Wednesday, March 23, 2011

the last movie star

She's with Richard now. Her beloved Richard.

And with Mike and Monty and Roddy and Rock and Jimmy.

Elizabeth Taylor, second only to Mickey Rooney in terms of having the capacity to hang around seemingly forever, has had her final fade-out. The End. But she's left us with a wealth of films and a score of memories of someone who was not just a bona fide Renaissance woman, but a woman for all seasons - a reason to cuddle up with on a long, lazy summer night at an outdoor screening or on a long, chilly wintry night in front of a TV glowing with one of her movies.

She made her film debut at the wee age of 10 - in Harold Young's "There's One Born Every Minute" of 1942 - and for the past 70 or so years, some of us have watched her grow, grow up, carouse, suffer and survive. She seemed to have one hell of a good time, and we all shared in it vicariously, because Elizabeth Taylor was probably the most public - and, reportedly, generous - person we've ever known.

Close to being "family."

Elizabeth Taylor was - is - The Last Movie Star, certainly the last representative of the Golden Age of Movies. In her, we saw a blend of the theatrical and the real (she was never outright artificial), which I think is the essence of stardom. Taylor remained glamorous and larger than life, even at a time when those qualities were either denigrated or turned into something camp. She was the last remaining goddess in a godless age.

Taylor, in addition to her rapturous beauty and spunk, had a penchant for acting out our fantasies, a time-honored tradition in movies.

She had been a powerful presence on screen in something like 50 movies. In life, she was critiqued, analyzed by the press and deified by fans. There have been in-depth magazine articles, a few books and, predictably, an attempt (albeit aborted) to do a televison movie on her life.

The fact is, however - and this is the reason for her enduring box-office appeal - her life's tale has been told already, time and time again, via several thousand miles of celluloid, in everything frrm Fred M. Wilcox's "Lassie Come Home" (1943), her first major role, to Harold Prince's "A Little Night Music" (1978), a movie and role (as Desiree Armfeldt) that probably captured the Taylor temperament and charm better than any others. "Night Music" is her story - only told in song.

Courtesy of Stephen Sondheim.

When she sings Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns" in her tiny, tentative voice, it just sounds right. That little girl's voice somehow redefined the weary maturity of the song, making it more poignant.

Growing up with Elizabeth Taylor, from "Lassie" to "Night Music," we've been able to see her through several incarnations. We've seen that "grown-up" child's face give way to the face of a sensualist (with never an "awkward period" in-between), commanding our attention with haughty violet eyes that were like jewels. (God - those eyes glorious, shining eyes have been dimmed!) Only the snippiness of her little girl's voice remained the same, the one link between little Velvet Brown in "National Velvet" (1944), arguably her greatest movie role, and wanton Gloria Wandrous in "BUtterfield 8" (1960), a role and film that the actress thoroughly detested, despite the Oscar it brought her. And she had the confidence to say so.

It's a toss-up, I guess, as to when Elizabeth Taylor was at her most beautiful, looking every inch Hollywood royalty. I, for one, find it impossible to watch "National Velvet," a rare family film about passion and obsession, without losing myself to that painfully beautiful face, which was already the face of an adult. And she was only 12.

Elizabeth Taylor's career was clearly divided into three parts, starting with her MGM period, during which she was largely wasted. Her resources weren't really tapped until 1951, when MGM loaned her to Paramount for George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun" and her power wasn't evident until 1956 when she was loaned out again to Stevens and Warner Bros. for "Giant."

She remained artistically in control of those resources and power until 1967, the year of Franco Zeffirelli's "The Taming of the Shrew" and John Huston's "Reflections in a Golden Eye." Thereafter, her career went downhill with only a few features, mostly lackluster, and TV appearances.

But there have been roles to savor... Kay Banks, the young bride in Vincente Minnelli's "Father of the Bride" (1950) and Angela Vickers, the debutante she played in "A Place in the Sun" are women of that great combination - good breeding and accessibility. In "Giant," she played the mature, liberated family woman, a role that Taylor socked across by dint of her own feisty personality. She imbues Edna Ferber's heroine, Leslie Lynnton Benedict,
with a soft facade and a core of steel. She voices a need for self-expression, fulfillment and assertion that were rare for a woman in films in the 1950s. She, of course, played Tennessee Williams' Maggie the Cat in Richard Brooks' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958). Maggie the Cat, indeed - as a child, her nickname was Kitten. But she is even better in another film version of a Williams play, Joseph Mankiewicz's "Suddenly, Last Summer" (1960), in which she perfectly limns the psychic trauma of a woman, Catherine Holly, whose haunted memories of rejection have left her mentally maimed, confused and suicidal. Her gestures as Catherine are exact.

