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Elizabeth Taylor: More Than Divorces and Diamonds

Elizabeth Taylor eyesElizabeth Taylor

I wonder if Elizabeth Taylor would have become a legend, still remembered more than 40 years after the release of her last major box office hit, had it not been for her multiple marriages and divorces, the Eddie Fisher-Debbie Reynolds scandal, the Eddie Fisher-Richard Burton scandal, the many brushes with death, the runaway costs of Cleopatra (adjusting for inflation, quite possibly the most expensive movie ever made), her friendship with Michael Jackson, and her diamonds bigger than icebergs. After all, in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s there were better Hollywood actresses who most people today have never heard of and/or couldn't care less about them.

Personally, I think it's too bad that Elizabeth Taylor, who at age 79 died of complications from congestive heart failure early today in Los Angeles, is chiefly remembered for her participation in romantic triangles, her marriages and divorces, her weight problems, her tracheotomy, her jewels, and Michael Jackson. Even though most of Taylor's films were quite poor – those range from The Big Hangover, Father's Little Dividend and Elephant Walk to The Comedians, The Only Game in Town, and The Blue Bird – Taylor herself could be a remarkably effective screen presence.

In George Stevens' A Place in the Sun (1951), for instance, Elizabeth Taylor could have been merely decorative, much as she had been the previous year in Vincente Minnelli's insufferably cutesy family comedy The Father of the Bride. But as Montgomery Clift's love interest in Stevens' heavy-duty social drama, Taylor rose above the limitations of the role to imbue her American princess with such tenderness, vulnerability, and emotional intensity that one could not only understand why Clift's ambitious outsider might want to kill his wife (Shelley Winters), but also fully sympathize with him.

Elizabeth Taylor was hardly one of the better child/teen actresses of the '40s, and in all honesty I'm not fond of much of her other '50s work – e.g., Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer – which I usually find much too strident. Having said that, I thought she was surprisingly believable in another George Stevens social drama of that time, Giant (1956), in which she plays the East Coast wife of Texan rancher Rock Hudson. Taylor doesn't quite steal the show in that sprawling family saga because Hudson is at his very best, but she does get close.

Elizabeth Taylor Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

From the mid-1960s onwards, Taylor's performances improved dramatically – both literally and figuratively. She won a deserved second Best Actress Academy Award for Mike Nichols' film version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (right; though I wish there had been two other versions that year: one with Albee's choice, Bette Davis; the other with my choice, Deborah Kerr); she was appropriately over-the-top as the wife of gay, impotent military officer Marlon Brando in John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), an overbaked film based on a novel by Carson McCullers; and she was in top form as a member of a complex triangle that included husband Michael Caine and lover Susannah York in Joseph Losey's bizarre X Y and Zee (1971).

Among her off-screen deeds, Elizabeth Taylor is well known for her work in the fight against HIV/AIDS. In fact, she is one of only five female recipients of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

They should also have a statue in her honor on Avenue of the Stars or Century Park East; after all, Los Angeles' Century City district is a direct result of 20th Century Fox's Cleopatra debacle, in which Elizabeth Taylor, by then a superstar, played a crucial role.


         
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2 Comments to Elizabeth Taylor: More Than Divorces and Diamonds

  1. Bill B.

    For better or worse, I loved Elizabeth Taylor. She was “the” movie star of my lifetime for both her career and they way she lived her fabulously over the top life, which she clearly enjoyed to the fullest. As an actress, she had limitations and like nearly every performer, she had her bad and good films and I have to agree, that most were on the mediocre side, but even in some of them, she was still fascinating to watch. Nothing she ever did came close to Virginia Woolf, but I doubt I have ever seen a more luminous performance that hers in A Place in the Sun. She was also very good in Giant, a grand, though way too long, epic of the kind they do not make anymore. However, I also found her very entertaining in X, Y & Zee (which has one of the most incomprehensible titles ever), Cat On a Hot Tin Roof (though the movie makes no sense the way the story has been edited), her fun turn at Shakespeare in The Taming of the Shrew, her young and fun and inconsequential role in Father of the Bride, the absurd Hammersmith is Out in which she is very brassy funny and while her Oscar for Butterfield 8 has always been highly and rightfully criticized, her actual performance is a decent one. She tries hard, to little avail, to make something out of her roles in Reflections in A Golden Eye, her overwrought performance in Suddenly Last Summer (though Lord knows, she looked fantastic in it) and even the absurd Boom, which is really bad, but she fascinated me roaming around that island looking absolutely gorgeous. It is pretty hard to defend most of the rest though. Minor earlier films and overblown epics (Ivanhoe, Beau Brummell and the infamous Cleopatra) are just not defensible for the most part. Neither is The Only Game in Town, though she has her moments, but she is terribly miscast as she is simply too old and too overweight for the role. Doesn't help that Frank Sinatra was replaced by Warren Beatty. At least they would have been more age appropriate and it would have been interesting to see these two giants on the screen together. In any event, it was a grand and glorious ride for so many reasons and it does not seem possible that there is a world without her.

  2. RONALD HOLLON, SR

    I AM UPSET THAT A SO CALLED CHURCH WILL PICKET HER FUNERAL. THE HEAVENLY FATHER IS THE ONLY SUPERIOR BEING THAT CAN JUDGE ANYONE. WE ALL HAVE SINNED. NO ONE BUT GOD ALMIGHTY KNOWS HER HEART MIND AND SOUL. WATCHING FROM A DISTANCE SHE WAS A LOVING COMPASIONATE WOMAN WHO CARED ABOUT HUMAN BEINGS WITH OUT JUDGEING. SHE WAS A ROCK FOR THE WHOLE WORLD WITH HER STANCE ON HIV AND AIDES RESEARCH. I WOULD BE PROUD TO CALL HERE MY FRIEND, MY MOM OR MY SISTER. PLEASE LET HER REST IN PEACE.