John Waters cites the fact that his parents wouldn’t allow him to see the Tennessee Williams play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore at the age of twelve as child abuse. That incarnation of the play was helmed by Tab Hunter and Tallulah Bankhead, whose gay fans would shriek and scream with delight from the dress circle at her every line. There were only five performances. He also cites that Boom!, based on the same play, is his favourite ‘failed’ art film of all time. With the Waters seal of approval you would be right in assuming that you’re about to witness a cult classic.
The film opens with waves exploding dramatically against a shoreline of rocks of an undetermined Mediterranean island, home to the histrionic and estranged Flora Goforth (Elizabeth Taylor) who is seemingly in the final days of a terminal illness, also undetermined. Goforth’s summer on her private island is spent drinking, mercilessly abusing her staff, taking drugs and dictating her memoirs to the suffering Miss Black with the aid of an elaborate intercom system. Enter the ‘young’ poet Chris Flanders (Richard Burton) who has earned himself the moniker of ‘angelo della morte’ by turning up on the doorsteps of wealthy heiresses who are about to shrug off this mortal coil. He brings with him a couple of hessian sacks filled with the tools of an artist, a ten year old book of poetry, and an unusual mobile made from scrap metal. But it is what he brings to the island metaphorically that is the crux of the tale.
Taylor’s Goforth should be up there with such classic archetypal viragos as Bette Davis’ Mrs Taggart, Faye Dunaway’s Joan Crawford, and Kathleen Turner’s Beverly Sutphin. Mirroring the opening sequence, Taylor delivers wave after wave of dramatic explosions, a high camp performance of which most drag queens would be envious. Divine, John Water’s leading ‘lady’, took inspiration from Taylor’s performance when creating her own iconic Babs Johnson for Pink Flamingos.
Burton, about twenty years too old for the part, brings a jarring calm to Taylor’s storm with his sonorous tones, and when the two characters come together at the story’s mid point the actors’ natural chemistry invigorates the drama, injecting a little adrenalin into the film’s gentle pace.
The appearance of Noël Coward (arriving on the shoulders of a servant no less!) completes the ensemble. Playing the Witch of Capri, a deliciously wicked old queen, Coward finds a natural rhythm with Tennessee Williams’ dialogue that whilst innate, seems at odds with the rest of the cast.
Acting incongruities and casting aside, Boom! is a beautifully shot film. This is old-school art-house direction at its finest, strong diagonals abound, each scene framed with the composition of an old master with long languid tracking shots that hold the action with choreographic precision. The Mediterranean light is deftly manipulated throughout the often gravid shots, punctuated with the sparse score of John Barry (and the heightened use of ambient sound), and it creates an invasive and pervasive atmosphere which is particularly startling when Burton’s recites the opening lines of Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’. These elements when brought together with Richard MacDonald’s impeccable production design and Taylor’s couture costumes (which are testament to the best fashion of the time) make Boom! one of the most visually aesthetic experiences on celluloid.
Often extremely funny (sometimes unintentionally so), but always entertaining and at times quite moving, Boom! isn’t a classic in spite of its disparate elements – its disparate elements are what makes it special; not unlike the mobile Flanders brings to Goforth’s private island, the pieces hang together a little haphazardly but in the end they find some sort of harmony, balancing against one another ultimately creating something quite beautiful.