Taylor with Len Cariou in "A Little Night Music"

Taylor was joined by her dear "Place in the Sun" co-star, Montgomery Clift, in "Suddenly, Last Summer" and they also starred together in Edward Dmytryk's epic, "Raintree County" (1957). At that point in their respective careers, both had graduated to playing out emotional masochism. And Taylor was joined by yet another illustrious screen masochist, Marlon Brando, in Huston's perversely fascinating "Reflections in a Golden Eye" ('67) in which she played a character with the nifty name, Lenora Penderton.

In perhaps her most controversial movie, Mike Nichols' screen version of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966), Taylor essayed the role of Martha, an emotionally upset dishrag who manges to muster up a little self-esteem by the end of the movie. With this film, she illustrated her prowess. Only great actresses have that special gift of making a character's interior life utterly transparent. With Martha, we see right through Taylor's eyes (not violet but gray in this black-&-white film), read between the lines and see the woman inside the rampaging harpy.

Taylor's powerful performance in "Virginia Woolf," arguably her best performance, ironically brought her to a dead end, career-wise. Her following appearances on screen (big and small) became more infrequent and less challenging. But some were playful.

Among my many secret guilty pleasures, for example, is her game characterization in a lost Peter Ustinov movie, "Hammersmith Is Out" (1972). In this fractured Faustian comedy, Taylor slithers through the role of hash-slinger Jimmie Jean Jackson as if she were slumming and having the time of her life. She was a good sport. And who could help but be amused by the big-league bitchiness she brought to her guest appearances in those "General Hospital" episodes decades ago?

GH should really interrupt its schedule and re-air those episodes.

Taylor as Jimmy Jean Jackson

Taylor was nominated for an Academy Award as best actress for four consecutive years - in 1957 for "Raintree County," in 1958 for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," in 1959 for "Suddenly, Last Summer," and in 1960 for "BUtterfield Eight," which finally won her one. Her second Oscar, of course, came in 1966 for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Unfortunately, however, she worked for an industry much more interested in the marketing of notoriety than of talent, and so a lot of her screen work has been eclipsed by her media adventures, specifically by her eight marriages to seven men - to Nicky Hilton, Michael Wilding, Mike Todd, Eddie Fisher, Richard Burton, Richard Burton (she married him twice), John Warner and Larry Fortensky.

As it turned out, for most of her life, Elizabeth Taylor, the screen actress, has been upstaged by Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky, the ultimate celebrity. This had a tremendous effect on her screen work - both in how she worked and the way she was preceived. She lost credibility rather quickly, undeservedly so, and one can only look at those early performances, at Velvet Brown and Angela Vickers, and wonder how Elizabeth Taylor might have developed as an actress if she hadn't been so celebrated as a Star.

Velvet Brown. Kay Banks. Desiree Armfeldt. Jimmie Jean Jackson. Catherine Holly. Maggie the Cat. Gloria Wandrous. Martha. Elizabeth.

The Last Movie Star.

