Butterfield 8: Dirty Blue Martini

Year Released: 1960
Directed by: Daniel Mann
Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey, Eddie Fisher
(Not Rated, 109 min.)

"All that glitters is not gold." William Shakespeare

Never has sipping a morning scotch in a slip and pair of gold heels looked more alluring. Elevating what is essentially a soap opera melodrama, Elizabeth Taylor uses her on screen presence and glamour to seduce us as well as a considerable portion of Upper Manhattan in one of her two Oscar winning performances. 

Then why is the film so disappointing? Some say the Oscar win was really a sympathy vote for Taylor, who had just recovered from a near-fatal bout with pneumonia and an emergency tracheotomy that saved her life. Reportedly, even Taylor hated the film, only agreeing to do it so she could be released from her MGM contract that had 3 more years to run so she could film Cleopatra for a cool million dollars. Reportedly, when Taylor first saw the completed film in a screening room, “she threw a high heel at the screen, fled to the bathroom, and promptly threw up.”

Part of the problem with the film is that we really never learn to like either of the two leads, Elizabeth Taylor as Gloria Wandrous, a New York model of easy virtue, and the cheating husband (Laurence Harvey) she falls for. Although each of them is so mired in self-loathing that we don’t quite feel the need to join in the hate fest. 

Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey) has married into money and a cushy job at the chemical factory owned by his wife’s family, and he can never forgive himself for accepting life in this gilded cage. But there’s always a good scotch and a willing lady to take his mind off things.

Gloria lives a similar life, modeling expensive clothes at the best bars in town and overall living large. Or as one of her many admirers says, “She’s like catnip to every cat in town.” 

Is it any wonder that the romance between these two would be not run smoothly? But one at least expects something above junior high petulance and pout. Harvey, generally a good actor, is frightfully uneven in his performance here, going from lovesick to sullen and threatening in the bat of an eye. It doesn’t help that he has some ridiculous lines to mouth as well, such as the one he gives to Wanda’s answering service, the infamous Butterfield 8 exchange of the title: “This is the most important phone call of my life,” he gasps. One almost hopes Lily “One RingyDingy” Tomlin, the telephone operator of Rowan and Martin television fame, is on the other end to snort at such theatrics. 

Taylor, who one critic aptly captured as “simultaneously overblown and utterly sincere,” vamps her way across the screen with the same careless disregard with which she lived her life. In fact, it is no coincidence that the film and its stars bear an uncanny resemblance to Liz’s tumultuous off screen life. In fact, the producers counted on the fact to bring in fans. Eddie Fisher, who had just left America’s sweetheart Debbie Reynolds and kids for the sultry Taylor, plays a childhood friend, Steve Carpenter, now a struggling composer living in Greenwich Village. Theirs is a platonic friendship, although his longtime girlfriend Norma (Susan Oliver), who looks more than a little like Debbie Reynolds, is not convinced. And the scenes where Gloria playfully nibbles at his neck and covers him with playful kisses remind one of a cat playing with a mouse.

Most critics lambast Fisher’s performance as bland, yet I find the exchanges between Gloria and Steve the only ones in the film that are not stilted and clichéd.

There’s a bit more interest in Gloria’s scenes at home with her mother (Mildred Dunnock) and her acid tongued best friend, Mrs. Fanny Thurber (Betty Field). Of course, the fact that Gloria still lives at home with her mother seems a bit odd, but the interesting dimension is the tacit agreement between the two to ignore the seedier aspects of Gloria’s life. And we must admit that Mrs. Thurber does her best to undercut any such illusions as she does battle with Gloria on a regular basis:

Gloria Wandrous: I think I'll get cleaned up and do my nails. 
Mrs. Fanny Thurber: Yes, sharpen them. 
Gloria Wandrous: For you, Mrs. Thurber, I would.

Only when she is determined to leave that sordid life behind does Gloria finally agree to drop that pretext she and her mother have engaged in, almost in the same cruelly cathartic way George does to wife Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when he discloses the secret of their imaginary child.

“Mama, face it. I was the slut of all time.” A statement that best goes without comment.

See it for the style, a glimpse of the rich and (in)famous, and of course, vintage Elizabeth Taylor at the height of her appeal. But don’t expect too much under all that glitter.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

"A big boozy melodrama, full of gorgeous clothes, catty comments, and emotional showdowns – but along the way it plumbs some genuine sadness.” This critic was talking about our film, Butterfield 8, yet he might also be talking about the real life of its iconic star, Elizabeth Taylor as well.

As one of many tributes to the film and its star, we have the Butterfield 8 Restaurant and Lounge in New York City. Let’s enjoy one of its signature cocktails, the Dirty Blue Martini, which gets its color and name from Bombay Sapphire Gin as well as the bleu cheese stuffed olive that adorns it. So put on your most glamorous slip and golden slippers and take a long, smooth swallow.

Dirty Blue Martini 

  • 2 oz gin*
  • 1 tbsp dry vermouth
  • 2 tbsp olive juice
  • 2 olives
  1. Place an ice cube and a small amount of water in a cocktail glass. Place in freezer for 2 - 3 minutes. 
  2. Fill a mixer with all ingredients including garnish. Cover and shake hard 3 - 4 times. 
  3. Remove cocktail glass from freezer, and empty. Strain contents of the mixer into the cocktail glass, include one of the olives, and serve with a mysterious smile.

* At the Butterfield 8 Bar in Manhattan this is a signature drink called the Blue Dirty Martini. They use Bombay Sapphire gin to give it some color and the olive is stuffed with bleu cheese. It’s the olive brine or juice that makes this martini “dirty.”

Recipe Source: drinksmixer.com