The last film from lauded director George Stevens is a sad foray into modern filmmaking with two stars that flashily highlight where entertainment came from, and where it was headed. The Only Game in Town is the sole film to boast two egos the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty, but the script laughably wants you to believe these two actors are average and down on their luck. Miscasting aside, the script presents a thought-provoking study on inertia, luck and fate that is competently (though never astoundingly) acted by Taylor and Beatty.
Fran and Joe (Taylor and Beatty) are a couple of Las Vegas sad-sacks down on their luck. Fran is trying to get over the married man who seemingly abandoned her, while Joe is waiting for that one great hand that will make his fortune. When the two meet up, they discover a mutual attraction for each other that could end up turning their lives around.
Twilight Time is taking us through the 1970s with their latest round of releases, and thanks to them, I’ve finally crossed this movie off my Warren Beatty list. I taped this several years ago, and never got the chance to finish it. The Only Game in Town is an interesting experiment in shifting personas for Beatty and Taylor, neither one playing a role they were comfortable living in life. In certain sequences you can see that it pays off, but overall it’s a failure. The worst offender is Taylor, who always walked the line between screeching harpy and sexual dynamo. Here, she’s forced to pull off both and only mildly succeeds. The moments where she screams are few, but they cause you to lose all interest in her character (and it doesn’t help that the audio makes these moments harsh on the ears). The downfall of The Only Game in Town is that reputation precedes the actors involved. Taylor and Beatty represent classic Hollywood and postmodernism, respectively; and with hindsight, the laughs only increase when they play out-of-turn. The script takes a few swipes at the perceived personas of the actors, here and there; Fran mentions to Joe that her closet doesn’t have any furs and “no real jewelry.” Similarly, Beatty’s way of thinking is that “I’m a winner and winners are irresistible.” However, it’s just unbelievable that either one of these stars, looking as glamorous as they do, is simply average.
I hate to take swipes based on looks, but Taylor appears to be the worst casting decision for this movie. She tries hard to explore the pathos within Fran’s character, but she can’t express it because she’s nothing like the character. Fran is a woman who’s always second best, whether it’s in her relationship with a married man or in her washed-up career as a showgirl. The problem is that Taylor doesn’t fit the role, from her soft shape to her extravagant wigs, and the soft lighting that bathes her in fuzziness. There’s only a four-year age gap between Beatty and Taylor, and yet Taylor appears significantly older, complete with wisps of gray in her hair. Beatty does better as the sprightly Joe, and comes alive, particularly during the gambling sequences.
Notwithstanding the weak casting choices, the script, written by playwright Frank D. Gilroy, is an acerbic look at life in a city where fortunes change every minute. Stevens’ directing aids in the turbulence of Las Vegas from the opening minute when Fran opens her curtains. The blinding exposure of the Las Vegas sun, with its vast, desert-like expanse gives way to a glittery city at night; appearances can certainly be deceiving. The well-placed slice of an airplane to join the two, a symbol of travel and change, opens up the possibility of where these two characters’ lives will be going. Las Vegas ends up playing the unseen third character in the trio, with scenes of palm readers, quickie wedding chapels, and casinos all spotlighting luck, love and reckless impulses. Fran and Joe are just another couple representing the mundane in a city that’s anything but (again, hard to believe Beatty and Taylor could be mundane). Both characters suffer from addictions, whether it be to gambling or men, and while their addictions compliment each other, Joe’s is the more obsessive of the two. Gambling addiction isn’t easily solved, and yet Joe’s problems aren’t given the leverage they deserve.
I have to wonder if my audio set-up is to blame, because the discs touts HD audio and I had to turn up my television a lot to hear the often quiet dialogue (and this is a film that reliant on dialogue) only to turn it down when background noises became too loud. Other than that, the video is gorgeous. The bonus content is rather standard and includes the isolated score (a bluesy, jazz score that’s worth a listen) and the theatrical trailer.
Overall, The Only Game in Town is a worthwhile farewell from director George Stevens. Elizabeth Taylor isn’t the best casting choice but Beatty makes up for it and where else will you find a movie combining two of the most gorgeous actors ever? Swathed in the hot deserts of Las Vegas, if you’re a fan of the group assembled definitely check this one out.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.