Today we throw rose petals at the feet of Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)
My years of kidhood in the 1970s fell during a dip in Taylor’s career, so to me at the time she was more of a “legend” and a name in the tabloids than a going concern, despite the fact that she was only in her 40s. The only movies I saw her in as a kid were old ones, and only one to a decade: National Velvet (1944), Giant (1956) and Cleopatra (1963). Taylor had continued to make films after the ’60s, but had bad luck in terms of the vehicles. Unlike, say, Ava Gardner, she was in no blockbuster like Earthquake (1974). Unlike her A Place in the Sun costar Shelley Winters she was in no big budget Poseidon Adventure (1972) caliber hits. Of her films of the early ’70s, the one contemporary movie that strikes me as the KIND of thing I might have been likely to see during this period is the suspense thriller NIght Watch (1973), but I never saw that picture until recently. By the ’80s, all bets were off. She had become much more of a “celebrity” than the prestigious actress she once had been and was capable of being. She launched a perfume line and was friends with Michael Jackson. She appeared on the soap operas General Hospital and All My Children. She parodied herself in cameos on The Simpsons, The Nanny, and Murphy Brown. She played Wilma’s mother in a live action version of The Flintstones (1994).
So discovering the Liz Taylor of yore took an effort of (almost entirely pleasurable) excavation during my adult years. Beyond her great beauty (the lede in any story about her), Taylor possessed an ambiguous quality that finds its origins, I think, in her dual citizenship. Her parents were from Arkansas City, Kansas. Her father was employed by an uncle by marriage as an art and antiques dealer. Her mother became a minor Broadway actress for a few years before becoming a full-time stage mother. The couple moved to London in the late ’20s when Taylor pere was transferred to his uncle’s gallery there. Elizabeth was born there in 1932. When she was 7 the family moved back to the States because World War Two was looming. Thus, the ambiguous quality I mentioned — half British/ half American, the ultimate Mid-Atlantic creature. She possessed grace, good manners, and a diction that read as “posh”. Especially in her early films she sounded English. Yet, she was, beneath that, American, something she could tap into for her earthier roles. She could become downright savage when the need arose, and this was new at the time among American screen actresses. The contrast between that and her icy, porcelain beauty is endlessly fascinating. She had hauteur but she could also hurl the crockery.
Taylor broke into the movies as a child star through her father’s art gallery contacts. In addition to National Velvet, she’s in a couple of Lassie movies (where she co-starred with lifelong friend Roddy McDowall), the 1943 version of Jane Eyre, the 1949 version of Little Women, and the comedies Father of the Bride (1950) and its sequel Father’s Little Dividend (1951). By the time of the latter film she had already married and divorced her first husband, hotel heir Conrad “Nicky” Hilton, Jr.
A Place in the Sun, the 1951 adaptation of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which cast her alongside another lifelong friend Montgomery Clift, reinvented her as an object of sexual desire, and I think of this movie as her most effective performance in that regard (hubba hubba! yow!), even though (God forgive me) she was only 19 at the time it was released. Others might choose Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) as her sexiest part, but, beautiful though she is in that film, her character is desperate and needy, the pursuer rather than the pursued. Others might choose her Oscar winning role in BUtterfield 8 (1960), but, again, though her character is a “loose woman”, she is also one who is struggling against that identity, and very unhappy with it. In short, in these films, we regard her as a human being rather than some sort of mere temptress. To me, it would be weird to talk about how sexy she is in these movies, though many do. Her ambitions as a serious actress, combined with her willingness to venture into risque territory made her the perfect Tennessee Williams actress. In addition to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she also starred in screen versions of Suddenly Last Summer (1959), The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Any More (retitled Boom! and released in 1968), and Sweet Bird of Youth (1989).
In the ’50s Taylor quickly garnered a reputation as a vamp both onscreen and off. After the Hilton divorce she married actor Michael Wilding (1952-57), then impresario Mike Todd (1957-58), who sadly died a year after their marriage, and then she became notorious for stealing Butterfield 8 co-star Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds (1959-64), and then she became involved with Richard Burton on the set of Cleopatra and married him (1964-76), and then after many breakups and reunions with Burton, she married Virginia Senator John Warner (1976-82), and then she met construction worker Larry Fortensky in rehab at the Betty Ford clinic and married him (1991-96). “Father of the Bride”, indeed! And also, “Cleopatra”, indeed! Somebody stop me!
Once they came together, Taylor and Burton reinvented themselves as a screen couple, appearing in eight films together over a six year period: Cleopatra (1963), The V.I.P.s (1963), The Sandpiper (1965), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Taming of the Shrew (1967), Dr. Faustus (1967), The Comedians (1967) and Boom! (1968). In retrospect, it looks like the last several of these sapped some of the momentum of her career.
In 1981 she had her one Broadway semi-triumph in a revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, followed by a panned production of Noel Coward’s Private Lives, co-starring Burton. When her Giant co-star and friend Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985, Taylor became one of the most vocal HIV/AIDS activists in the country.
One last plug for something I saw not long ago that raised Taylor’s talents in my estimation yet again. Her last film role had her stunt cast in Carrie Fisher’s 2001 tv movie These Old Broads, which also featured Taylor’s nemesis and Carrie’s mom Debbie Reynolds, as well as Joan Collins and Shirley MacLaine. Taylor plays a broadly comic part as a crass Hollywood agent and she is unexpectedly, naturally hilarious in the role. She plays the part without vanity, she just goes for the big yucks, and she completely pulls it off. She lived another decade after this; it’s a pity she didn’t do some more films along these lines. Indeed — given his enthusiasm for Boom!, late Taylor would have been the PERFECT John Waters actor.