There is a regal quality to cinematic fame in America. Especially with the older generation, those that weathered the storm – the unknowables who regressed from public spotlight to gain a saintly glow, those called on to make a cameo in a great new director’s work, but otherwise just did charity. For most of my adult life, Elizabeth Taylor never had that. Early exposures to Taylor and her career were through parodies like that of John Belushi, or through her television movies. Now we look at television and see some of the finest acting and performers in the world. Then it was where people went to work. And Taylor worked. Why not?
For better or ill she put her face out there. For her charities (she did a lot of AIDS charity work), and had no problem talking to Larry King. Her last big screen role would be a cameo at the end of The Flintstones movie. She could show up at the Golden Globes and people would think her batty, and led to a new series of parodies.
And yet on March 23, 2011, Elizabeth Taylor passed away, and all of that goes washing away. My first thought is of A Place in the Sun. She is introduced to Montgomery Clift as the object of desire, and few times has murder for the love of a woman seemed so plausible. If the grass is always greener on the other side, hers was the greenest, and director George Stevens lit her for all she was worth. And then there’s Taylor at her best as a performer – facing up against her then-husband Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Taylor wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, so it’s no surprise the minute she gives a less “beautiful” performance she won an Oscar for that movie (her second, her first was for Butterfield 8), it’s a pattern starlets interested in Oscars have been following for years
By Woolf, it was an honorary award – granted it’s one of her greatest performances – by then Taylor had been acting in movies for twenty five years. Taylor’s career started in 1942 at the age of ten, pushed into the spotlight by a stage mom. But Taylor had the looks, and by 1944 she was in the horse movie classic (horse films are their own genre, damn it) National Velvet, and in 1949 a version of Little Women. The original Father of the Bride (1950) is modest, but a very charming Vincent Minnelli fillm. And like so many of our child stars, Taylor grew to be a bombshell, and a tabloid nightmare.
As per the bombshell, even though 1959’s Suddenly Last Summer was a confused attempt at addressing homosexuality without ever being able to say those words, in the film – which is fascinating though seriously hampered – Taylor wears a white bathing suit and proves that Montgomery Clift’s character had to be gay. If the film doesn’t work, the costuming does. But by then she had been in some great productions like Giant, or The Raintree County, films that went for scale, and sometimes left her a pawn. Taylor could hold her own, but you can see why she gravitated to the works of Tennessee Williams or Williams-esque productions.She wanted meat, and only sometimes got it.
But though her love life to that point was already tempestuous – and by 1960 she was working on her fourth marriage – it’s hard to deny the weight in her career that must be given to her Cleopatra. The film itself is fascinating, and a disaster. You can see what it could have been, and how it ended up. You can also see how sometimes piles of money aren’t enough, and way too much. It’s a film that nearly destroyed a studio, and seriously killed the period films for the system. It’s also where Taylor met Richard Burton, which would lead to her fifth marriage (to Burton), and then later her sixth (to Burton, again).
As an actress Taylor was solid, though often called to lean on her looks. As she was one of the most gorgeous women to ever walk the planet, it’s not a bad crutch. Time has a way of washing away the nonsense, and as 21st century people, that Taylor was married eight times is more amusing than damning culturally. When the work is all that’s left, it’s easy to go to something like A Place in the Sun and realize that cameras were invented to record such beauty. And go to Woolf and see that wasn’t the only reason why she was famous.