Life of the Party

 Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Cliff (Publicity Proof) A Place in the Sun

Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Cliff (Publicity Proof) A Place in the Sun

A respected father celebrates his 60th birthday with his family and friends at the family-run hotel in the 1998 Danish Dogme film, Festen (The Celebration). Rising to his feet from among the dinner guests, the patriarch’s son makes a toast revealing that the guest of honor had sexually abused him and his late twin sister. The dinner party continues with the sister’s suicide note being read aloud, elder abuse, raunchy family anecdotes, ballroom dancing, racist sing-a-longs, and heavy drinking between courses—then it goes out of control. What will happen next? This is what they call a party in Denmark?

It would appear that a fun party does not a feature movie make in Hollywood either. Dinner at Eight (1933), the granddaddy of all party movies, opens with Millicent Jordan’s exciting social coup: she has snared this season’s most noteworthy guests of honor for her dinner party. As the movie details both the hosts’ and guests’ preparations for this party, their motivations are also revealed. Along with the dessert course, humiliation, suicide, sex addiction, financial ruin, class rivalry, terminal illness, and adultery have all also been served at the fashionable party.

Alfred Hitchcock’s movie dinner party, Rope (1948) expands this template to run in real party time.  Shot in long takes to appear without cuts, only five of ten edits are discernable. A pair of arrogant young murderers (Farley Granger and John Dall) flaunt snobbish class overtones as well as flirt with homoerotic undercurrents when hosting a buffet dinner. For their entertainment, they have not only just murdered their young friend but they have also stored his corpse below the buffet table. Tension builds among their party guests, particularly with the determined professor with whom the hosts play cats and mouse…cat and mice.

Arriving at their wreck of a house after the college President’s party, his Medusa of a daughter, faculty-wife Martha (Elizabeth Taylor) and husband George flail each other. Well in their cups from Daddy’s party, Martha coerced a junior-faculty couple there into joining them to continue their all-night drinking bash. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’s (1966) hostess needn’t bother washing the dishes in the overloaded kitchen sink, already her ashtray. Unlike social hostess Millicent Jordan, Martha and George have already done a lifetime of party preparation playing their favorite parlor games, “Hump the Hostess” and “Humiliate the Guest.” When the doorbell rings, and Martha cruelly prophesizes, “Party, Party,” they (and the party) are off and running.

Indeed, we’re lucky not to have been invited to any of these parties. Fortunately, there’s a happy Hollywood exception. Before she went all Edward Albee on us, Liz Taylor was the radiant bride in The Father of the Bride (1950). Turning their home into Cinderella’s ballroom for his princess-daughter makes a happy full-length movie party, from the engagement announcement to the throwing of the bouquet—so happy, Hollywood did the party twice—once with swans—counting the happy remake.

Liz Taylor movie parties with shorter screen time and no re-makes also provide promising venues…in Giant (1955) a Texas barbecue in the hot sun celebrates newlyweds Bick and Leslie (Taylor).  A cooked beef head is the culinary pièce de résistance. When Bick notes, “boy, them brains is sure sweet,” upon her being served a spoonful of beef brains scooped straight from the skull, Leslie faints. But Texas barbeques don’t stop Leslie’s getting into the Texas swing of things—and fast. Consequently, once she gets her breath, Leslie doesn’t flinch in eye-to-eye rematches with an epidemic, discrimination, sexism, or with (ranch) Reata’s other cowboy jewel in the crown, James Dean.  

Taylor is so luminous in A Place in The Sun that George Stevens’s movie party sequence—regardless the movie’s brutal resolution—is screen legend. Uncle George’s spacious mansion is filled with guests in formal attire and Big Band dance music (Franz Waxman’s score won the Oscar) plays for beautiful couples in each other’s arms. Angela (Taylor) shimmers in her slightly-beaded Edith Head iconic white strapless gown as well as in William Mellor’s fabled close-ups of her exquisite face as she dances with tortured Monty Cliff. The camera captures Taylor’s expression of naïve worldliness and follows to keep up with the young lovers’ breathless rush through the guests, and out onto the terrace, so she can explode with childlike passion. “I love you too” —she gushes to Monty. A girl. And then her (supposedly improvised) legendary invitation/proposition, “Tell Mama, tell Mama all.” A woman.

Every party is a shot in the dark; you never know where it will go…like that holiday party you gave last year. And since anything can happen in the movies, you can be sure it will.