Tabloid culture is the insidious offspring of pop culture. The stars of the screen have their personal lives dissected by millions of voyeurs, and every so often there’s a power couple that drives the tabloid world absolutely wild. There’s no greater example of this phenomenon than the marriage between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The two screen legends met on the set of the infamously troubled production of Cleopatra, and the tabloids went wild as Taylor and Burton dissolved their marriages to wed one another. Amazingly, Cleopatra was the highest grossing movie of the year in 1963, thanks in part to the help of the tabloids pushing the Taylor/Burton union, but the film’s inflated budget meant that it wasn’t considered a hit as it almost bankrupt 20th Century Fox.
Just a few years later the pair of Taylor and Burton would score a massive hit with Mike Nichols’ adaptation of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It was a critical and box office smash, earning 13 Oscar nominations including a nomination for Burton and a win for Taylor. The couple would follow the success of Virginia Woolf with a series of other collaborations of mixed success including Doctor Faustus, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Comedians. In 1968, Taylor and Burton would star in an adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. Directed by Joseph Losey with a screenplay written by Williams, the film would be retitled as Boom!. An infamous flop that opened and closed practically overnight, Boom! has become a cult classic thanks in part to its profile being boosted by director John Waters, who traveled the globe screening a 35mm print of the film. After years of being unavailable on home video, Shout! Factory has brought Boom! to Blu-ray with a glorious new transfer for a special edition worthy of such a prestigious and noteworthy flop.
Elizabeth Taylor stars as Flora “Sissy” Goforth (what a name), the wealthiest woman in the world living on a secluded island. Sissy is demanding and often harsh, even cruel towards her loyal servant Miss Black (Joanna Shimkus). However, Sissy is dealing with an array of ailments. When we first see her, she struggles to maintain composure during a morning massage before screaming her first line in the movie into an intercom: “Pain…injection!” Planning on joining Sissy on her secluded island is Chris Flanders (Burton), a hard luck poet who has earned the nickname “Angelo Del Morte” (“The Angel of Death”) for his pattern of being around wealthy women in the moments before they die. In the vein of Virginia Woolf, Boom! features plenty of Taylor and Burton yelling at each other, but it’s especially Taylor who gets to unleash all of her fury on anyone whom shares the screen with her including The Witch of Capri (Noël Coward). Amidst the gorgeous scenery, the characters carry out verbose conversations about love, life, and death.
I don’t think an argument could be made that Boom! is a good movie, but one thing is certain – it’s never boring. The opening sentence to Roger Ebert’s 1968 review of Boom! perfectly summed it up: “There are different kinds of bad movies. Some are simply wretchedly bad, like well, you know. Others are bad but fascinating and Boom! is one of these.”
The plot, if you could call it that, just kind of meanders as that characters remain stuck at Sissy’s secluded island home. But the secluded home is in one of the most picturesque locations imaginable. And the film is oddly captivating thanks in part to tabloid roots of Taylor and Burton’s tumultuous romance. Another part of the intrigue comes from the larger-than-life performance by Liz Taylor, whose voice booms with outrageous dialogue delivered at 11. The best example of this is Taylor screaming “Shit on your mother!” when a servant accidentally bumps into her. Boom! has camp seeping out of its pores in every facet of its being, from the wild performances to the outrageous costume design to stylish sets amidst gorgeous scenery. Rumor has it that everyone involved in the film was heavily intoxicated throughout, especially Taylor and Burton who couldn’t understand why they were unable to purchase the home featured in the film. (It was a set.)
On the Shout! Factory edition of Boom! are two very special features that really highlight just what an unusual movie it is and the dedication of its cult following. The first special feature is an interview with author and critic Alonso Duralde entitled The Sound of a Bomb: Contextualizing Boom!. Duralde dives into the tabloid history of Taylor and Burton, the film’s unusual production, and how a 35mm print he tracked down for the Dallas Film Festival wound up traveling around the world with John Waters. The second special feature is an audio commentary track with John Waters. At a time when nobody championed Boom!, Waters was at the forefront of the film’s fandom. Waters’ frequent star Divine modeled his persona after Taylor’s and in the background of Pink Flamingos you can see an original poster for the famous flop. Anyone familiar with commentary tracks by Waters knows that the beloved director doesn’t phone these in and fills the entire track with hilarious anecdotes and astonishing factoids, and Boom! is no different. This Blu-ray is proof that it’s quality not quantity that matters most with special features.
As someone who is fascinated by infamous flops I was drawn to Boom! with its big budget (all of which appears on the screen) and wretched reputation. It’s a bad movie, yes, but rarely has bad been so damned captivating. There’s no movie quite like Boom! with its sheer star power in front and behind the camera, delivering something so baffling, so bewildering that more that 50 years later people are still trying to figure out just what in the hell everyone was thinking.
A bad but never boring movie that finally lands on Blu-ray, Boom! features a memorably campy performance from Elizabeth Taylor as well as any number of bewildering decisions in the infamous flop written by Tennessee Williams.