Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

When you hear people talk about Elizabeth Taylor, there's one expression that is always brought up: movie star. No one better quantifies the role of American movie star than Taylor. Of course, 'Liz' Taylor was not an official American, herself, being born in Hampstead, London, but it's her breathtaking ability to captivate an entire nation both on and off the screen that has established Taylor as one of the greatest movie stars in American cinematic history. Now, when you see people like Ashton Kutcher and Megan Fox being labeled "movie stars" these days, it's hard to dispute how much the term has been depreciated after decades of watered down talent reaching the silver screen. There are very few true movie stars left, at least not in the vein of old school Hollywood, where slapping a name like John Wayne or Carol Lombard was just enough to send the audience screaming for tickets. Taylor was one of the last great ones, bridging the gap between the classical star and the modern day, publicity fueled celebrity. But all the while, she still managed to be one of the most devout, hard-working screen actresses for over six decades, producing several mesmerizing performances, while also taking hand in some of the most publicized Hollywood scandals of her time.

Like many larger-than-life stars of the past, the more eccentric elements of her life were what captured the minds of most people my age when they heard the name Elizabeth Taylor. They knew a lot of her eight marriages (including twice to Richard Burton), her several near-death experiences, and her reputation for being a difficult personality with the higher-ups at the movie studios. Her tumultuous relationship with English actor Richard Burton spanned for over fifteen years, and their level of public overexposure over the course of that time would put "Brangelina" to shame. Their affair propelled the careers of many a gossip columnist and spurned several films in which they starred together (most of them forgettable, but one of them an all-time classic - but we'll get to that soon enough). Then, of course, there is the tale of Cleopatra - the film in which she became the first screen star to gain a $1 million salary - a project that Taylor spear-headed where the budget became overblown and became one of the biggest studio flops of the Twentieth Century. Sure enough, the film is more remembered for establishing the beginning of the 'Liz & Dick era' (she met Burton on the set - he playing Marc Antony). Now, entire books have been written about Taylor's off screen fiascos, as well as her relationships with tormented stars Montgomery Clift and Michael Jackson, but I'd like to take several moments to discuss where she produced her greatest work, in movies.

Taylor alongside Monty Clift in A Place In the Sun. Their first of many together.

Taylor began her career as a child actor, starring in such films as National Velvet and the 1949 version of Little Women. Her star rose as she starred along Spencer Tracy in the classic comedy Father of the Bride and it's sequel one year later, Father's Little Dividend. Very early, Taylor showed a charm and a natural quality in front of the camera, performing effortlessly across from seasoned movie actors and standing strong. But it wasn't until George Stevens' 1951 film A Place In The Sun (which was released when Taylor was all but nineteen years old), that Taylor established herself as true, dominant film persona. Playing opposite Montgomery Clift (who she'd become great friends with), Taylor steps throughout the film, radiating sensuality and heart, captivating audiences with her great beauty, but also showing herself to be a matter-of-factual adult performer, an owner of the thoughts and minds of American viewers.

Throughout the 50's, she starred in many films including another George Stevens epic, Giant, alongside fellow movie legends Rock Hudson and James Dean in 1956. A year later, she was nominated for her first Academy Award for Raintree County, a Civil War drama where she played a Southern woman who captures the heart of a poet and teacher (played by Clift). In 1958, she starred alongside an up-and-coming Paul Newman in the film version of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She received her second Oscar nomination for playing the sensual, but frustrated wife of an injured football All-American. It was a strict cementation of Taylor as the most glowing beauty in the movies, but was also a wonderfully controlled performance (in fact, Taylor and Newman's honest work in this film almost make up for the nearly unforgivable white-washing of Williams' controversial play). The very next year, she starred in another Tennessee Williams adaptation, Suddenly, Last Summer. She received her third (consecutive) Oscar nomination for playing the tormented young woman at the heart of this daunting tale, playing opposite of Katherine Hepburn and (once again) Montgomery Clift.

Taylor's sensuality was on full display throughout Suddenly, Last Summer.

One year later, Taylor finally won her first Oscar for playing the model/call-girl/man trap at the heart of Daniel Mann's Butterfield 8. What came after, was the infamous fiasco of Cleopatra. The film's disappointing performance at the box office did little to sully her stardom, particularly since it was the beginning of the public obsession of 'Liz & Dick'. They starred in The V.I.P.s and then The Sandpipers before joining together to star in the film version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. The powerful couple fought hard to get the meaty roles of George and Martha, and then later were able to convince skeptical studio head Jack Warner to hire theater-savvy Mike Nichols to direct (despite him never directing a film before). Combining the famed stories surrounding Virginia Woolf's Broadway run with Taylor and Burton's overt fame, the film's production began a buzz. And when the film challenged the Production Code with its brash language, Taylor and Burton pushed Warner to push it forward, and even threaten to release it without the seal. They won that battle, winning a seal, while leaving the destruction of the Production Code in its wake.

Liz & Dick in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The performances within Nichols' vision of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are something to wonder at. Keeping almost all of Albee's script intact, Taylor and Burton flourished while using their palpitating chemistry to construct a heartbreaking portrait of a fraying, middle-aged marriage. Playing a woman twenty years older than she was at the time, Taylor gained thirty pounds and wore a flustered, gray wig. But it was her performance, filled with crushed dreams and scowling anger, that disposed of any doubt that Taylor really became Martha. It's a virtuoso work, completely disposing of Taylor's previous image of only playing glorious beauties, capturing Martha without judgment, but still keeping the abrasive acidity at the forefront. Taylor won her much-deserved second Oscar for her performance, and it has gone on to be considered, generally, the star's greatest work (and on several occasions she has said that it was her favorite film that she'd worked on).

After that, Taylor's personal life outweighed almost all she did in films. Not that she didn't work. In 1980, she starred in the Agatha Christie adaptation, The Mirror Crack'd alongside Maggie Smith, and she even had a short stint on the television soap opera, All My Children. But between her second Oscar and today, people usually discussed her in respect to her relationships. She divorced Burton, than remarried him a year later, only to get another divorce months after that. She was married (and divorced) twice more after that, but has often stated that Burton was the true love of her life. The final years of Liz Taylor were marked by illness, staying out of the limelight due to serious heart conditions. On this morning, she finally passed away from heart failure. So, today, we toast to a beautiful woman and a tremendously talented actress. More than anything, though, we close the door on one of the most captivating lives in American history. We say goodbye to a true movie star.

This is one of my favorite clips of Taylor in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. I apologize for the subtitles. Other than that, the video quality's quite good. Here it is:

No comments: