Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Remembering Dame Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor lived and died as a genuine screen goddess, perhaps the last of her kind.
But at the time of her death from congestive heart failure she had not been a major motion picture star for decades.
She "granted" a mass interview in 1989 to adoring TV critics for what would prove to be her last substantial role: as the aging screen queen in the TV movie remake of Sweet Bird Of Youth opposite Mark Harmon.
Up close she still looked dazzling. But her performance? She was quite dreadful.
The only thing I remember about the interview was her refusal to admit some of her eight marriages had been disasters.
"There was always a reason," she said. "Everybody at MGM got married young --Donna Reed, Lana Turner, Esther Williams. If you were married the dirty old men producers left you alone."
In Sweet Bird Of Youth Geraldine Page had done the original 1962 movie opposite Paul Newman and had been wonderful.
But Liz who was the real thing either couldn't or wouldn't simulate the ravages of encroaching old age.
And so she retreated from full blown stardom to a kind of nether world where she promoted her perfumes and cosmetics and made a few ill conceived cameos.
Like other divas of her ilk: Joan Crawford, Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth her body of work contains few genuine cinematic treasures.
But several directors could challenge her to acting greatness: George Stevens in A Place In The Sun and Giant (not not in The Only Game In Town), Richard Brooks in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Joe Mankiewicz in Suddenly, Last Summer (but not in Cleopatra) and Mike Nichols in Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?
She called Butterfield 8 which won her an Oscar "a piece of sh--t". And she was right. She basically won over worthier contenders because she'd almost died from pneumonia.
Watching her onstage in The Little Foxes was a strain --she was only in character when saying her lines. Sitting on a sofa in other scenes and she'd be looking around.
Her Cleopatra was one of the biggest bores of all time.
The only decent film she made with her fourth and fifth husband Richard Burton was Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf. She got a second Oscar and really deserved it.
But few of her other movies are worth sitting through.
Talking about her once Dame Anna Neagle told me Taylor did not recognize her actions often had dark comnsequences.
"Michael Wilding --her second husband --was my frequent co-star but as her husband he became a glorified valet and when she left him his career never recovered. The same thing happened to Eddie Fisher who deserted his wife and children for her and when she ditched him his career was never the same."
ERnest Lehman who wrote the screenplay for Woolf told me he was first enchanted by her child like qualities. " Then on set she demanded expensive jewels as presents and would pout when I couldn't deliver them. Basically her goldfish bowl existence made her will full --she never truly grew up."
Along with Rock Hudson and Audrey Hepburn she was among the last of the studio manufactured stars.
Others like Turner and Hayworth slipped into alcoholism when their careers floundered and for awhile Taylor battled her own addictions.
However, fighting for AIDS research gave her life a new purpose and she became famous all over again as a star emeritus.
She wasn't especially introspective and she really believed in the cinematic version of a happy ending said Hedda Hopper who visited her in her first apartment and noticed the only reading matter was movie mafazines..
Her movies are mostly nonsense like Rhapsody, The Girl Who Had Everything, The Last Time I Saw Paris, The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper.
In 1984 I watched her act on the Toronto set of the TV flick Between Friends opposite Carol Burnett. Burnett was warm and accommodating but Liz really pulled the star trick. She was on Yorkville and had to cross a street to get to the next set. She refused to walk and the studio had to order up a limousine before she'd move.
She was married eight times --besting the record of Lana Turner.
Most of her husbands outside of Richard Burton were mere accoutrements.
She seemed wasted in last year's long interview with Larry King although he looked even more ravaged.
In the last 20 years she battled various ailments.
Her contemporary Debbie Reynolds --who lost husband Eddie Fisher to Liz in one daring 1958 scandal-- has by contrast continued robustly with her performance career.
So precarious was Liza's health over the past few years that The Toronto Star commissioned me to write the definitive obituary way back in 1985 when she had surgery for a brain tumor.
But it was never used --once again Liz Taylor bounced back again to live another 25 years


Anonymous said...

Nice piece, Jim. One of the better ones I've read -- and one of the few that doesn't treat her like a saint. You always do this sort of story really well

moira said...

Your account of Taylor's career is quite just, in my view. If she had stopped working after National Velvet (1944), I think the cinema would have survived, she might have learned more about the real world, and Elizabeth Taylor might still be a legend.