Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor: "It Seems We Always Spend The Best Part of Our Time Saying Goodbye"

May she rest in peace.

There is a time for every purpose under heaven. Elizabeth Taylor's time was the 1950s and the 1960s when she was--arguably--the most beautiful woman in the world. We are so fortunate that 35-millimeter film has preserved her in her prime for us to marvel at. There was absolutely no one like her.

When she died this week at the age of seventy nine she had lived several lifetimes and used up all of her nine lives. But oh! What a life. Seven marriages, eight husbands, one of the world's most famous collections of jewels. You can't say she didn't have it all.

Elizabeth Taylor (February 27, 1932 to March 23, 2011) was born in London and when she was seven her American parents returned to the States, settling in Los Angeles. Her father had an art gallery at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and it may have been there that this beautiful child attracted the attention of movie scouts.

She was just a child when she signed with MGM in 1943 and it was this Rolls Royce of studios that molded her. She was so pampered, I once read, that when she left the studio in her twenties, she said she didn't know how to drive a car or write a check.

I saw her in Washington D.C. several times, when her seventh marriage to her sixth husband, Senator John Warner of Virginia, was coming to an end.

My first glimpse came during a matinee at the Kennedy Center of "Death of A Salesman" starring Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman. When the lights dimmed following the intermission, this slight figure in a pink sweatsuit slipped down the aisle and into a seat near the front. The whispers went up and down the rows: "That's Liz! That's Liz!"

Before the lights came up again, she was gone. As she left her senator behind, she herself was starring in a revival of "The Little Foxes," which was also having a tryout in Washington.

The next time I saw her was not long afterward, this time in a revival of Noel Coward's "Private Lives" again in a Washington D.C. tryout. This time, she had done it, not to jump start her own career, which her turn in "The Little Foxes" had done nicely, but as a favor to help her ex-husband Richard Burton whose career was on the skids. The two were funny together playing former spouses who run into each other at a resort. She looked plump-ish but beautiful at age 51, but he looked cadaverous, though he was only 57. He had the pallor of death, even under his stage make-up. He died the next year.

Truth be told, I think her life was much more epic than any of her films. Her beauty on film, much more astonishing than her talent--or choice of roles. She was a force of nature more than anything else.

Many of the films people mention as her best, I find more than prolematic, including Little Women (1949)--saccharine and they have Liz in a blonde wig!; Raintree County (1957)--Southern Gothic, much too strange to sit through; Giant ((1956), the George Stevens' epic that is so soporific I always sleep through it--has anybody ever seen the whole film??? Also dreary is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), which, without Liz in that form-fitting slip, it just two hours of bad sturm und drang with Paul Newman always in his pajamas, for heaven's sake. Suddenly Last Summer (1959) is more Tennessee Williams and more sturm und drang and who wants to see Liz doing that in black and white? Butterfield 8 (1960) has a great opening scene, but appears to be in a foreign language after that; Cleopatra (1963) is unwatchable, raise your hand if you've sat through the whole thing. Right. The Sandpiper (1965) stars Big Sur, the California coast, and has nothing else to offer except its great theme song, "The Shadow of Your Smile" by Johnny Mandel and Paul Francis Webster. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) --I am, as a matter of fact. Liz with gray streaks in her hair and yelling all the time. Icky, icky, icky. After that, about 1966, the films aren't just unwatchable, they are forgettable.

So what are her good films? The best, I think, are her early ones. You have to see Lassie Come Home (1943) since it shows us the ten-year-old Elizabeth in living color. It is a corny, sweet, story but it is MGM so its production values are superb. In that same ilk is National Velvet (1944) another MGM color fantasy version of England, where Taylor is surrounded--as she was in Lassie--with the MGM stock company of memorable character actors, including Mickey Rooney, Anne Revere, and Donald Crisp.

Father of the Bride (1951) was her coming out party, in which Velvet Brown has become a stunning woman. The movie belongs to that great scene-stealer Spencer Tracy and Taylor seems best when she is surrounded by that kind of talent. Ditto for George Stevens' A Place in the Sun, dominated by Montgomery Clift at his angst-ridden best. Still, when she holds him and says; "Tell mama. Tell mama all." and Stevens has her face on screen about twenty feet high, you realize that she does have the kind of beauty and sex appeal that men might, in fact, kill for.

There are some others I like from that same period: Ivanhoe (1952), with the often underrated Robert Taylor in an especially good knights-and-damsels tale; The Girl Who Had Everything (1953) a noir-ish remake of A Free Soul co-starring William Powell, Gig Young and Fernando Lamas; The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) a Hemmingwayesque/Fitgeraldish story that has her co-starring with Van Johnson and an ecclectic cast of 1950s personalities including Roger Moore and Eva Gabor. Oh, and she has lung problems, always an excellent plot point for Liz.

I also like Elephant Walk (1954), co-starring Peter Finch and Dana Andrews. It was shot in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in color, and though there is a lot of scenery chewing, the plot's pretty good and the scenery that's chewed is really spectacular. And they have those big elephants in it too. So its hard to beat.

Finally, I recommend The VIPs (1963), the first Taylor-Burton pairing after Cleopatra, which has them, appropriately enough, in a dysfunctional, addictive, co-dependent marriage that neither can resist. If you've ever been stuck, wandering around London's Heathrow Airport, you'll be able to relate to this potboiler. It co-stars a cast of thousands, including Louis Jordan, Orson Welles, and the great Margaret Rutherford who won a Best-Supporting Actress Oscar for her role.

One more thing about Elizabeth Taylor: she had a legendary collection of jewelry. I once saw some of it in New York at an exhibit sponsored by De Beers. The show included her 33.19-carat Krupp Diamond and her 69.42-carat pear-shaped diamond, both gifts from Richard Burton. Also on exhibit was the 50-carat La Peregrina Pearl he bought her in 1969, once owned by Mary I of England. Now that she is gone, I hope they will do a complete exhibit of her collection--before the heirs sell it off. She was probably one of the last of the glamorous stars to acquire baubles like this and somehow or another, the collection should be preserved. (Or your could buy me some of the best pieces when they go up for auction: that would be nice too.)

I'm sure Turner Classic Movies will do a tribute to her films. Bad or good, they all had that certain something. They all had Elizabeth Taylor.

*(Editor's note: my headline is from Taylor's closing line in A Place in the Sun.)

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Don Meuler said...

There are a couple of decades worth of epic motion pictures I cannot stand to watch because the acting is SO over the top; sadly, this includes many of Miss Taylor's most notable roles. But I do agree her early roles were quite engaging. Still, there's no one else like her.

Robin Chapman said...

I think she was a star who thrived under the MGM studio system, and her taste in pictures and her work suffered when she was out on her own. Still, as you say, she was one of a kind and so gorgeous, you couldn't take your eyes off her on screen. Its like Billy Wilder said about Marilyn Monroe when she was always late, keeping crew and cast waiting during the filming of Some Like it Hot. "She's always late," said one cast member. "Yes," said Wilder. "I have an Aunt Minnie who is always on time. Unfortunately, no one wants to see her in a movie."

Don Meuler said...

LOL, in the most literal sense. I need to towel off now.