Nobody likes realizing that they’re only a supporting character at best in someone’s life. It hurts. You don’t matter as much as you thought you did and that’s just the way it goes. Suddenly you’re a lead character in a completely different story and maybe it’s one where you’re not as cool as you were pretending to be. And deep down maybe the greatest fear is that you’re not going to be remembered anyway, even as just a supporting character. THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN is a film that no one remembers these days except maybe as a curiosity, an odd duck that Elizabeth Taylor made without Richard Burton, the only thing Warren Beatty made between BONNIE AND CLYDE and McCABE & MRS. MILLER. It’s the final film directed by George Stevens who in his heyday made classics from SWING TIME to SHANE and had one of the most harrowing experiences of any of the Hollywood directors who served during World War II as can be read about in Mark Harris’ fine book “Five Came Back”. It’s one of those films from around 1970 caught between generations, the old guard fading away and the New Hollywood emerging which Beatty was such a key figure of. It also has that undefinable feel certain films from this period have for me, as if they were made on a film stock or shot with lenses that give them the vibe of an odd hallucination that you hope to wake up from—maybe it’s the bland color schemes, maybe it’s something about the fashions which have gone a step too far from the coolness of the late 60s and now have the musty feel of something I would spot way in the back of my mother’s closet some years later.
Taken by itself, THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN is a love story about two losers. It’s also a film about two movie stars playing those losers who are mismatched playing two people who are mismatched, with acting styles from two different periods as they try to figure each other out in every shot they’re framed in together. And, yes, sometimes we find ourselves next to that sort of person in real life without knowing what to do next. THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN can’t even be said to have a bad rep these days since barely anyone out there has heard of the film, let alone seen it (from what I can tell it received a very early VHS release on Magnetic Video—look for it on Ebay—then never again until a Blu-ray a few years ago plus some airings on the Fox Movie Channel) and maybe it was a disaster back then but since no one remembers it anyway, I can’t help but think that the film has something, a yearning within its own clumsiness and odd unreality which makes it weirdly affecting now, at least for me.
Fran Walker (Elizabeth Taylor) is a showgirl living alone in Las Vegas, waiting and hoping for the return of her married lover who after continually promising to leave his wife hasn’t been heard from for several months. Late one night she wanders into a bar for a pizza where she meets cocktail pianist Joe Grady (Warren Beatty) and takes him home with her. Joe is also a compulsive gambler just trying to make enough so he can get out of town and though things are tense between them they soon fall for each other. Fran gets an early look at how fast Joe can gamble all his money away but he soon moves in with the mutual promise of no strings attached. But when Thomas (Charles Braswell), the man Fran’s been waiting for, finally reappears having gotten the divorce he’s been promising for so long Fran has a decision to make while Joe focuses on finally winning that five grand so he can make it to New York.
For a film that has so many scenes made up of simply two people talking in a small apartment THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN has a surprising amount of peripheral details that linger, whether Beatty’s nitpicky behavior or even the sterile falseness of the sets. After a burst of fanfare from the Maurice Jarre score, the opening credits segue into an oddly dreamlike series of shots as Elizabeth Taylor walks alone through the streets of Vegas after another night of working as a showgirl. There’s an unexplained beat where a passing car seems to shout something at her (we don’t hear what) then she walks past a ringing phone in a nearby booth which she almost goes to answer, as if hoping a certain someone will be on the other end, but then stops because why bother? A few scenes later she returns home to another ringing phone which she doesn’t get to in time, as if that unseen caller has been following her across town. Maybe because it feels so sealed away from the outside world, there’s an unreal air to much of THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN that almost makes it more compelling, a film set in a world of missed phone calls, a life of waiting for that right person to finally get back to you in the middle of the night. And the unreality of the pairing of Taylor and Beatty, with close to two hours of somehow trying to convince us that they’re right for each other, largely set in a single tiny apartment with a backdrop out the window looking surprisingly detailed but never at all convincing.
