Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Elizabeth Taylor

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor

by Tony Dayoub

"Seems like we always spend the best part of our time just saying goodbye."
-Elizabeth Taylor as Angela Vickers in A Place in the Sun (1951)

One of cinema's most iconic stars is gone. Certainly there has never been an actor who had gained as much attention for her personal life as she had for her work like Elizabeth Taylor. Married eight times, twice to the volatile love of her life, actor Richard Burton, Taylor seemed to weather scandal easily. She had been in the public eye since childhood, when she starred in such movies as Lassie Come Home (1943) and National Velvet (1944). Perhaps it was the casual way she managed the lifelong attention she received from the press that helped her comfort damaged souls like Montgomery Clift and Michael Jackson, close friends of hers, through their own public trials and tribulations. Since many of the countless tributes yet to be seen in the next few days will focus on her personal life, I'd like to talk about several of her roles which have shone brightest for me.

As Maureen Turim wrote in an essay for the 1978 book Close Ups, "As Elizabeth grew from this child, who already possessed the beauty and charm of a woman, she acquired an expressive repertoire as an actress which includes intelligence, tenderness, strength, and anger. At her best Taylor is capable of nuanced portrayals of distinct social types; for a while her screen type was the rich, beautiful and privileged debutante." This could describe wealthy Angela Vickers in George Stevens' A Place in the Sun (1951). Vickers is Taylor at her most alluring, bringing sensitivity and vulnerability to a role that, on paper, initially reads as nothing more than a spoiled socialite. Our introduction to Taylor occurs nearly a half-hour into the film. By then we are aware of how ill at ease Clift's George Eastman is feeling at a party given by his boss, retreating to a billiards room away from the snobs he does not fit in with. He banks a shot, sinking one of the pool balls as Taylor's Vickers peeks into the room and says "Wow!" The gorgeous 17-year-old (Taylor's age at the time she shot the film) could just as easily be describing one's reaction as her jet-black hair, gleaming eyes, and bare shoulders fill the screen for the first time. It's a stark contrast to the prim and proper woman, at the end of the film, who visits the pitiable George on death row in his final hours, assuring him of her continuing love despite the horrible crime he committed to be with her. A Place in the Sun changed Taylor's career, finally allowing her to display the range that just wasn't possible for her to show as the young ingenue in films like Little Women (1949) or Father of the Bride (1950).

Later, she would make an even stronger impression in Giant (1956), again for director Stevens. As Leslie, the progressive wife to Rock Hudson's sexist rancher, Jordan "Bick" Benedict, Taylor was intelligent, willful, and usually right. In one scene she joins her husband as he talks with his friends, all male, in the couple's drawing room:
Bick: We just talkin' business, just business.
Leslie: Oh well, please don't mind me. Do go on. I'll listen quiet as a little old mouse.
Bick: You'd be bored, honey. This is dull.
Leslie: Why, I'd be fascinated.
Bick: Leslie, we're talking about politics.
Leslie: You married me in Washington, remember darling? I lived next door to politics, brought up with it. Please do go on talking, I'd love it.
Bick: This is men's stuff.
One of the wives: (from across the room) Leslie, how about a cup of coffee or a drink or something?
Leslie: Men's stuff? Lord have mercy!
(To the other wives) Set up my spinning wheel, girls. I'll join the harem section in a minute.
One of the men: Now Leslie, don't you go worrying your pretty little head about politics.
Leslie: You mean my pretty, empty head, don't you, Judge?
Uncle Bawley: (diplomatically) Could I get the coffee for you, Leslie?
Leslie: You too, Uncle Brutus?
Bick: (stands up to confront her) You don't feel well, Leslie.
Leslie: I feel just great! My adrenaline glands are pumping beautifully.
(turning to the other wives) Boo!
(back to the men) If I may say so before retiring, you gentlemen date back 100,000 years. You ought to be wearing leopard skins and carrying clubs. Politics! Business! What is so masculine about a conversation that a woman can't enter into it?
The role of Leslie cast Taylor as a sane voice in a regressive family, a type she would play again in the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) as Maggie the Cat. Her frustration at husband Brick (Paul Newman) and his refusal to have sex with her is palpable. When the reasons for Brick's rejection of Maggie begin to come to light, our perception of her is altered from scorned, neglected nymphomaniac to manipulative, neurotic wife. To Taylor's credit, she could play both.

Elizabeth Taylor would never quite reach such artistic heights again after winning her second Oscar for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), her blinding superstardom eclipsing her obvious talent. But she will forever be synonymous with classic American cinema.

She died today at the age of 79.

Recommended Films - National Velvet, Father of the Bride, A Place in the Sun, Giant, Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, Butterfield 8, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Reflections in a Golden Eye


MrJeffery said...

lovely writeup. sad loss.

thevoid99 said...

I'm ashamed to say that the only film that I ever saw her in a theater was that Flinstones movie.

At least I can make up for it by getting a chance to see some of her work on Turner Classic Movies. She is a legend and will be sorely missed.

tom hyland said...

At some point, how does one review a performance by Elizabeth Taylor, given not only her celebrity status, but also her beauty ?

That said, she was amazing in Virgina Woolf. She was one of a kind.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks to all of you for stopping by. One postscript, it seems the other publication I write for, WIDE SCREEN is doing a special all-Liz issue next week. So for anyone interested in getting to know her better, look for my column to focus on the best of her performances on DVD.