Viz Liz

I have a consciously erratic approach to obituary notices at Shadowplay, posting on rare occasions when I feel I have something unique to say, or when I simply feel moved to say something less than unique. I didn’t feel I had anything significant to contribute to the Liz Taylor encomia, which doesn’t mean I wasn’t very sorry to see the Great Lady go. But regular Shadowplayer David Wingrove, who writes as David Melville, did, so here it is ~

There Is A Light That Never Goes Out – Elizabeth RIP

As all the world knows by now, Elizabeth Taylor – or, to give her full title, Dame Elizabeth Rosamund Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky – died in Los Angeles on Wednesday, 23 March. It had been almost 25 years since she starred in a major motion picture. No film of hers had enjoyed even a moderate critical or box-office success for two decades before that. Yet at the time of her death, La Liz was still arguably the biggest movie star in the world.

That may sound like a paradox, but only till you check out the competition. What woman on today’s radar has even a fraction of her power as a glamour icon, as a sex symbol, as a dramatic actress? Cher? A housewife! Madonna? A schoolgirl! Meryl Streep? A lightweight! On the younger Hollywood A-list, Angelina Jolie has maybe an inkling. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy and the late Diana, Princess of Wales, are icons in the parallel worlds of fashion and politics – but, crucially, never in film. In Asia, where stars are still indisputably stars, actresses like Gong Li and Maggie Cheung electrify the screen with the flicker of an eyelash. But for all their splendour, they inhabit a world that is not wholly our own.

Elizabeth Taylor was more than a film star. At once coarse and regal, earthy and ethereal, human and divine, she was the Great Democratic Goddess of the Modern Age. A sublimely mythical being that only Hollywood could produce. Born in London to American parents in 1932 – and proudly holding British nationality until her death – she landed up in Hollywood as a ten-year-old refugee from World War II. It was MGM that discovered her. An eerily beautiful raven-haired child, with the face of a grown woman.

Not just the face, but also the full-on sensual allure. Her first star vehicle, National Velvet (1945) is profoundly disturbing for viewers today. A ‘heart-warming’ tale of a girl and her horse, it is transformed – through Taylor’s unwittingly erotic presence – into a study of sexual awakening. No contemporary film would dare to show a 12-year-old girl in bed, fantasising about ‘riding’ her horse and ecstatically crying out his name. We are no longer innocent (or corrupt) enough for that.

In the ingenue years that followed, Taylor blossomed in a string of largely mediocre films – an extraordinary beauty but a far-too-ordinary actress. (She also clocked up her first two marriages, to hotel chain heir Nicky Hilton and actor Michael Wilding.) A Place in the Sun (1951) cast her as a spoiled rich girl, stealing Montgomery Clift away from his working-class sweetheart. Our outrage is tempered by the fact that she and Clift are easily the two most gorgeous beings on Planet Earth. The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) gave her an eerily prophetic role as a fictionalised Zelda Fitzgerald. A warm, intelligent and compassionate woman, driven to breakdown by her hard-drinking party lifestyle.

Her great years began with Giant (1956), in which Taylor (who was still only 23 years old) aged from a blushing bride to a venerable, silver-haired matriarch in a Texas oil dynasty. She it was – far more than her co-stars, Rock Hudson and James Dean – who held this vast and contradictory epic together. (It is, like The Godfather (1972), both a critique and a celebration of the American Dream.) Next came her most exquisite performance, as a doomed and decadent Southern belle in the underrated Civil War epic Raintree County (1957).

Nominated for an Oscar (and, scandalously, losing out to Joanne Woodward), Liz must have felt that Tennessee Williams was the next logical step. She was blazingly erotic, and coolly ruthless, as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). As a mental patient in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), she guided a shocked (or bewildered) audience through a climax that still ranks among the most terrifying in film history – the ritualised, cannibalistic murder of her homosexual cousin at a Spanish resort. She also pulled off the awesome feat of acting co-star Katharine Hepburn off the screen.

Meanwhile, she had married producer and wheeler-dealer Mike Todd, only to be left a widow when he crashed in his private plane. (Its name was, ironically, the Lucky Liz.) She then took up with singer Eddie Fisher, the husband of all-American sweetheart Debbie Reynolds. MGM’s ungallant response was to cast her as an out-and-out slut in Butterfield 8 (1960). Her role as a high-class call girl was one that Taylor hated, in a film she claimed never to have seen. But it finally won her that Oscar – not least because, on Oscar night, she was languishing in hospital with near-fatal pneumonia.

Her transformation from Actress to Myth came in a single movie, Cleopatra (1963). Gaudy, ponderous, overwritten and at least an hour too long, this saga of the doomed Queen of Egypt is still fabulous entertainment. Gowned in her robes of solid gold (courtesy of Irene Sharaff) Liz sits enthroned atop a pyramid as it trundles through the streets of Ancient Rome. When the parade stops, she rises and descends slowly from on high. Majestic in her bearing, resplendent in her jewels, she is the very essence of Hollywood royalty. Suddenly, she pauses in radiant close-up – and winks slyly, mischievously, at us, the audience.

