How terribly sad to have crashed a Sunbeam.View attachment 61334
Butterfield 8 from 1960 with Elizabeth Taylor, Laurence Harvey, Dina Merrill, Mildred Dunnock and Eddie Fisher
Every period has its take on "the fallen woman," which is closely associated with the always fun and overwrought Madonna-whore complex, both of which drive Butterfield 8.
In the lightly censored movies of the pre-code early 1930s, "the fallen woman" could often stand herself back up and go on living because, sometimes, that's what happens in real life. But once the Motion Picture Production Code was enforced in the mid-1930s, "the fallen woman" needed to be punished to have any shot at redemption, but usually, it was easier to just kill her off.
Butterfield 8 was made at a time when the code was wobbling but still holding on, so its quasi prostitute, Elizabeth Taylor, is kinda, sorta sympathetic, yet still, punishment must be meted out.
Taylor plays a darker cognate to Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany's. She's a model slash partygirl slash early social media "influencer" (she gets paid to wear designer dresses to hot night spots so they will be noted in the next day's newspapers) who also, (the movie elides this a bit) sleeps with men for money.
Darker than Golightly how? When we first meet Ms. Taylor, she's waking up after having been railed by some guy who left in the early morning. So, disheveled and still wearing last night's makeup, she stumbles out of his bed wrapped in nothing but a sheet, looks for a cigarette, throws an empty pack on the carpet, finds a loose cigarette, lights up, inhales, starts coughing, pours herself a good-sized shot of whiskey and has the first drink of the day. Good morning.
Today, we take a more understanding and sympathetic approach to almost all human failings (except for the ones current day has deemed unacceptable). Yet back then, the heavy moral disapproval of "the fallen woman" (with a prostitute being about as far as you could fall) meant something, even if it all floated on a narrative of hypocrisy and inconsistency, just as a lot of what we believe today also floats on shaky narratives.
So, when upstanding businessman, Laurence Harvey, married to social-registry wife, Dina Merrill (the blonde Madonna in our story), falls in love with his girl-on-the-side Taylor (the brunette whore), all sorts of things get smashed up, starting with poor Dina Merrill.
Beyond being ridiculously attractive, Merrill is an unbelievably understanding wife who tries to give Harvey "space" to find his way back to her. Most women's definition of "space" in this case would be a bullet with their husband's name on it, but Merrill loves her husband and wants to save the marriage.
She believes marrying into her wealthy family - which gave Harvey instant status, wealth and a job with a fancy title at her family's firm - destroyed his self esteem. Harvey plays the "victim" role to the hilt. He angrily mopes his way through the movie as the aggrieved party because, well, his wife made his life too easy for him. We now have a winner in the "rich people's problem" contest.
Maybe Harvey really loves Taylor or maybe he just wants to spit in his wife's face, but Taylor believes she loves Harvey and sees him as the moral lustration she needs to scrub clean her past life of sin and debauchery.
Just as Harvey is about to ask his wife for a divorce so that he can marry Taylor - a do-I-leave-the-Madonna-for-a-whore moment - he comes face to face with Taylor's past. He knew about it, but to this point, had done his best to make believe it didn't exist. Yet he can't ignore, when in a bar, several men casually joke with him about his new "girlfriend" Taylor by saying, "welcome to the fraternity, we meet once a year in Yankee Stadium." Ouch.
Harvey, it turns out, belongs to that odd niche of men who knowingly fall in love with prostitutes - nothing wrong with that, everyone should find love where they can - but then begin to hate the object of their affections because she's slept with a whole lot of men. In logic, that's called a "category error," as Harvey is angry at something for being exactly what it is. It's like hating a top for spinning.
As the movie climaxes, Harvey, even when he breaks with Taylor, wrecks his marriage to Merrill. Taylor, meanwhile, leaves New York to start afresh with wholesome intent, this time, in Boston. But don't forget the Motion Picture Production Code which, basically, (spoiler alert) says, "The Whore Must Die!"
So, at the end of a silly and forced car-chase scene, where Harvey pursues Taylor in an attempt to get her back, she is killed as her very cute two-seater Sunbeam Alpine flies off the road. Taylor is dead; the Code is satisfied; Harvey is crushed and, unbelievably, wife Merrill is willing to take him back.
It's saponaceous melodrama on steroids with an overlay of fire and brimstone condemnation. But tucked inside and countering the "bad whore" narrative are Taylor's mother, the wonderful Mildred Dunnock, and Taylor's childhood best friend, Eddie Fisher, who provide a sympathetic view of Taylor's life.
The Code was buckling a bit in 1960, but it was not yet ready to let the whore live. However, in about a decade, the 1970s would bring a new and forgiving perspective to the prostitute.
N.B. Butterfield 8 is wonderful time travel to early 1960s New York City from the Village to the fancy apartments of Fifth Avenue, including many of the bars, restaurants and nightclubs in between. There's even a neat moment where, in the background of super-lit-up-at-night Times Square, you can see a movie marquee advertising Ben-Hur.