Elizabeth's Risky Game
For their earlier two screen projects A Place in the Sun (1951) and Giant (1956), actress Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011), born 85 years ago today, gave terrifically sexy and tender performances and George Stevens (1904-1975) earned Academy Awards® for Best Director. So despite the fact that each experienced career highs and lows after those two benchmarks, a certain anticipation couldn’t be helped that these simpatico artists were reuniting. The material that drew them together again was a seriocomic chamber piece (from a short-lived Broadway play) called The Only Game in Town (1970), about two wistful loners, trying to strike a real romantic connection in the flashy and illusory world of Las Vegas, by Frank D. Gilroy, a Tony® and Pulitzer Prize winner for his moving family drama The Subject Was Roses and later the writer/director of a future unorthodox romance constructed on illusion, the fanciful Charles Bronson/Jill Ireland Twilight Time Old West yarn From Noon Till Three (1976). As if the star/director combo wasn’t dazzling enough, the originally intended casting to play the lounge pianist and chronic gambler opposite Taylor’s world-weary showgirl, waiting for her stolid businessman lover to finalize his divorce and tie the knot, was Frank Sinatra. But production postponements caused Sinatra to withdraw, and an intriguing new dynamic emerged when Warren Beatty, a long-time admirer of the director, signed on for the role instead. What would this high-wattage, characteristically controlling troika – Taylor, Beatty and Stevens – make of this intimate, charming and tender take on the ultimate risk: lowering one’s guard and making a personal commitment? Less, it turns out, than knee-jerking audiences and reviewers of this explosively transitional moviemaking era expected, but more, it also follows with the passage of time, that finds some measure of appreciation nearly a half-century later. Taylor was particularly targeted for criticism, but her embrace of her character’s tarnished glamour and motherly playfulness now reads as perhaps more authentic and down-to-earth than the more trenchant, scorched-earth work that won her screen goddess stature and accolades. Similarly, Beatty, whose recent Rules Don’t Apply encountered scant admiration when he married focused character introspection with vintage professionalism, opens up marvelously as an attractive loser always on the make while skating on thin ice. Following decades of making increasingly important movies about grand themes, Stevens made this moody, minor-key duet, his final film as it turned out, exploring fundamental humanistic interdependence. Lovingly shot by Henri Decaë (veteran of another underappreciated-in-its-day love story, the 1977 Twilight Time title Bobby Deerfield) and scored by Doctor Zhivago and Ryan’s Daughter maestro Maurice Jarre, The Only Game in Town may be played on TT hi-def Blu-ray (available here: http://screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/25046/THE-ONLY-GAME-IN-TOWN-1970/) and more revelatory work by beloved birthday honoree Taylor will turn up on the TT label later this year.