BOOM! (1968) opens with heavy waves crashing against jagged rocks, there’s no sandy beach, no surfers, just grey water loudly slapping grey stone, nature setting the tone of anger and isolation. The film is set in a mansion perched atop a mediterranean island, an expression of modern art as architecture; all glaring white with the sun reflecting off its marble surface. Usually mansions on lonely European islands are the home of vampires and mad scientists, complete with pointed spires and a sky full of lightning, but that’s not the kind of gothic that Tennessee Williams deals in. Williams’ characters are southern to the core despite any riches that have befallen them and Joseph Losey’s film is an abstraction of the elements found in Williams’ southern gothic melodramas, coming as close to the edge of self parody as possible without falling 1000 feet off the limestone cliffs and being washed out to the camp humor sea.
Centered around the back and forth of the two main characters, Sissy Goforth and Christopher Flanders, the story is a decadent twist on the Williams formula – a mysterious drifter bringing devastating drama to the life of a vulnerable woman. The sickly Goforth is the richest woman in the world, taking her annual respite on a Sardinian island, running her servants ragged, taking medicine injections, and dictating her autobiography to a young widow named Blackie. When Flanders appears mysteriously on the shore, Goforth is intrigued, but after being warned of his reputation the realization soon sets in that Flanders is a bad omen that may mean her death.
The characters of Boom! are Tennessee Williams archetypes run through a xerox too many times, losing definition with successive copies, but eventually taking on a ragged high contrast uniqueness. Casting Elizabeth Taylor as Sissy Goforth hinted at past Williams characters, she’d already played Maggie the Cat in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Catherine in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). Audiences were used to Taylor tearing it up as bigger than Hollywood characters like Katherina in Taming of the Shrew (1967) or Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), so when she appeared in Boom! it would have seemed like more of the same, but at a higher pitch.
Goforth (Sissy to her friends) gives us some backstory as we hear her shout her autobiography across the island’s intercom system to the long suffering Blackie who is tasked with corralling the words. After burying 4 wealthy husbands, she marries the only one that she ever loved, a poet that died tragically as well. She has southern roots, but claims almost no origin, “I originated in the womb of my mother with some assistance from a father, unknown, on a day, unknown, on a year, unknown.”
At age 36 Taylor was too young to play the role, but her youth adds a mystery to her sickly state. We never learn quite what illness is causing her to require such medical attention, injections (of what we never learn), codeine, and a live in doctor. At one point she’s gagging excessively into her handkerchief while discussing the whereabouts of her dinner ware. She seems frustrated by the infirmity and even tosses the doctor’s x-ray machine off the rocky cliff, but the illness may be emotional rather than physical. She explains to Blackie, “do you know what I need to get me over this depression this summer? What would you do me more good then all the shots and pills in the pharmaceutical kingdom? I need myself I lover.”
Once Flanders arrives he certainly seems like an ideal candidate for the position, but she need to do her research first. Today we might check someone’s social media accounts to figure them out before engaging, but back in the 60s you had to consult the local gossip. Enter the Witch of Capris, an elegant old homosexual played by a grinning Sir Noel Coward that takes trips to Switzerland to inject monkey glands. The role was originally intended for Katherine Hepburn who was insulted by the offer. The Witch is carried to the dinner date on the shoulders of a brawny young sailor and Taylor arrives in an ornate kabuki theater gown. The two dine on robin eggs and sea monster and The Witch reveals Flanders habit of showing up at the sides of wealthy women right before they die, earning him the nickname Angel of Death.
Flanders comes from a long line of Williams drifters and outsiders that find their ways into the lives of fragile women and provide the external pressures that propel the stories toward their climaxes. Flanders stands out as one of the most extreme examples of this device – he has little personal motivation other than being, in his words, a “professional houseguest,” but what he represents to the other characters is clear: he signals death for Sissy Goforth. To ingratiate himself to her all he’s brought are a flimsy book of his poetry and a tangled Calder-style mobile, he’s a starving artist looking for a benefactor. He does his best to sell himself to the suspicious Goforth, but outfitted in a black samurai robe, complete with a sword, he casts a dark figure hinting at the image of a grim reaper.
Tennessee Williams was a rewriter, manuscripts went through many drafts and usually changed dramatically along the way. By the time Boom! was filmed, the tale of Flora Goforth and Chris Flanders had already gone through a few mediums. The short story Man Bring This Up Road was published in 1953 and Flanders was a drifter named Jimmy Dobyne, no match for the insatiable appetite of Goforth. The story had some of the bizarre images that wound up in the film (such a monkey chained in the hot sun), but as in all subsequent tellings the focus was on the relationship of the two main characters in Goforth’s Italian villa. First staged in 1962, the original production of The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore was a fairly straightforward (and unsuccessful) performance centered around a back and forth between the two leads. A revival in 1964 (starring Tallulah Bankhead and Tab Hunter) added a metafiction element lifted from kabuki theater where stagehands (or actors dressed as stagehands) comment on the action of the play as it’s happening. By the time Milk Train became Boom! it had been changed further, allowing for the Hollywood glamour that better suits the richest woman in the world.
There is very little narrative thrust in Boom! and even less ripe conflict to keep an audience engaged. The film is raw virtuosity – tortured dark comedy delivered by the most distinguished performers, under the direction of a humorless artist that sacrificed career and wellbeing for political ideology. The dialogue is Williams’ most outrageous, lines like “I’ve been surrounded by traitors all summer!” or “Shit on your mother! Goddamnit, I’ve signed myself into a criminal institution!” are real crowd pleasers, particularly when scored by calliope music or sitars. Critics and audiences at the time hated it and the film was a notorious flop. John Waters has done the most to garnish critical reappraisal of the film, touring with it and making direct references to it in Pink Flamingos (1972) and Desperate Living (1977). He even cast Tab Hunter in Polyester (1981), who relayed to him that when he played Flanders on stage the “queens” in the audience were so loud that he couldn’t deliver his lines.
As I write this, the Met Gala is awash in Capital-C Camp, where Lady Gaga is doing her best to sell hooker boots to retired Streisand fans (and, let’s be fair, I only call them “hooker boots” when they’re being worn by a retired Streisand fan). At a time when identity defines personality and the extremely wealthy have leaned deeply into death-obsessed nihilism, could there be a better time for Sissy Goforth and her Angel of Death than 2019?
Physical media powerhouse Shout! Factory will be releasing Boom! onto blu ray on May 28th with a commentary track by Waters and a featurette with critic Alonso Duralde.