor performed very well but certainly not Oscar worthy. I’d say her performance in either A Place in the Sun or Suddenly, Last Summer were more deserving. And of course it’s got nothing on her second Oscar win for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I’ve already noted Harvey’s lack of charisma, and Fisher shows his discomfort more than Taylor making for a largely unmemorable performance. Oliver only leaves an impression by her irritability and her obsession with marriage, again possibly stressing the importance of committed relationships.
The result is a drama that’s not very engaging because it’s more concerned with its message than its characters or story. A message which is hammered in even more at the films’ end. So, SPOILERS ahead, after leaving Liggett for good reason, Gloria resigns herself to starting a new life in Boston. The problem: Liggett is still in love with her and tails her during her drive. She tries to escape him and while distracted goes right through a road closed sign and off a peak of construction Thelma & Louise style, dying in the ensuing crash. Liggett mourns to his wife (who earlier discovered the affair and did not react realistically in the slightest) and suggests they might work on their marriage when he returns from some sabbatical. And so everything is tied up in a tidy knot. Steve and Norma’s relationship is intact, the Liggetts’ might be as well, all thanks to our protagonist being brutally killed. It almost feels like the screenwriter didn’t know how to end the film and appease conservative audiences at the same time, so he just decided to kill Gloria. This ending again feels manipulative because it indicates that sexually prolific women like Gloria are doomed, regardless of whether they have a change of heart. It doesn’t sit well with me because it’s too convenient a way to resolve conflict, just eliminating the problem altogether, and is more than a little lazy.
So yeah, BUtterfield 8 isn’t a good a film. I think if it focussed more on a story for its own sake and not some morality lesson about the dangers of promiscuous women and how they’re a threat to relationships, there could have been something there. Again maybe along the lines of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s a shame too considering the talent involved, Taylor included, but also screenwriter John Michael Hayes who wrote Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, and The Children’s Hour among others and who does his best with the material given. But as is BUtterfield 8 didn’t go over well for its cast, and is no more than the movie that won Elizabeth Taylor her first Academy Award, an undeserving one at that.