Although set in Las Vegas, THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN was actually shot mostly in Paris, something Taylor’s star power at the time could still demand since Richard Burton was also there co-starring in Stanley Donen’s STAIRCASE which, like ONLY GAME,was produced by Twentieth Century Fox. The resulting film cost around $11 million which would probably be a lot now for a two character piece mostly filmed on one set (not that studios are making this sort of thing these days) let alone how outlandish it must have been in 1970. Taylor was reuniting with Stevens who had directed her in the inarguable classics A PLACE IN THE SUN and GIANT with Frank Sinatra originally set to co-star, which sounds like a considerably different film, maybe more believable but also a pairing somewhere apart from cold reality. Whatever that end result would have been, Taylor & Beatty seem like an odd match in comparison which adds to the odd feel of much of the film so the awkward pauses as they get to know each other wind up making perfect sense. The idea of these stars making a film during ’68-’69 in Paris (there were around ten days of location work actually in Vegas at the end of the shoot) with Burton nearby actually seems like an interesting idea for a film itself and THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN might not be quite as intriguing as film sounds it’s still strangely compelling; unreal in a number of ways, maybe to its detriment, but somehow never lifeless.
Written by Frank D. Gilroy (Pulitzer Prize winner for the play “The Subject Was Roses” and a Dartmouth alum as my sister would want me to mention, although I’m going to take a wild guess she’s never seen this film) and based on his play which ran a total of 16 performances on Broadway, not counting previews, it doesn’t try that much to disguise those origins so naturally some of the scenes where we leave the apartment feel a little extraneous. It’s a film starring two people who have always been famous for being famous as much as being movie stars playing what almost seems like alternate loser versions of themselves, each of them waiting for something which seems forever elusive and it sets them down in a few small rooms as if the movie is trying to come up with things for them to talk about and figure all this out, Beatty’s Joe needling Fran, Taylor’s Fran rendered speechless by his behavior. It says something that even in its oddly phony way THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN is never a dull film to look at and visually speaking knows how to keep them facing off against each other, no matter how many times she tells him to get out. It gets that awkwardness, that loneliness of late at night, that need to matter to the other person in the room, the dream of being able to smoke in bed knowing there’s someone next to you. This version of Las Vegas, at least the real stuff we get to see, seems mostly made up of casinos and wedding chapels and fortune tellers, everything a reminder that love is cheap in this place, dreams are cheap. We’re kept away from this world for the most part, trapped in Fran’s apartment directed by Stevens as if he’s still composing his shots for 1952 in a black & white world where that fake skyline out the window wouldn’t have been such a big deal.
Vincent Canby’s March 1970 review in the New York Times is pretty brutal comparing the odd scale of the film to “trying to outfit a leaky Central Park rowboat for a celebrity cruise through the Greek islands” and a little cruel to Taylor’s physical appearance as well, saying she resembles “an apple balanced atop a pair of toothpicks.” He does, however, point out that the script is “not necessarily dishonest” which in this context has to be taken as praise. And THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN does have something, maybe in the material and its often sharp dialogue, maybe just in the way it lingers on the details, the speeches that go on way too long. Maybe consistent with how Taylor’s character reacts towards him, Beatty seems a little like he’s wandered onto the set by accident and has decided to stick around out of pure curiosity. Somehow his performance feels like one of his most vulnerable yet also at times plays like an intellectual exercise as if he doesn’t know what he’s doing there any more than the character he’s playing does--whether or not his bursting into “Some Enchanted Evening” at one point was scripted it plays loose, like he just started doing it at the end of a bunch of takes. Throughout Beatty seems intrigued by the material with the occasional flip, scooby-dooby-doo dialogue he has seeming like a remnant of Sinatra’s involvement while at the same time trying to make the part his own as opposed to Taylor who at times seems like she’s just waiting to spit out whatever she has to say with as much anguish as possible. Reportedly turning down BUTCH CASSIDY right around this time, Beatty seems to have taken the project for the chance to work with Stevens more than anything else saying, “I always thought that it was one of the most sensible decisions I had made because I got the chance to work with George…ultimately it was more rewarding to me to have made a sort of unsuccessful picture with him.” Whatever he took away from the experience, and it would be fascinating to hear him elaborate on it, it’s probably the best reason why when the likes of EASY RIDER were all the rage and he was fiddling with Robert Towne over the very earliest versions of what became SHAMPOO (a film which would ultimately take place when ONLY GAME was being shot) he was off in Paris fumbling with a fishing pole in front of a fake-looking rear projection screen, nothing in this material to indicate why so much time was spent on it beyond the people involved.
