Mechanical Glamour

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The V.I.P.s feels a bit like the photographs of Cindy Sherman. Every frame is utterly staged, every background synthetic, every dramatic moment artificial. In planes, and airport lounges and hotel rooms, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton pose becomingly at canted angles. He wears a hunter red tie and scarf with his dark suit. She wears beige, then pink, then crisp black and white. There are very few windows. The camera lovingly, unhurriedly observes them. The VIPS knows it is a film, a product, a Hollywood thing. It doesn’t pretend to be more.

Liz Taylor is the beautiful but neglected trophy wife with wonderful head adornments: velvet hats, fur hoods and sculpted hairdos. Richard Burton is the commanding business tycoon who learns to love his wife only when it may be too late. Louis Jourdan is the charming international gambler angling for Liz’s alienated affection. Another triangle includes Rod Taylor as a small-time Australian tractor magnate with business problems and Maggie Smith as the staid, British secretary who loves him. These are the kind of characters who’ll later show up in the television glamour-comedies of the 1970s (Love Boat, Fantasy Island), shows where the contrived problems of the uber-elite are exposed, wrestled with and neatly solved within the course of 50 minutes. The difference here is that The V.I.P.s doesn’t play anything for guffaws or vaudeville. With its refined tone, sedate camera, uncluttered sets, and tranquil performances, this is a sleepy, elegant melodrama. Even the comic relief characters , Margaret Rutherford as the absent-minded, down-on-her-luck aristocrat, and Orson Welles as the self-indulgent, tax-evading film director, evoke a Hollywood-royalty dignity.

Almost everyone gets what they want at the end. And we are reassured that those who don’t will triumph later. Absolutely nothing is at stake. Watching The V.I.P.s is akin to riding in a Rolls Royce Phantom, washing down Valium with 30 year-old scotch – totally relaxing, totally removed.

Yet there are a few intriguing cracks in the soothing facade. Burton gives his trophy wife a diamond bracelet for her coddled wrist; He later wounds that same wrist in an act he claims proves his passion. Orson Welles marries a vapid, gorgeous Italian actress, but repeatedly kisses his petite, male accountant on the lips. Not much is made of these moments. But they are subtly suggestive, as though the perplexing, inexorable nature of messy reality is stealing in.

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