Friday, November 24, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #19: Zee & Co (1972)

(US title: X, Y & Zee)

Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Zee), Michael Caine (Robert), Susannah York (Stella), Margaret Leighton (Gladys), John Standing (Gordon), Mark Larkin (Rita), Michael Cashman (Gavin).

Crew: Brian G Hutton (director), Jay Kanter and Alan Ladd Jr (producers), Edna O’Brien (writer), Stanley Myers (music), Billy Williams (cinematography), Jim Clark (editor), Peter Mullins (art direction).

Synopsis: Swinging Londoners Robert and Zee Blakeley have an open marriage and separate bedrooms. At a party Robert is intrigued by Stella, a beautiful young widow. They become lovers. Zee responds by insinuating herself into Stella’s life. When Robert and Stella go away on holiday, Zee crashes her husband’s car. He comes back to her again. Zee tries to commit suicide. Robert saves her but considers letting Zee die to escape her mind games. Stella visits Zee in hospital and admits to lesbian tendencies as a teenager. Robert is due to spend the night with Stella but Zee drags him to a party and gets him drunk. Next day Robert argues with Stella, who wants to end the affair. Robert sleeps with his secretary. Zee visits Stella’s new flat and seduces her. Robert arrives to find Zee triumphant…

Irish novelist Edna O’Brien wrote Zee and Co as an original screenplay in 1970. The strong female lead character attracted the interest of Elizabeth Taylor, at the time a major cinema star. American director Brian G Hutton was attached to the project. The role of Zee’s husband Robert was offered to Caine, after Peter O’Toole turned it down. Susannah York was chosen to play Robert’s mistress Stella. In his autobiography Caine says the chance to work with Taylor was his main reason for accepting the role, but he never regretted making the movie. O’Brien had the opposite reaction after discovering her script had been extensively rewritten to include a lesbian finale. The enraged author claimed Hutton had butchered her screenplay.

The picture was shot predominantly on sets at Shepperton Studios with limited location work around London. The 14-week production began filming in January 1971. When Taylor was on-set she arrived with at least three limousines to carry her entourage. During filming Caine told the Evening Standard about his early experiences on the picture. ‘When we began this film both Elizabeth and I were nervous of each other. It was difficult because we had to go right into fights and love scenes rolling around the bed and we never even knew each other. But after the first couple of days we admitted that we were nervous. I gave her a bit of a hug – you know, not being familiar, but just to make human contact and we were fine after that.’

The actor discussed Taylor during an interview with the Cranky Critic website in 1998. ‘She was the most extraordinary actress to work with. Elizabeth has a memory like a rat trap. She never flubbed a line. With Elizabeth, she had it in her contract that she didn’t have to be in the studio until 10 o’clock. I was always there at eight doing close-ups on my own with a continuity girl saying, “I love you darling. Take your trousers off.” I remember saying to Elizabeth, “I know for sure that you are a great star and a real professional.” She said, “How do you know?’ I said, “You are a great star because you don’t have to get here until 10 o’clock and I know you are a professional because you are never late!”’

The picture required Caine to perform love scenes, but he refused to be filmed naked. ‘I think the public is sick of it,’ the actor told Photoplay Film Monthly. ‘I’ve never been fully nude on the screen because I don’t believe I have anything that anyone would be interested in seeing. Nudity isn’t interesting unless a girl is undressing for me, personally.’

Zee and Co was released during January 1972 as an R-rated film in America, renamed X, Y & Zee. Critics praised the picture, with Taylor’s volcanic performance getting most of the kudos. The film reached British cinemas several months later, rated X. It was nominated as the best English-language foreign film at the Golden Globes in January 1973, but lost to Young Winston (1972). A year later the picture was re-edited and reclassified as a PG for the US. Zee and Co has never been released on video in Britain and is not available on DVD.

Reviews: ‘Not in years have three people more deserved the star billing they get in this Love Story for adults.’ – Variety
‘The film gradually sinks into a quagmire of repetition from which the only way out is through melodrama...’ – MFB

Verdict: Few of Caine’s films have dated as badly as Zee and Co. This hysterical, overwrought melodrama is ripe with symptoms of a Swinging 1960s hangover. Try to imagine a cross between Austin Powers and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – then make it twice as bad. Taylor chews scenery like the world has run out of food, while parading around in clothes that make you beg to be struck colour blind. Susannah York is both drippy and winsome while Caine is left looking angry or frustrated in equal measure. You can’t care about the characters but you can laugh at their turgid, torpid love triangle. This film deserves to be enshrined as a camp classic – there’s certainly no other reason to watch it.

No comments: