Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: The Taylor Library

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Taylor Library

The best of Elizabeth on DVD

by Tony Dayoub


By now, many have eulogized the legendary Liz Taylor. So I'll instead celebrate the most notable of what's available on DVD. More than a simple "best of," I really hope to showcase her most significant performances, with an eye toward the quality of their video presentation as well.


National Velvet

(1944, Directed by Clarence Brown, Warner Home Video)


"I really hate to call her an actress," director Clarence Brown said of the 12-year-old Taylor. "She's much too natural for that." Her star-making performance in this horse racing film is proof of that. Despite strong supporting performances from co-stars Mickey Rooney, Anne Revere, Donald Crisp, and a very young Angela Lansbury, Taylor steals the film as Velvet Brown, the determined young owner of Pie, a horse she hopes to race in Liverpool's annual Grand National. The precocious Brown slips into the competition by impersonating a male jockey, an easily overlooked implausibility if one ignores Taylor's already radiant beauty. The climactic steeplechase is masterfully filmed and edited, but the family drama that precedes it is surprisingly absorbing. Most endearing is the relationship between her supportive parents (Revere and Crisp), who cutely refer to each other as Mr. Brown and Mrs. Brown until the finale, in which they finally call each other by their first names in a poignant, private moment.

Though there is much to recommend in National Velvet, its DVD transfer is a muddled mess, suffering from excessive edge enhancement and splotchy, washed-out color. No special features.


A Place in the Sun

(1951, Dir. George Stevens, Paramount Home Entertainment)


Taylor gets her first crack at serious drama with this Lynchian, small-town neo-noir based on Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. She plays an alluring socialite, Angela Vickers, who attracts George Eastman (Montgomery Clift, in his first of three collaborations with real-life close friend Taylor), a poor factory worker trying to break into the same upper stratum occupied by his wealthier distant relatives. Though Taylor's Vickers initially represents the unattainable social standing Eastman seeks, the engaging actress helped the audience look past her outward appearance. Vickers soon becomes a nurturing lifeline for Eastman when he is arrested for the murder of another young woman (Shelley Winters) who was holding the ambitious young man back. "For the first time in my life," Taylor said of the part, "I started to take acting seriously, because my leading men before had been dogs and horses, and this was my first leading man and my first real actor." In hindsight, the role may not have been much of a stretch for Taylor — she just needed to look pretty, for the most part — but it was a shift for the child actress turned ingénue, from lighter fare to the kind of darker dramas that would fill out the rest of her filmography.

William C. Mellor's wonderful cinematography never fails to go in tight for some enticing shots of the beautiful 17-year-old Taylor. An excellent transfer serves the high contrast of Mellor's black-and-white photography quite well.


Giant

(1956, Dir. George Stevens, Warner Home Video)


A decades-spanning epic as large in scale as its title suggests, Giant pits a tradition-bound Texan, "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson), against his liberal wife, Leslie (Taylor), and a scrappy ne'er-do-well, Jett Rink (James Dean, in his final film), completing the ostensible love triangle. Taylor's level-headed spitfire personifies the many trophies (land, oil, respectability) that Bick and Jett are competing for. Her posh, Virginian outsider also serves as the audience's entry into the ritualistic world of cattle ranchers and oilmen, where macho codes of honor still rule and anti-Mexican racism is quickly excused by winks to long-standing "tradition." Taylor, Hudson and Dean were all in their 20s when called upon to play these characters, whom Giant follows from their mid-20s through their early 70s, a task perfectly executed by three actors often distinguished by their varying levels of artistic range.

Although Giant's two-disc DVD is rich with special extras, multiple commentaries and retrospective featurettes, it is way overdue for an upgrade. The three-and-a-half-hour film is spread over two sides of a "flipper" disc. Worse yet, it's criminal to present a sweeping film with such a robust title in a standard format un-enhanced for widescreen TVs.


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

(1958, Dir. Richard Brooks, Warner Home Video)


A Tennessee Williams adaptation that I recommend with strong reservations, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is weakened by its soft-pedaling of mature subject matter. Intimations of homosexuality in Paul Newman's Brick Pollitt are virtually ignored as the source of friction between him and his wife, Maggie the Cat (Taylor). Too bad, because that's basically what the original Williams play is about. Therefore, the strong cast (Newman, Taylor, Burl Ives, Jack Carson) — playing mostly against type — is wasted. That being said, Taylor has never looked better than she does as the sexually frustrated Maggie, walking through most of the film's early scenes in a filmy white slip (her glamorous persona complemented by William Daniels's Oscar-nominated cinematography). As Kathleen Murphy of MSN Movies put it, "Can you imagine Julia Roberts or Angelina Jolie or Scarlett Johansson or Jennifer Aniston having the sexual heft to hungrily eye a stud like Paul Newman as if he were the last bowl of milk ever?" Like in Giant, Maggie is the relatively reasonable outsider at the center of a stormy Southern family, demanding sympathy despite her initial shrillness. What makes Taylor's Academy Award-nominated turn even more amazing is the fact that she was dealing with the sudden death of husband Mike Todd during principal photography.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof boasts the best-looking color transfer of all the DVDs reviewed here. It includes a short but informative featurette and a fascinating commentary by Donald Spoto, biographer for both Williams and Taylor.