ELIZABETH CAPTURED! (Taylor on celluloid, including TV, cameo, uncredited and documentary appearances):
There's One Born Every Minute (1942)
Lassie Come Home (1943)
Jane Eyre (1944)
White Cliffs of Dover (1944)
National Velvet (1944)
Courage of Lassie (1946)
Cynthia (1947)
Life with Father (1947)
A Date with Judy (1948)
Julie Misbehaves (1948)
Little Women (1949)
Conspirator (1949)
The Big Hangover (1950)
Father of the Bride (1950)
A Place in the Sun (1951)
Father's Little Dividend (1951)
Quo Vadis (1951)
Love Is Better Than Ever (1952)
Ivanhoe (1952)
The Girl Who Had Everything (1953)
Rhapsody (1954)
Elephant Walk (1954)
Beau Brummel (1954)
The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954)
Giant (1956)
Raintree County (1957)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
BUtterfield 8 (1960)
Scent of Mystery (1960)
Cleopatra (1963)
The V.I.P.s (1963)
The Sandpiper (1965)
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
The Comedians (1967)
Doctor Faustus (1968)
Secret Ceremony (1968)
Boom! (1968)
Anne of the Thousand Days (1969)
The Only Game in Town (1970)
Under Milk Wood (1971)
X, Y and Zee (1972)
Hammersmith Is Out (1972)
Divorce His; Divorce Hers (1972)
Night Watch (1973)
Ash Wednesday (1973)
The Driver's Seat (1973)
That's Entertainment! (1974)
The Blue Bird (1976)
Victory at Entebbe (1976)
A Little Night Music (1978)
Winter Kills (1978)
The Mirror Crack'd (1980)
General Hospital (1981)
Genocide (1981)
Between Friends (1983)
All My Children (1984)
Hotel (1984, TV-series version)
George Stevens: A Filmmaker's Journey (1985)
North & South (1985)
Poker Alice (1986)
There Must Be a Pony (1986)
Malice in Wonderland (1988)
Young Toscanini (1988)
Sweet Bird of Youth (1989)
The Simpsons (1992)
The Flintstones (1994)
God, the Devil and Bob (2001)
These Old Broads (2001)

Note in Passing: Turner Classic Movies has set aside Sunday and Monday, 10-11 April for a memorial tribute to Elizabeth Taylor, screening the following titles (all times Eastern):
6 a.m. – Lassie Come Home (1943)
7:30 a.m. – National Velvet (1944)
10 a.m. – Conspirator (1952)
11:30 a.m. – Father of the Bride (1950)
1:15 a.m. – Father’s Little Dividend (1951)
2:45 p.m. – Raintree County (1957)
6 p.m. – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
8 p.m. – BUtterfield 8 (1960)
10 p.m. – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
12:30 a.m. – Giant (1956)
4 a.m. – Ivanhoe (1952)


John Kaiser said...

She made me afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Jane said...

The Last Movie Star. Yes. I know. She was the most beautiful!

barbara l. said...

Yes, With tears in my eyes, I heard of her passing. This wasn't a surprise because, a few days ago, there was an on-line article about the amount of time she'd been in the hospital of late. I thought: What are the chances of her getting home with a heart problem like that? So I'm glad this news didn't come out of the blue. y sympathy to all because I know we're all feeling bad about her death. Did you know her personally or meet her?

Marvin said...

I know, Joe; I was very sad to learn the news this morning. She had been in the hospital for 6 weeks.

Sherry Gordon said...

What a wonderful tribute to Elizabeth, I am sure everyone will enjoy it as I did. Well Done

Daryl Chin said...

Glad you caught the Edna Ferber mistake; poor Edna Ferber, always getting mistaken for some other writer (the most egregious example: in THE GODDESS, Paddy Chayevsky has his heroine say that she was in a production of STAGE DOOR "by Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman" when, of course, it was STAGE DOOR by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman).

But a lovely tribute. I may be amiss, but my favorite Elizabeth Taylor incarnation was her adolescent phase. It really didn't encompass many movies, but i loved her in CYNTHIA and A DATE WITH JUDY. Of course, i loved her as a child, especially in her small roles in JANE EYRE and THE WHITE CLIFFS OF DOVER. And who doesn't love NATIONAL VELVET?

joe baltake said...

Yes, Daryl, I caught the mistake but not before I had already published the post. Confusing Ferber with Pearl S. Buck is embarrassing. I can blame it either on old age or the fact that work without editors these days. I'm not a fan of editors but on occasions like this, they come in handy. Of course, there's no assurance that an editor would have caught that gaff.

Sides said...

Very nice Joe, thanks for sharing.

John said...

Excellent piece.

s.g. said...

You sure did a fantastico job, she was and will always be an Icon..Such a beautful women did such beautiful things, especially with her compassionate work for her Aids Charities....well done joe

Lynn said...

I loved your essay!!

Ginny said...

Beautifully said Joe

Joyce said...