For one magical moment, Hollywood’s greatest diva might be a small-town girl sitting rapt in front row centre, munching on her popcorn and enjoying the show. And enjoy it Taylor most certainly did. Falling in love with her co-star Richard Burton, she married (and divorced) him twice. Their off-screen antics – boozing and brawling, champagne by the gallon and diamonds by the gross – were reflected in the more successful films they made together. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) won Liz a second Oscar; The Taming of the Shrew (1967) was probably her last major hit.

Alas, so loud and garish did their jet-setting freak-show become, it soon began to upstage the films themselves. Seated on the Burton-Taylor yacht Kalizma, left-wing director Joseph Losey gaped in horror as Liz fed caviar to her poodles off plates of solid gold. As Liz remarked to one journalist: “I know I’m vulgar. But come on, be honest. Wouldn’t you be disappointed if I wasn’t?”

Still, it is a mistake to dismiss her later years as a sell-out to gross commercialism and artistic decline. Films like Reflections in Golden Eye (1967) and Boom! (1968) and Secret Ceremony (1968) and X, Y and Zee (1971) and The Driver’s Seat (1973) were all flawed but vastly ambitious projects, exploring sexual and psychological taboos with a boldness markedly ahead of their time. In each of these films, Taylor’s on-screen command is total, while her commitment off-screen was instrumental in getting them made.

It was weight, booze, pills and all-round ill-health that finally got the better of Liz. Not to mention two more disastrous marriages – to Republican senator John Warner, whose politics clashed wildly with her own liberal views, and to construction worker Larry Fortensky, whom she met in rehab at the Betty Ford Clinic. Yet she still looked stunning in the little-seen Young Toscanini (1988) as a Russian opera diva fighting to free the slaves of Brazil. Eager to work, she was written off as ‘uninsurable’ by an industry she had once made so rich.

Not that Liz ever had time for regrets. Much of her last 25 years was devoted to AIDS, the epidemic that claimed the life of her friend Rock Hudson. Speaking out about AIDS at a time when no other public figure was willing to do so, she helped to change it from a quasi-medieval plague to a modern-day illness demanding research and treatment, compassion and care. It is possible that thousands, perhaps millions, around the world owe their lives to her courage. She herself lived long enough to champion gay marriage, oppose the Iraq War and stay fiercely loyal to her friend Michael Jackson. Unlike so many in the movies, Elizabeth Taylor seemed to know instinctively that life was the greatest show of all.

David Melville

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22 Responses to “Viz Liz”

  1. Really nice tribute.

    As far as I know you’re the only person to defend Raintree County. MGM wanted another GWTW, and no expense was spared. But two major Holywood calamities took place during the shooting. 1) Montgomery Clift’s automobile accident –which nearly killed him, ruined his looks, and ruined his life as an “addiction to painkillers” (as it’s ever-so-politely referred to today) led to his early end. 2) The suicide of James Whale — Raintree County producer David Lewis’ beloved ex-boyfriend. The failure of Raintree County brought Lewis’ long and rahter distinguished career to a screeching halt, and he died in obscuity.

    Franco Zefferelli’s Young Toscanini –with C. Thomas Howell in the title role — was never released stateside. Howell’s career went into a tailspin shortly afterwards. Recently he’s resurfaced on the excellent cable cop show Southland.

  2. Love love love the Smiths reference!

  3. I just saw Raintree County myself and found it… interesting. Beautifully shot and played… Clift’s facial alterations are the elephant in the room, impossible to ignore. Almost no story for long stretches, and the ending I actually found offensive. I think it merits a full review, though: it’s strengths and weaknesses are fighting it out long before a shot is fired in anger in the Civil War section.

  4. Judy Dean Says:

    An excellent piece on a magnificent woman.

    Those of us d’un certain age will clearly recall the effect Cleopatra had on the fashions and make-up of the time. Every girl I knew turned overnight into a wannabe Queen of the Nile and extended black eyeliner that reached almost to the tops of your ears was de rigueur.

    Despite Losey’s left wing instincts there’s no doubt he was seduced by the Burtons’ lifestyle. I’m fond of Dirk Bogarde’s response on being shown the Cartier watch they had given Losey after Boom! “I said that I liked him better in the days when he wore a tin one.”

  5. Losey was probably as prone to any of us to being dazzled by glamour and seduced by excess… most of us like a little champagne if we’re honest…

    Taylor’s career could be seen as marking not only the decline of the studios, but of the star system — despite being as famous as Cleopatra, she seems to have almost consistently starred in movies that underperformed at the box office: however sensational she was on the screen, it seems the public were often more keen to read about her real-life exploits in the press than to go see her movies.

  6. Christopher Says:

    hard to believe Dick and Liz were once treated in the Tabloids like Lindsey Lohan,Charlie Sheen,Brittany Spears and the like…but they were.
    Together again…:o)

  7. She’s reunited with a number of her ex-husbands now. Max Ophuls made Lola Montes about the cult of celebrity and the only thing that’s changed is the world’s lost even more perspective…

  8. I want to agree on that being a really great tribute – it has certainly made me want to re-evaluate a career that I had otherwise not really considered.