According an interview with Stevens, Mia Farrow became a possibility to take over as the female lead after Sinatra dropped out and Beatty came on board. That may actually have been a little too similar to Peter Yates’ JOHN AND MARY (also not an uninteresting film) which Farrow co-starred in with Dustin Hoffman around this time but the pairing may have seemed a little more grounded in reality. On the other hand, there’s something about THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN which, intentionally or not, makes realism not entirely necessary, which adds to the melancholy and how much the characters seem almost blissfully unaware of the outside world. We’re told that Fran is only three years older than Joe, less than it was in real life, but something about their behavior adds to that—Taylor is presumably playing younger but Beatty plays the role as if he’s more a part of that older world which becomes something they have in common, trading off song lyrics from standards to each other as well as admitting to liking old movies—in one of an number of odd asides, Taylor mentions that she likes Bogart because “he’s so ugly.” And it really is a two person show since the few other speaking parts are really glorified bits with the exception of Charles Braswell (mostly stage credits including doing MAME and COMPANY on Broadway) as Fran’s boyfriend who displays such little presence he comes off as a generic “Businessman #2” type they randomly decided to give a few lines to.
However different they are, each star’s presence goes well with the deliberateness in Stevens’ direction throughout as if he wants to gradually force them together. The film is never in a rush which at some points works better than others leading to an odd rhythm to the editing at times particularly during a few montages where it plays like the film is going for a mod vibe which doesn’t seem right and it feels out of step, cutaways to money being spent by the two of them, money being earned, won, lost, to airplanes taking off, as if it’s trying too hard not to seem like an ‘old man’s film’. Many of the long dialogue scenes in the apartment flow correctly even when the transitions are almost a touch too languid but at other times there’s way too much shoe leather, seeming like whole minutes of one of them silently walking from one end of the apartment to the other or the amount of time spent watching Beatty at the craps table. The pacing remains deliberate, with no particular urgency ever given to the dialogue and one scene where Taylor phones Beatty as her boyfriend sits nearby almost approaches surrealism in how it gets dragged out. There’s also a brief supermarket scene (presumably filmed in Vegas, but I guess with this film who knows) which doesn’t serve much purpose other than to get us out of the apartment for a few extra minutes but has its own value as pure documentary, as we imagine the last time these two starts ever set foot inside a grocery store with Beatty in particular seeming like an alien visitor to this planet, hoping that no one catches on to him. There are a few other times when he glances at extras as if trying to somehow understand them and I’m not always sure how much it has to do with the character he’s allegedly playing but the body language becomes fascinating all by itself.
During the supermarket section and a few scenes that follow Beatty wears an extremely goofy-looking fishing hat that does a pretty good job of covering his face as if he’s thinking ‘maybe they’ll forget I’m in the movie’ or daring someone on the set to tell him to take it off. I’ve seen ISHTAR enough times by now to recognize that he wears a nearly identical hat and jacket at one point in that film so maybe it’s some sort of in-joke supplied by Elaine May there but it’s also another film in which Warren Beatty, of all people, is basically playing a loser. At one point Fran says that Joe is ‘average’ at the piano, nothing special, which her returning boyfriend seems to interpret as him being a loser. In some ways THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN is about being average, being a loser, whether you’re doing any good at the craps tables or not, and maybe being able to accept that if the right person is there with you. When her boyfriend insists on whisking her away at a moment’s notice she protests when he says she can’t take her stuff with her—this has been her life, after all. Maybe not much of one but it’s meant something, even if it's been spent sitting in this apartment which for her has been the whole world.
