The incomparable Elizabeth Taylor, who died exactly a year ago today, starred in a film made on the Central Coast nearly 50 years ago. Taylor was a glamorous beauty, talented actor, collector of husbands and jewels, and fierce protector of her friends Rock Hudson and Michael Jackson when the public turned on them. She lived her life exactly the way she wanted, made no apologies for it, and left behind a legacy of memorable films. “The Sandpiper,” shot in and around Big Sur in 1964 and released in 1965, is not one of them. The movie is notable today for its pairing of Taylor with Richard Burton just months after their first wedding in a blaze of international publicity, and stunning Big Sur location shots like this:
The Central Coast Traveler is drawn to “The Sandpiper” because it’s one of the few studio films ever shot in Big Sur, not because of the plot or script. It’s an oddly miscast story of Taylor as a proto-hippie unwed mother and starving artist who somehow manages to afford a jaw-dropping oceanfront beach house. She takes Burton’s married Episcopal priest character for an extramarital fling. For a movie that’s supposed to be about illicit passion, it’s strangely dispassionate, with characters who spend a lot of time giving speeches. And it sadly misuses the beautiful, sexy Eva Marie Saint in a thankless role as Burton’s long-suffering wife, who mopes about in dowdy beige sweater sets. The story doesn’t end well for anyone, but the ride is gorgeous. The DVD extras include a Burton-narrated short film produced at the same time, about the logistical difficulties of filming in such a remote area, and the care the production team took not to disturb the environment. It’s gratifying to watch scenes filmed in 1964, and observe that little has outwardly changed in Big Sur since then.
Here’s the star pair enjoying an afternoon at Pfeiffer Beach:
Taylor hitchhiking on Highway 1. Do not attempt on your next visit.
A view of Bixby Bridge from Hurricane Point:
And Taylor’s “shack” on the beach. Her character barely scrapes grocery money together by selling the occasional painting. Uh huh. (The house has been relocated nearly 200 miles (322 km) north in a forest near Point Reyes.)
The producers even gave the restaurant Nepenthe a cameo role in a pivotal scene.
The producers didn’t film on location, but instead created a soundstage replica, depicting Nepenthe as a place of wild abandon, frequented by modishly dressed hipster types. (Note the multi-colored light fixture suspended over the dance floor. In the real Nepenthe, that area is open to the sky. Hanging a light there would be a singular engineering problem.)
Taylor and Burton having a conversation at a “Nepenthe” table:
On a rainy day, if you miss Big Sur and want to enjoy a pleasant afternoon of popcorn and scenery, “The Sandpiper” is well worth your time.
Tomorrow, the second part of the Traveler’s celebration of Elizabeth Taylor, her connection with Big Sur, and particularly the restaurant Nepenthe, continues.