Wednesday, April 20, 2011

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: More Than Meets The Eye

When she passed away a few weeks ago, Elizabeth Taylor had achieved an iconic level of enduring worldwide stardom that really only a very few ever achieve; Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Charlie Chaplin are among those who ever enjoyed that kind of stardom.  During the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, Elizabeth Taylor was arguably bigger than any of them on the world stage.  As Roger Ebert wrote, “Of few deaths can it be said that they end an era, but hers does. No other actress commanded more attention for longer, for her work, her beauty, her private life, and a series of health problems that brought her near death more than once.”  Ebert described, “Taylor had her own category of stardom.” She’s known mainly by today’s young people as an old star who had a popular perfume and made charitable appearances and cameos, but there’s a lot more going on there:  she was a damned good movie actress.   Taylor quit really making movies in the mid-70’s due to health concerns and I think boredom, but her work truly stands up and is a testament to a woman whose beauty often overshadowed her talent. 

A friend of mine's tattoo of her idol Elizabeth Taylor
In the excellent New York Times obituary written by Mel Gussow writing about Miss Taylor, “There was one point of general agreement: her beauty.  As cameramen noted, her face was flawlessly symmetrical; she had no bad angle, and her eyes were of the deepest violet.“  It also quoted Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed her in "Suddenly Last Summer” and “Cleopatra,” saw her for the first time, in Cannes, when she was 18. “She was the most incredible vision of loveliness I have ever seen in my life,” he said. “And she was sheer innocence.”  Mankiewiewicz who wrote and directed such classics as “All About Eve,” and “The Barefoot Contessa,” also admired Miss Taylor’s professionalism.  “Whatever the script called for, she played it,” he said. “The thread that goes through the whole is that of a woman who is an honest performer. Therein lies her identity.”

Elizabeth Taylor had no formal acting training but basically grew up on camera and was a terrific movie actress whose parts displayed an impressive range. I think she’s the definitive Tennessee Williams heroine doing four movies of his plays.  She did “Taming of the Shrew” with her then husband, the great Richard Burton in possibly the best film of Shakespeare.   Most impressively over the course of her career she held her own on screen with such imposing screen titans as Mickey Rooney, Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando, Spencer Tracy, James Dean, Paul Newman, Rock Hudson, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Michael Caine, Katherine Hepburn and Burton whom she did 11 films with.   

 In 1944, she did the enduring kid’s classic “National Velvet” as young girl and was a star for the rest of her life in a touching performance that captured the public’s imagination.  From there she made a series of solid films for MGM most notably as Spencer Tracy’s daughter in Vincente Minnelli’s “Father of the Bride,” and “Father’s Little Dividend.” 

Everything changed in 1951, Elizabeth Taylor made a very important film with a top director George Stevens in “A Place in the Sun,” co-starring Montgomery Clift, then along with Brando were the shining new lights of the theatrical world.  “A Place in the Sun,” was based on the masterful classic novel An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser, and Liz plays what Stevens describes as “beautiful girl in the yellow Cadillac convertible that every American boy, some time or other, thinks he can marry.”  Clift plays the working class kid who falls for the unattainable Liz and she for him but first impregnates the girl he knew earlier to disastrous results; simple, working class girl Shelley Winters.  Taylor and Clift’s gorgeous, romantic couple highlights and complicate the dark plot of this enduring classic.  I highly recommend this film. 
Several years later, Stevens hired Taylor to star in his big American epic, the most expensive film ever made at the time “Giant,” along with box office star Rock Hudson and the tragic, emerging superstar James Dean.  Based on Edna Ferber’s novel, it epically follows the lives of a Texas cattle/oil family.  “Giant” was a massive hit and a touchstone movie from the ‘50’s.  James Dean died while during filming. 

One of the definitive Taylor performances was in the Richard Brooks production of Tennessee Williams’ provocative classic play “Cat on A Hot Tin Roof.”  Liz is “Maggie the Cat,” appearing gorgeous in a white slip throughout most of the movie, desperate for the love of her alcoholic and possibly gay, ex-football star husband Paul Newman.  Despite the censorship of the times, the movie made its point and the performances by the ensemble around Liz is excellent. The handsomest couple in movie history perhaps.