Nice job, Joe. Elizabeth Taylor was one of my favorite movie stars. Although I did not think of her as a great actress, I saw her in more than 40 movies and, like most other fans, forgave her all of her personal indiscretions. She stole men from their wives and children, but we forgave her. She got fat and we forgave her. She got old, and Hollywood more or less forgot her. But her great beauty never really faded. It was always there blazing in her violet eyes and giggle of a voice. She had a superb sense of humor, was bawdy and quite a dame. Every time she survived a health crisis, I rooted for her. I would argue that Sophia Loren, still with us, is a great movie star as well and, perhaps, the equal of Taylor in the power of her presence. Elizabeth's passing feels personal, as if a close friend died, and I miss her.

Betty said...

Thanks Joe, I liked your essay. Now I have to see all those movies. Will be fun.

Herb said...

Very nice tribute. And informative too. Thanks for sharing.

Chuck said...

Thank you for such a marvelous essay on one of my favorite actresses. Wordsmith that you continue to be, you "hit the nail right on its head" when you write that Elizabeth Taylor's "media adventures eclipsed her screen work." How sad it is in a sense that this excellent actress's personal life overshadowed her great screen career. How sad that this same phenomenon pertains to others, as well.

Allen said...

What a really wonderful, thoughtful, and complete essay! I've now read it twice! Truly amazing.. however, I've a question on the titles at the end..... "Quo Vadis"?? Did she do a cameo or something there? Same question with "Ann of a Thousand Days."

joe baltake said...

Allen: Both appearances were uncredited cameos. In "Quo Vadis," she is listed as a Christian prisoner; in "Anne," as a courtesan.

bob said...

Insightful and well written. It's good to know that, in this age when any idiot can put any drivel on the internet and pose as a commentator-critic, Joe Baltake is still there to show how it should be done. I think less of Elizabeth Taylor than many people, but your piece was a pleasure to read.

Sharon said...

I've always been a fan of your writing, which reflects your thoughtful viewpoint, also appreciated. It's rare to find anyone with such a breadth and depth of knowledge, like yours, whose humility prevents even a hint of superiority. I salute you.

Lou said...

Very much enjoyed your column on Elizabeth Taylor. She is the last “Star.”

Jill said...

great article!

i.s. said...

sterling tribute, joe.

Cheryl said...

Joe, it was a brilliant piece.

Walt said...

nice article on Miz Liz....

Silver said...

I have mourned her death since hearing of her passing on the morning news radio that woke me -- and have glummed around all day, Joe. Silly, of course, because I only knew her as a celebrity, and yet, her life mattered to me, along with, I imagine, hundreds of thousands of others. Elizabeth Taylor was consequential, a Star in every possible sense. She was surely larger than life, or maybe, it's that she lived a life-sized life while the rest of us live small ones...

p.r. said...

Hi, Joe

Wonderful essay on Taylor. Virginia Woolf is still one of my favorite films. What range she brought to that part!

Jimbo said...

I liked your tribute to Elizabeth Taylor but found it a little odd that you managed to cover her entire career without mentioning one of the seminal films of her career, "Cleopatra." Whereas critics like Judith Crist made an entire career based on her pan of the film as drama, "Cleopatra's" historical production importance cannot be overstated. It made Elizabeth Taylor the first million dollar movie star. It nearly bankrupted a major studio and changed the way movies are made today. It also changed the way we deal with celebrity. The term "paparazzi" itself was coined during the movie's production to describe the Italian press's obsession with the Burtons.

Fifty-two years later it remains a problematic film with some very good moments and some very bad ones. Having read the complete six hour screenplay I think it's unfair to besmirch the film based on the fragment that remains. The original six hour screenplay was quite intelligently constructed. It used a contrast of parallels to dramatize the lives of the three main characters, a structural component that was completely edited out of the final studio release. Huge chunks of background information and character development were also removed. No wonder director Mankeiwicz refused to discuss the film for the remainder of his life and tried until the last days of his life to reconstruct his original cut. While this is no lost masterpiece like the ten hour version of "Greed," the screenplay had an intelligence and literacy that would have enhanced the final product enormously. It also had a visual grandeur you don't see anymore. In this day of increasingly bad CGI there is something quite magisterial in the epic scenes that were filmed for the movie. We will never see their likes again.

joe baltake said...

Jimbo! Bravo! Well-put and something that needed to be said. My apologies for overlooking "Cleopatra." (I've no idea where my mind was.) It's a film that I've long admired.