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Sinful Cinema The Driver’s Seat

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Sinful Cinema: The Driver’s Seat

It’s generally agreed that films fall into one of three categories: The Good, The Bad, and the So-Bad-It’s-Good. Still, there remain a few highly select examples of a fourth category: the What-in-Hell-Was-That? Michael Sarne’s star-laden evisceration of Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge is certainly one of these, as are such disparate disasters as The Lonely Lady (Pia Zadora’s last-ditch attempt at being taken seriously), the sub-Ed-Wood exercise in low-budget incomprehensibility Mesa of Lost Women (1953), and—when and if it finally gets released—Faye Dunaway’s vanity (and how!) rendition of Terence McNally’s Maria Callas play Master Class. Yet none of these acts of cinematic desperation are quite as outré as The Driver’s Seat.

Directed by Giuseppe Patroni-Griffi, this Italian-made English-language drama, adapted from Muriel Spark’s novella about a mentally unbalanced woman searching for someone to stab her to death, stars Elizabeth Taylor and features (as Neil Patrick Harris would say, “wait for it…”) Andy Warhol. Nothing in the good, bad or so-bad-it’s-good canon compares to it. And if you were among the semi-happy few who managed to see it back in 1974, when it was released (or, some might say, “escaped”) to select grindhouses before vanishing into the maw of home video, then you know what I’m talking about. For while Elizabeth Taylor certainly made her share of stinkers in a long and productive career (Cynthia, The Sandpiper, Young Toscanini), it’s hard to imagine another item so fit to leave moviegoers scratching their heads, wondering precisely why it was made.

Clearly Muriel Spark is a novelist of distinction. And while this tale of galloping mental decay is a far cry from her crowd-pleasing The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, one can see why Taylor was attracted to making a movie version. After copping the Oscar for her balls-out, slam-dunk rendition of Martha, Edward Albee’s self-destructive, intellectual harridan in Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?, Taylor had acquired a taste for the artistically ambitious and dramatically overheated. Hence we find her running amok as the adulterous wife of a closeted military officer (Marlon Brando!) in John Huston’s film of Carson McCullers’s Reflections in a Golden Eye; going over every imaginable “top” in Boom, Joseph Losey’s ultra-gaudy adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore; and (almost literally) chewing the scenery of an eye-popping art deco mansion in Secret Ceremony, another lovely Losey loser. Consequently going nuts for Patroni-Griffi wasn’t exactly a stretch.

As her inamorata Richard Burton was making Massacre in Rome at the same time, getting into The Driver’s Seat in Italy was as convenient for Taylor as playing The Only Game in Town in France in 1969, when Burton toiled on Staircase at an adjoining Joinville soundstage. On The Only Game in Town, Taylor had George Stevens, the director who transformed her from a pretty Metro adolescent into an icon of feminine beauty and power in A Place in the Sun. Giuseppe Patroni-Griffi (1921-2005) was certainly no George Stevens, but he wasn’t exactly chopped liver either.
His first feature, Il Mare, centering on a fashionably “alienated” (as in “Antonioni”) bisexual love triangle, played the very first New York Film Festival in 1963. While it captured some critical attention, the film didn’t win U.S. release. One Night at Dinner, a relatively naturalistic hothouse drama about couples in conflict, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant, Florinda Bolkin and Tony Musante, flitted in and out of a few art houses briefly in 1969. Sadly, ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore, his 1971 adaptation of John Ford’s (no not that one) blood-soaked Jacobean revenge tragedy starring Charlotte Rampling, didn’t get a U.S. release at all. But 1975’s The Divine Nymph proved a minor art house hit, thanks more to Laura Antonelli’s balcony than the mise-en-scene Patroni-Griffi provided for it.

Unlike Antonelli, Taylor shows off very little of her (at this point, rather massive) body, outside of a scene where she fingers her breasts through her see-through bra. It’s a long way from her decorous semi-nude scenes in Cleopatra, and thanks to her ever-expanding avoirdupois, hardly a memorable moment in cinematic eroticism. But, then, it didn’t aim to be one. This is a film about a madwoman, after all. Yet, unlike Repulsion, in which Roman Polanski made sure we never lost sympathy for Catherine Deneuve’s pretty beauty shop assistant (even as the loss of her mind led to increasingly grotesque murders), Taylor in The Driver’s Seat is made to be off-putting in every way. Decked out in a dress resembling a Peter Max shower curtain (“Pure colors in their natural state” she insists, even though they’re anything but), and a hideous psychedelic rainbow-hued raincoat (“Are you going to join the circus?” her landlady asks as she leaves for her journey into oblivion), with her hair carefully coiffed for to resemble a rat’s nest, Taylor is a sight guaranteed to inspire sore eyes. If we should be moved to “lean forward,” the better to find out why this woman has come to this un-pretty pass, we quickly find ourselves recoiling in disgust as she putters about, distractedly buying cheap plastic bags at eerily empty department stores, haggling over decorative knives with bored shop girls, or attacking sales clerks in clothing boutiques for trying to sell her dresses with stain-resistant fabrics—claiming she’s outraged that they would imagine she would be so sloppy as to spill things on herself. But as the action ever-so-slowly progresses, we realize she wants to make sure her very own bloodstains are going to be left behind as a prominent stain on her dress. That progress is impeded by the fact that the film, like Spark’s book, is hobbled by a curious “flash-forward” structure.

