' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The V.I.P.'s (1963)

Friday, March 07, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: The V.I.P.'s (1963)

The invaluable Robert Osborne introduces “The V.I.P.’s” on Turner Classic Movies by relaying that its screenwriter, Terence Rattigan, based the two-hour film on the true-life tale of Vivien Leigh attempting to leave her husband, Laurence Olivier, by fleeing via flight with actor Peter Finch. Alas, fog rolled in at the London airport, delaying their jet, allowing time for Olivier to swoop in and put the kibosh on the attempted marital breakout. I mean, that’s a story, and straight away you can understand Rattigan’s wish to dramatize it. A decade or so ago we could have made this with Rebecca Romijin as Leigh and Conan O’Brien as Finch and John Stamos as the jilted Olivier.


That would have been a ludicrous rom com, however, which is immediately where your mind goes when you hear of this foggy airport getaway gone awry. The truth, it seems, is much stranger and darker. Vivien Leigh, of course, had significant mental problems and these plagued her throughout her marriage to Olivier and likely in some way led to her affair with Finch. But Finch was friends with Leigh and Olivier, insinuating himself into their social circle, and there were rumors of Olivier’s latent homosexual feelings toward Finch, which only further clouds the matter. That could have been a phenomenal story in its own right. Twisted, real and surreal simultaneously, think Joe Eszterhas meets Charlie Kaufman. No. Really. THINK Joe Eszterhas meets Charlie Kaufman! For anything! Ever!

Instead, “The V.I.P.’s”, directed by Anthony Asquith, just sort of plunks itself down in between the extreme of those two ideas. It doesn’t dare get dark and psychological and stays away from full-blown comedy, instead outsourcing its humor from the main story to a couple side ones featuring Orson Welles and Margaret Rutherford (who won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award, and if there was ever an Academy that deserved to be reduced to parentheses, it’s this one) that just drag the entire enterprise out to a wholly unnecessary two hours.

Saving face, Les Mangrum is an Australian businessman who needs to cut a deal to save his business. His secretary (Maggie Smith), hopelessly in love with him, stands fast by his side. And while that hopeless love is the story’s overriding point, Rod Taylor brings a subtle humanity to the part of Mangrum in which you can truly believe.

Stuck in the middle is Elizabeth Taylor, perhaps the only woman alive who could have assumed a based-on-Vivien-Leigh role, who seems to be existing in a universe apart from much of the movie, gracefully underplaying as a woman caught between passions and unsure if these passions are worthy of her passion. She is Frances Andros, actress extraordinaire, and married to a millionaire, Paul (Richard Burton), requisitely inattentive. She has been seeing Champselle (Louis Jordan), who is a playboy, NOT a gigolo, because he has NEVER taken money from a woman’s husband (except that he has). He swears his love for Frances is true, that she has stirred up something new in him, that he’s not merely digging for gold, but Rattigan’s script seems pronounced in Frances not being entirely sold on Champselle. Which admittedly is part of the story’s problem. At one point, Champselle busts out his lothario voice that apparently makes all the ladies swoon. Frances laughs at it.


In each of their own ways, Paul and Champselle are men married to money – the former to cold hard cash itself, the latter to the lifestyle that so much cash provides. It is Frances, of course, who opens Champselle’s eyes and libido to the foolishness of his ways and it is Champselle’s eyes being opened to the foolishness of his ways that opens Paul’s eyes to the foolishness of his ways. In other words, Paul arrives at his decision the same way another cinematic Paul – Michael Rapaport of “Beautiful Girls” – arrives at his (a desperate marriage proposal to poor Martha Plimpton): “I didn’t like the alternative.”

Frances is meant to waver between the two but the love triangle always feels like a solo act. In a way, by casting Taylor and Burton, the film throws a nod to their combustible real-life relationship in which they were married twice. Of course, that can only be seen in retrospect since they were divorced and re-married several years after “The V.I.P.’s”, but even then the feeling is not prominent. Moreover, neither the crumbling marriage and the prospective happily-ever-after affair feel very make or break. The delayed flight provides a ticking clock but you never hear the clock ticking.

In the frame, Taylor is often seen in repose, calmly taking in what she’s being told, a step ahead and already advanced mentally to the next point in the conversation. Her performance, frankly, doesn’t seem to be striking the right note for the material, which I actually sort of mean to be complimentary. She breaks free of the constraints of the role on the page and you only wish the production could have been halted for a day to afford a re-write. The point of the story, as I see it, is not who Frances ends up with because Frances doesn’t need to choose between two lovers. Frances needs a spa weekend on her own.

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