Mankiewicz directs Katherine Hepburn along with the third teaming of Taylor and Montgomery Clift in another Tennessee Williams play “Suddenly Last Summer.”  This lurid melodrama features Hepburn in her only villainous role as a mother who wants her seemingly crazy niece Taylor lobotomized by psychiatrist Clift to silence her about the sleazy life and death of her son.  (Clift had a terrible disfiguring car accident some years before this driving from Liz’s house and is a shadow of himself from the earlier films. Taylor had to pull Clift’s teeth out of his throat to prevent him from choking to death.)  The three stars are dynamite and this was another big hit, and Taylor is amazing in her white one-piece swimsuit.

The film that probably defined Taylor’s career for many was the legendary, bloated, mega-expensive yet highly watchable epic “Cleopatra.”  This is the film where she began her tumultuous affair with Richard Burton, a personal favorite and the greatest classical actor of his generation.  This love affair/marriage was biggest tabloid story of the 60’s as these two magnetic superstars defined excess and yet made a string of very good movies.  Check out the IMDB trivia entry for the myriad of stories surrounding this film that would’ve cost about 300 million in today’s money.  Taylor received 1 million in salary and eventually made 7 million due to overruns in scheduling and profits from it.  It was originally 6 hours long cut to 3 but is highly entertaining. This film was so expensive that Fox had to sell off part of its back lot and studio space which is now the Century CIty part of Los Angeles. 

As the 1960’s progressed, “Liz  & Dick,” worked together and apart in many quality productions, their most well known is probably Mike Nichols smash hit film of Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”  Taylor won her second Oscar (her first for “Butterfield 8”) and deservedly so in a truly fearless performance putting on 20lbs.  Burton is equally good as her codependent drunken husband.  A viewer wonders was art imitating life as the two hurl unrelenting alcohol infused abuse toward each other. A touchstone film of the sixties. 

As I wrote earlier, “Liz & Dick” did quite possibly the best film version of Shakespeare in a very funny and entertaining “Taming of the Shrew,” directed by Franco Zeffirelli.  Burton is perfect as the scheming, loutish “Petruchio” and Taylor again shows her stuff as the shrewish brat “Kate.”  This film was lovely to watch and made Shakespeare into big box office. 

A film that features three legends and was a big flop and hardly remembered and yet is an exceptional film is “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” starring Taylor and Marlon Brando directed by John Huston based on the Southern Gothic novel by Carson McCullers.  Set on an Army fort in the South, Taylor daringly plays the vulgar wife of a latent homosexual officer (Brando).  In a great performance, Brando is obsessed with a young soldier (played by Robert Forster of “Jackie Brown”) who he catches sneaking in his home going through Liz’s underwear.  Taylor tortures and ridicules the sullen Brando while carrying on with another officer in front of him.  This film was shot in Rome and Huston tinted its print in golden hues, very daring for its time in dealing with homosexuality, voyeurism, masochism, etc.  Roger Ebert, a big fan of this movie, thinks that this film failed at the box office because the public wasn’t ready to see two great stars in essentially an art film playing pretty unsavory characters.  However it’s very entertaining and has great performances from Taylor and Brando. 

These are just a portion of the many movies that Elizabeth Taylor made throughout her great career, in my opinion the best ones, however her star graced many more worth watching and a few that were not, but we shall not see another star the likes of her again.  In reviewing her life, she seemed like a hell of a great woman who was remembered as a loyal friend, tremendous spokesperson and fundraiser for AIDS research and somebody who didn’t take herself too seriously despite having the world at her feet.  

Bonus:  Here's a touching tribute to Liz for TCM by her co-star in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Paul Newman.   

Thanks for reading and watching, these movies are frequently on TCM and are available on Netflix.  This is my third entry in this blog and I hope that you enjoy it.  Any feedback is welcomed.  Stay tuned.