Scenes of Taylor shopping are followed by ones featuring criminal investigators in sets that look like they were left over from The 10th Victim(i.e. metallic walls, harsh over- or under- lighting, odd camera angles). In these scenes, we’re first informed of an INTERPOL search for Taylor’s character (for reasons that are never made clear), and then introduced to several men being interrogated as suspects in her murder. Confusion escalates as we return to the primary narrative and meet two other characters, nearly as odd as Taylor’s: a slimy creep (Ian Bannen) and a sweet old lady (sweet old Mona Washbourne) who may well be a figment of our antiheroine’s imagination. Real or fantasized, she’s quite benign, unlike the creep, who goes on and on about his “macrobiotic diet,” which he says requires not only eating unpolished rice, but having one orgasm a day as well. This moves Taylor to grandly announce “When I diet I diet; when I orgasm I orgasm. I don’t mix the two.” It’s a line certain to become dear to the heart of any drag queen planning an imitation of the goddess. And that’s far from a far-fetched notion, as Taylor is frequently seen here putting on more make-up than a RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant.

Also on hand at the film’s beginning and end is a nice-looking but wildly distracted young man (Guido Mannari), who is supposedly related to the sweet old lady, but, unlike her, is definitely real and decidedly emotionally discombobulated. For on seeing Taylor he acts as if he’s come to face with death itself. This is most appropriate, as, in the third act, he’s revealed to be the “type” Taylor has been looking for to kill her. So where does Andy Warhol fit into all of this? Good question.

Cast as a British aristocrat for reasons only Patroni-Griffi knows, Warhol has two scenes with Taylor, the woman who inspired some of his earliest silk screens. In the first, he hands her a book she dropped in an airport lounge in the rush when the police barged in to arrest an apparent terrorist. In the second, near the film’s conclusion, he sees her again in a hotel lobby and tries to chat with her. “I keep making mistakes,” she tells him. “You’re not my type after all.” It is however, Patroni-Griffi who has made the mistake. In Italy for the production of his horror diptych Flesh For Frankenstein and Blood For Dracula, Warhol had ample time on his hands, what with Paul Morrissey executing actual directorial duties. The embodiment of distractedness, he looks perfect alongside Taylor. But why did Patroni-Griffi have his marvelously whispery sing-song voice dubbed? More to the point, why didn’t he cast Andy as Taylor’s “type?” The mere thought of Andy Warhol being dragged into a public park by Elizabeth Taylor (one of his very greatest artistic inspirations), in part to bind her limbs and stab her to death with a cheap, notions-counter letter-opener, while she incongruously pleads for mercy, is a John Waters fever-dream come true. Sadly, John Waters wasn’t the director.

Clearly, Patroni-Griffi was out of his element. He wanted to make a serious film. Why else have Vittorio Storaro (The Conformist, Last Tango in Paris, One From the Heart, Reds) shoot it and Franco Arcalli (The Night Porter, The Passenger, 1900, Once Upon a Time in America ) edit it? Why else the constant evocations of leftist terrorism (so much in the news at the time), particularly in one startling scene in which Taylor witnesses an Arab potentate blown to bits by a casually tossed bomb? What he didn’t know was that he was making another sort of bomb. For The Driver’s Seat can’t be taken seriously, yet it can’t be laughed at in casual derision either. One simply stares at it in stunned disbelief—the purest state of the cinematic what-the-hell?

David Ehrenstein is the author of the books Open Secret: Gay Hollywood 1928-2000, The Scorsese Picture: The Art and Life of Martin Scorsese, and, most recently, Masters of Cinema: Roman Polanski. Since 1965, he has contributed to such publications as Film Culture, Film Comment, Film Quarterly, Cahiers du Cinéma, Positif, and The Quarterly Review of Film and Video.