23 March 2011

Elizabeth Taylor

My father used to complain bitterly that, when he was growing up, the actress Elizabeth Taylor was routinely identified in the press as being older than he — until by some mysterious means, she became two years younger than he. True to form, Taylor died at age 79 today — on my dad’s 81st birthday.

With Taylor passes a kind of Hollywood stardom; it’s hard to imagine another actor’s ever attaining comparable stature. Our notions of glamour are so changed, studio controls more limited, and stars’ relationship with the (vastly expanded, less disciplined) entertainment press so much more contentious. Does any movie star today know how to work the press as expertly as Taylor? Has any star been schooled, as Taylor was, since childhood?

Taylor got bad press in her time, of course, but she knew how to keep herself in the public eye for seven decades, and she did so by choice, with specific goals in mind. Celebrity drew audiences to her movies, which in turn gave her the bankability to make more movies; later, she used celebrity to promote the organizations she supported and the causes in which she believed.

Her ability as an actress was almost beside the point, and I, for one, wasn’t particularly an admirer. Her line readings were most often unnatural, and her voice grates on my nerves. She did come up with a handful of good performances, though not always when you expect her to do so, and the directors who used her most wisely (and least riskily) were those who presented her simply for what she was, an object of beauty.

With Clift in A Place in the Sun

In George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun, she functions primarily as a symbol of the elusive American dream. Of course Montgomery Clift yearns to possess her! And yet what throws the movie’s dynamic into another sphere isn’t what she says or does but that she looks so much like him. When he looks into her eyes, he sees himself, another, better self, with all the rough edges polished away: richer, more graceful, pampered, and more feminine. None of this has anything to do with Taylor’s acting talent.

Clift was one of her favorite co-stars, and while most of the tributes written to her in the coming days will focus inevitably on Taylor’s love life, I find her relationships with gay men to be in some ways more indicative of the woman’s true character (in so far as I can divine it). She forged lasting bonds with gay men early on, beginning with Roddy McDowall, and she seems to have learned plenty from them. Not least, this: that if people were going to be judged on the basis of their love lives, she’d be in trouble, too.

With Hepburn and Clift in Suddenly, Last Summer

She showed her loyalty to Clift by putting up her own salary as a guarantee when no studio would touch him; she showed her concern for another co-star, Rock Hudson, by becoming an AIDS activist in the mid-1980s.

At the time, this was hardly a chic or easy choice. Hollywood was so ignorant, and America so terrified, that another of Hudson’s co-stars worried publicly about a kissing scene. Our Hollywood President wouldn’t even mention the disease. But Taylor didn’t back away, and she wound up forging the path that other stars have followed since.

Caring for the sick and wounded:
As Rebecca in Ivanhoe

Through her time, effort, and example, Taylor didn’t merely raise public awareness of an epidemic — though that would have been enough to earn her my grateful respect. She raised money, lots of it, accepting contributions the way she used to accept gifts on the movie set (daily — or else!), and she co-founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research, amfAR. Hollywood never offered her a role more heroic or dramatically effective.

And yet, as we review her well-publicized life, it becomes clear: one couldn’t have had the do-gooder without also having the glamorous star, the serial wife, the perpetual tabloid headline. I’m sorry to see her go.

With Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


TGaskins said...

Well said..."I'm sorry to see her go" too.

Gail Cooke said...

As always, extremely well put, and what we'll probably not find in an obit.

John Yohalem said...

Her celebrity was so great (in comparison to her achievement) that it was ridiculous and unbalanced ... and when she had a chance to wield that imbalance for a noble cause, she never hesitated. Plenty of stars would have written a check or showed up at a benefit; she knew she could make a major difference, and she threw herself into it. She never turned her back on a friend in need.

Not my favorite actress by a long chalk (Cleopatra is dreadful, Boom! hilarious for all the wrong reasons, etc.), and she never knew the value of money having never known a time when people didn't throw it at her ... but when the time came to stand up and be human, she didn't hesitate. (That will be remembered. Gay men remember ALL the old movie queens!)

latebloomingmom said...

Beautifully written. I'm about to add NATIONAL VELVET to my Netflix cue for the kids -- and WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? for us.

Anne said...

With Taylor passes a kind of Hollywood stardom


I admired the woman and the actress. I can't say I've ever seen her give a bad performance...as an actor she had a still point that a faltering technique does not impinge upon. I was just watching " Cat on a hot tin roof" for the frist time in years. She's terrific. She showed me alot this time....and I was taught to look down on her work there because of the accent...

In " Cleopatra" , she and Rex Harrison are the only watchable things in it.

Thank you for highlighting and recalling how it was when she stood up for aids victims and would not back down and changed the world. Do people remember health professionals would not treat aids victims when Liz Taylor stood up for them? This was a great woman