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The VIPs (1963)

Rod Taylor plays Les Mangrum, one of the few Australian characters the Sydney-born actor has played.

It was a surprising challenge for Taylor, who admitted in a 1964 Q&A, that "I had to concentrate pretty hard" to revert to a heavy Aussie accent for the role.

Mangrum is a self-made man -- a successful tractor manufacturer who began life as a farm boy in Queensland. With the able assistance of his secretary, Miss Mead (Maggie Smith), Mangrum is battling a hostile takeover attempt by a conglomerate and must get to New York to save his company.

But Mangrum is just one of several characters stranded in a fog-bound London airport waiting for their New York plane.

Leading the all-star ensemble are Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as Frances and Paul Andros. Frances is trying to run off with Marc Champselle (Louis Jourdan), an aging gigolo who she believes will give her the type of love and devotion her billionaire husband cannot.

Meanwhile, an impoverished duchess (Margaret Rutherford in an Oscar-winning supporting role) is headed to Florida to accept a job. And a famous filmmaker, Max Buda (Orson Welles), has to leave the country before midnight in order to avoid paying ruinous taxes.

As the fog and the travelers settle in for the night, matters of money and of the heart are resolved. Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith have two of the film's most emotionally genuine scenes, as Miss Mead appeals to Paul Andros to help save her boss' company and then joins Mangrum in joy and triumph. (Miss Mead also triumphs over Mangrum's shallow girlfriend, played by Linda Christian.)


The screenplay for "The VIPs" was written by Terence Rattigan when he himself had been fogbound at Heathrow and unable to leave for New York. He whiled away the hours by creating characters who, for varying reasons, were desperately anxious to get away.

The main plot line was inspired by a story actress Vivien Leigh told Rattigan about the time she tried to leave her husband, actor Laurence Olivier, for her lover, Peter Finch. She and Finch were about to run off together but during fogbound hours at Heathrow Airport, she changed her mind. 

In 1962, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were riding a crest of notoriety that sprang from their affair, which had begun on the set of the monumental "Cleopatra." Taylor and Burton were cast in "The VIPs" to capitalize on the hoopla. Despite the producer's best efforts to rush "The VIPs" to the screen first, "Cleopatra" opened three months earlier. However, the Taylor/Burton scandal and an elaborate marketing campaign propelled "The VIPs" to box-office records in London and New York.

As for Rod Taylor, director Anthony Asquith -- largely unacquainted with Australians and the way they talk -- allowed Rod to ad-lib a lot of his dialogue. During the scene in which Rod's character learns his company is saved, he bounces on the furniture in pure joy. "I didn't do it consciously," Rod said in an interview for Vanity Fair magazine in July 2003. "It was the energy of the guy." 

Regarding Maggie Smith as Mangrum's efficient, doting secretary, reporter Sam Kashner wrote in the Vanity Fair article:

Oddly, their love affair -- with Mangrum unaware of Miss Mead's love for him -- is more touching than the Sturm and Drang of the Taylor-Burton relationship. The intensity of Rod and Maggie's on-screen relationship led several people who worked on the film to conclude that they were really falling in love. ... 

[Assistant director Peter] Medak remembers that "Maggie, then, was just so young and fresh, and completely new to movies. All of that got onto the screen. And, obviously, they were genuinely attracted to each other. They were both incredibly natural. Rod was a rough guy -- macho, strong, very direct. Also, they listened to [Asquith] more than Richard and Elizabeth."

Rattigan had intended something different for Maggie Smith's Miss Mead, however, as described in the book, "It's Only A Movie Ingrid," by Alexander Walker:

I had rather carefully described her as "in her middle 40s with thick-lensed spectacles and a nose that becomes unbecomingly red at moments of emotion." The final kiss from her employer was intended as a humiliation. He went for her lips and slipped up to her forehead, thus telling her and the audience ... that bed just wasn't on. ... MGM made [director Anthony Asquith] shoot it both ways ... and obviously they chose the shot which would go down best in Little Rock, Freetown and Manila.

(OK, so it's cliche, but I prefer MGM's choice!)



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