    David E. – C. Thomas Howell has also been active in a number of films for notorious low budget film producers Asylum, who take current Hollywood blockbuster trends and do riffs on them with cheap special effects – Howell was the star of the two War of the Worlds films Asylum did in the wake of the Speilberg one, also starred in “The Da Vinci Treasure” and eventually even directed “The Day That Time Stopped”, in which he starred with fellow 80s film veteran Judd Nelson!

  9. I like Howell fine in Return of the Musketeers, where he plays Oliver Reed’s ward. The son of a stuntman, he apparently took to the horse-riding and fencing naturally.

  10. But great things were expected of Howell, colinr. He starred in Coppola’s The Outsiders. But he never “took” with the public as many thought he would.

  11. david wingrove Says:

    For me, RAINTREE COUNTY is Edward Dmytryk’s masterpiece…along with A WALK ON THE WILD SIDE. To enjoy either film, you need to respond to their lavishly overblown aesthetic, which I do.

    YOUNG TOSCANINI is actually one of Zeffirelli’s more interesting films, and ont that’s been unjustly neglected. It certainly look sumptuous, if nothing else – and is perhaps Franco’s most ambitious attempt to mimic his old lover and mentor, Luchino Visconti.

  12. That’s a shame about Howell – he seems to be well remembered for his role in The Hitcher though, with some crackling erotic tension between himself and Rutger Hauer (although I don’t really know what it is saying about sexual politics – is it simple gay panic or a Haute Tension-inspiring existential struggle with repressed sexuality?):

  13. …all, no doubt, destroyed in the remake.

    The Hitcher is probably the best movie George W Bush was ever involved in.

    I like the look of Raintree County — all the artistic decisions apart from the story and the damn song are good. Hell, I’ll write a post on it and we’ll see what we can figure out.

  14. RichBassett Says:

    Very good generic descritption of Taylor’s work. But had she not renewed her image in 1985, than these later films wought soon have been forgotten. Her flop after flop would prevent her from recieving further star status and her life would have been one that was only recalled in the past. But she did become relevant in the 1980′s, with more film roles, Broadway, the AIDS advocate and the perfume/jewel mogal…keeping her namr constantly in the headlines. It was then that her lousey films (1967-1976) became much more prolific. Two small errors, thought. “Raintree County” was not surrounded by scandal. Elizabeth was widowed on Academy Awrd night. In reality,Woodward won long before the Mikes’s plane crash and (of course), Elizabeth did not go to the ceremonires. Her next film “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” was engulfed in affairs and scandal (Eddie/Liz/Debbie) was still very much alive. And her 1960 Oscar win produced an appearence of her and Eddie in April 1961. In March 1961, she was near death…but by Oscar time, she was out and about in Hollywood.

  15. The article doesn’t claim that Raintree County was surrounded by scandal — it says that it was a scandal that Liz didn’t win the Oscar for it. Though it would be crass to label it a “scandal”, Monty’s car smash certainly tainted the film, as the effect of his injuries is all too visible in it.

    I don’t by any means think all those later films are lousy — I even like The Comedians. But they are certainly redolent of the Hollywood malaise pre-Easy Rider.

  16. RichBassett Says:

    I understand about “Raintree” now. You were saying that it was a travesty that Elizabeth didn’t win…though her life was surrounded by scandal the following year. As to the 1967-1976 films, they were all box office flops and had Elizabeth retired from public life in 1984, before her great transition, then those films would not have gained the popularity that they did when she was, indeed, relevant again. They all made more money, albeit on the Internet. I knew here in 1984. After Betty Ford and before being an AIDS advocate. She was prepared to fade into the sunset and…with her…those unpopular films. A true fan, of course, would never forget her body of work. All of it. But they would never have been promoted the way that they were if not for her ionic years. Post 1985.

  17. Oh, I agree that many of those films wouldn’t have been revived so much without her new-found fame. Even during the doldrum years of the big studios, there were better movies that we could focus on.

    But I don’t view popularity as an important factor in considering the merits of anything. Boom! is a ridiculous mess of a film, but it’s also fascinating and beautiful and not like anything else. Certainly not like anything successful. If one feels in the mood for what John Waters lovingly calls a “failed art film”, you can’t get better than Boom!

  18. david wingrove Says:

    Even a Liz Taylor flop from 1968 is probably better than most of the ‘big hit’ movies around today.

    Unlike many of the celebrities who have followed in her wake, Elizabeth Taylor never once (to my knowledge) used her charitable work and AIDS activism to promote her film career – whether past or present. If anything, her publicity team probably advised her AGAINST getting involved with a ‘gay plague’ as AIDS were perceived to be at the time.

    By that time, she was a retired movie star who had nothing to lose. Not that it would have stopped her, even if she had. In sharp contrast to today’s breed of Pat Kingsley-managed celebs, Liz Taylor was defiantly her own woman!

  19. Mike Nichols: “There are three things I never saw Elizabeth Taylor do. Tell a lie; be unkind to anyone; and be on time.”

  20. david wingrove Says:

    Truly an inspiration to us all!

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