Rod Taylor: R.I.P. to a V.I.P.

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Just learned that Rod Taylor had passed away. I inevitably would have written about him; today seems an appropriate occasion.

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Taylor was one of the last of the old school leading men, with a ruggedly handsome, quiet masculinity that sometimes made him seem to disappear in his roles (not in a necessarily good way). For example, in his most famous film (The Birds, 1963), though he is its titular star, he tends to be one of the film’s least remembered elements, somewhere behind Alfred Hitchcock, the birds themselves, Bernard Herrmann, Tippi Hedren, Veronica Cartwright and Suzanne Pleshette. But I’ve grown to have an appreciation for his understated, slightly bashful screen persona.

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Lately I’ve come to appreciate a sometimes forgotten classic I watched on countless rainy Sundays in my youth: The Time Machine (1960). Again, here Taylor was so subtle that in my head I’ve always falsely assumed that the film had the same leading man as that other H.G. Wells blockbuster War of the Worlds (1953) but that was Gene Barry. You see? But I come to praise Taylor not to Barry him.

Stay with me.

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And I do have praise. Not long ago I finally had the opportunity to see the 1963 Liz and Dick soap opera, The V.I.P.s. Dull as it is, I know that this is a film I will return to again and again, because it does have elements that intrigue. There’s all the “meta” stuff: the marital mishigas of the two main stars, the real life couple Elizabeth Taylor (here playing a Hollywood actress) and Richard Burton PLUS Orson Welles as a scheming desperate film-maker and David Frost as a reporter! Margaret Rutherford as a pill-popping, senile Duchess! Louis Jourdan as a gigolo!  But among all these, and others, the best and most interesting acting performances easily belong to Rod Taylor as a risk-taking business man and Maggie Smith as the secretary who loves him. (By my count this is the 3rd film featuring the two Taylors, Rod and Liz, the earlier ones being Giant and Raintree County).

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The V.I.P.s is by turns ludicrous and soporific and only sporadically suspenseful, all of its plusses and minuses flowing from the same central premise: a bunch of first class airline passengers (the titular V.I.P.s) are fogged in at an airport. If you think being fogged in at an airport is boring to experience in real life, just imagine how boring it is to watch other people sitting around and looking at their watches in a movie. The engine that (in theory) is supposed to make it hum is that they all have crucially urgent reasons to get to their destination. They are all fighting time. And like I say, the Taylor-Smith sub-plot works best.

Lord knows what the details are – – some business stuff, he’s dumped some stocks to purchase a company or something and needs to sign a contract in New York before the clock runs out. (Ye Gods! What an old fashioned problem! As the Mad Marchioness often says, how do we even tell stories anymore since the invention of cellphones and e-mail, etc?) But Taylor gives what may be the best performance of his career. By turns flashy, cocky, insecure, scared, full of self-reproach, nervous, charming, affectionate, and (though it takes him a while to realize) full of love and appreciation for his indispensable right arm (Smith). The performance has depth and vulnerability and a good deal of bravado. So! While you might hear memorials today about some of Rod Taylor’s most memorable films, I would instead steer you towards The V.I.P.s, his most memorable performance. 

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