The film is maybe at its best when trapped in that space, not trying to be part of the outside world, in a year where other Fox releases included MASH, BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and MYRA BRECKINRIDGE. Since it seems out of step for 1970 (I imagine), it winds up playing pretty well in 2016, even if it doesn’t really seem part of now either. And much as the film can’t hide its stage roots it never feels tossed off, playing like a three way struggle between a director trying to make it art, a lead actor who is almost doing the opposite of what’s expected of him and a lead actress who seems on the verge of rage that she’s being asked to do another take. She hits the emotion at the right moments in her performance but never really seems like anything other than the mental image of late 60s Liz Taylor. Near the beginning we famously get a brief series of shots of Fran ‘working’ as a showgirl in an elaborate Vegas revue, giving us a pair of unconvincing close-ups that won’t fool anyone and even the very first seconds of the film feature her waking up in a bedroom that is believably dark and disheveled but looking like she just got out of a makeup trailer stocked with a decent supply of vodka.
At one point Fran insists to Joe on how frugal she lives even though we’ve already seen multiple rings on her fingers making me think of the entries in Richard Burton’s published diaries
(highly recommended) from around this time where he writes about her, forever compulsively. He admits to jealousy of Beatty during the filming but also at one point while musing on Taylor’s health issues wonders, “Elizabeth’s endless operations are the natural successors of indifferent eating and drinking habits and no exercise at all, or are they?” No matter how affecting her work here is at certain moments, that’s the woman we’re seeing, sitting around waiting for her boyfriend like he’s Burton returning from location in Prague or, even worse, waiting for MGM to call and tell her that the old studio days are back on again, framed in big close-ups with soft focus. She never looks bad, she just looks like late 60s Elizabeth Taylor so she never looks very much like a Vegas showgirl.
The film is compelling at least partly because of the odd anti-chemistry between the two leads but there still isn't quite enough plot to warrant the roughly 110 minute running time. It always seems fixed on revealing the characters in ways that presumably originated on the stage----a prolonged speech at the end telling us what we didn’t get to see involving how Joe’s gambling addiction is resolved pretty much arrives at the same conclusion Robert Altman’s CALIFORNIA SPLIT did a few years later without all that dialogue only here it feels abstract in its wordiness, a happy ending that comes out of nowhere. On the other hand, another long speech Beatty has near the end involving a crystal ball may be slightly purple in what it expresses but in its own ungainly way the film has earned these moments. Maybe these are just two characters who come off as so stubborn that I want them to reach some sort of understanding. I’ve watched this film several times, getting drawn into it, getting annoyed with it, at times fascinated and thinking about how much I’m reading my own bizarrely personal connections to what it tries to say. It’s affecting in its uncertainty and clumsiness, of how it doesn’t deny the sadness, of people groping for things to say for so long that it turns into a meaningful speech almost by chance.
Then again, maybe I just like films about men and women dealing with each other while crammed into a tiny space, even ones like this which seem slightly divorced from reality. I feel a little divorced from reality these days anyway and because of that THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN may only be good to me in an odd, unexplainable way, but I’m glad it’s there even if it means I stay up later and later at night watching movies like this, wishing I had the right sort of courage to change things and wondering how average it all means I am…or worse. The final moments are about closing your eyes to take the leap for something and the film seems to say to let that idea sink it, then open your eyes for the truth. I’m not sure how much I believe in that sort of happy ending these days, maybe because too often what it represents feels like the kind of ending that never really happens. Which is usually the case when you’re stuck as a supporting character.