Suddenly, Last Summer

(1959, Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)


Like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, this was adapted from a Williams play that dealt with homosexuality. Unlike the previous film, Suddenly, Last Summer's taboo subject matter, though toned down for censors, stays largely intact. Wealthy Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) commits her disturbed niece, Catherine (Taylor), to an economically strapped mental hospital. There she hopes her million dollar donation will ensure the girl is lobotomized by Dr. Cukrowicz (Montgomery Clift, in his final film with Taylor). But the doctor suspects Venable is simply attempting to stop the girl from speaking up about Venable's libertine son's death in Europe. Suddenly, Last Summer is as florid as Venable's lethal-looking greenhouse, particularly in its handling of the "mysterious science" of Freudian psychology. But Taylor is fine as the patient, holding back on any unnecessary histrionics until her final, potent scene, in which she at last reveals the lurid circumstances surrounding her cousin's death. As someone unfamiliar with either the play or the movie until recently, I can attest to the power of the film's climax. It's a shocker.

Though not without blemishes, the black-and-white transfer doesn't disappoint. But given Suddenly, Last Summer's rich background, I would like to have heard a commentary from the chatty Gore Vidal, who co-wrote the screenplay with Williams.


Cleopatra

(1963, Dir. Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Fox Home Entertainment)


Richard Burton and Taylor's real-life romance began during the filming of this, their first of 11 collaborations. It's best to view Cleopatra as two films, not one. Director Mankiewicz intended for this to be two three-hour movies: one about Julius Caesar (Rex Harrison) and Cleopatra (Taylor); another about Mark Antony (Burton) and the Egyptian queen. Reportedly, studio executives combined the two films into one because of concerns that no one would show up to see the first, relatively Burton-free movie. Delays in filming, cost overruns, recasting of major parts, and more contributed to the film's notoriously bloated budget (some claim that, in adjusted dollars, this is the most expensive movie ever made). Divorce all that from the actual viewing experience, and you'll find that Cleopatra is quite exceptional. The first half is superb, with Harrison goading Taylor into a strong performance as the pragmatic politician. In a meta sense, the second half plays even better, trading on one's knowledge of the tempestuous Burton/Taylor romance to inform the characterization of Antony as a great man undone by alcohol and his love for the manipulative, power-hungry Cleopatra. The larger-than-life role is Taylor's most iconic, representative of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Her growing power in Hollywood was due mostly to the lengths to which the studio went to keep her happy during Cleopatra's production.

Both the 194-minute and a 248-minute "roadshow" version are available on DVD. The longer one (spread over two discs) is the way to go. The picture and sound are excellent. Colorful as the film is, the hue and saturation look accurate. The level of film grain (minimal) is appropriate, given that the movie was shot in 70mm Todd-AO (Taylor made money off this, too... it was her late husband Mike Todd’s company), a larger film format. A third disc in the special edition contains a two-hour documentary covering the numerous setbacks the production encountered.


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

(1966, Dir. Mike Nichols, Warner Home Video)


In his first film, director Nichols referees a wild, alcohol-soaked night at George and Martha's in this adaptation of Edward Albee's play. Taylor and Burton are at their zenith as the combative husband and wife who invite a young couple (George Segal and Sandy Dennis) to their home for drinks before launching into a carnival of cruelty, a series of vicious "games" to which only George and Martha know the rules. The way Taylor devours a drumstick at the start of Virginia Woolf is an indication of her ferocity in the rest of the movie. In some ways Taylor's grandest achievement, her Oscar win for this part, was also her undoing. It validated the stridency of the Martha character, a quality that was often just an undercurrent in her previous performances. She could never again completely avoid this kind of nastiness in subsequent roles.

Haskell Wexler's black-and-white photography is, by turns, gritty (interiors) and hauntingly ethereal (exteriors). Virginia Woolf is my pick for the best looking black-and-white DVD featuring Taylor. But be forewarned, the actress is made up to look like a slob twice her age in this movie.

This retrospective was first published on 3/30/2011 in Nomad Editions: Wide Screen.

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