So, Elizabeth Taylor, the most beautiful woman in the world, as she was always known from my childhood and, I guess, hers, is dead, which will cause many to sigh and say, once again, “An era has ended.” An era of real superstardom and glamour which transcended generation and nation, namely the Golden Age of Hollywood. Growing up, I remembered the hoopla surrounding CLEOPATRA: that huge poster of her outside the Kuhio Theater in Waikiki, which just fascinated me because of her eye makeup, which every woman in the world copied for years hence, and my mother mentioning something about how she had stolen Debbie Reynolds’ husband away from her. Could one do such a thing, I remember wondering. The magazine rack at the local candy store was rife with magazines featuring this scandal splashed on the covers and, to me, the child, barely understanding, I guess it was the earliest hint of how thrillingly piquant, how naughty adult life could be.
Always known, rightly I think when all is said and done, more for her beauty than acting, she was, nonetheless, incredibly self-possessed in NATIONAL VELVET, one of the great child performances in all cinema. She was also the best thing about the too pretty-pretty 1949 LITTLE WOMEN, as Amy (strange, how this character, definitely described by author Louisa May Alcott as not being conventionally pretty, is always played onscreen by beauties like Taylor or, in the 1933 version, Joan Bennett). While June Allyson’s huskiness grates, Janet Leigh is typically bland and, as so often, you just want to murder affected little Margaret O’Brien, Taylor is really funny (and exquisite in blonde sausage curls) in the scenes where she unwillingly has to share her Christmas breakfast with paupers but makes sure to greedily have her share anyway.
Taylor’s wicked sense of offscreen humor came through in a televised tribute to her in the 1980s when Allyson, Leigh and O’Brien were assembled to pay fawning homage to her. When she gave her acceptance speech, Taylor’s thinly veiled snideness about those actresses’ smarminess was hilariously bitchy, sarcastically enthusing about how wonderful it was to see “my dear little sisters,” or some such phoniness to match theirs. It was very reminiscent of the diabetically sweet way she played gossip gorgon Louella O. Parsons in the television film, HEDDA AND LOUELLA.
Her other funniest moment for me was when she demonstrated for Barbara Walters, how rumors of her horrid health were greatly exaggerated and she was indeed able to walk across her living room herself. (Atta girl!) After a lifetime of the most extreme privilege and being spoiled in every conceivable way, to see her actually doing this came as something of a shock to many of us who had drunk the celebrity Kool-Aid. You caught yourself thinking, “Now, why should she have to walk across her living room all by herself? Can’t she have someone do it for her?!”
She was never more beautiful than when she played Sir Walter Scott’s Rebecca the Jewess in IVANHOE (1952). It’s also one of her best performances, for to it she brought a real, intense commitment and an uncannily pure goodness, without a drop of phoniness, besides her supernatural loveliness. One pitied Joan Fontaine as Rowena, having to compete with this younger goddess who made the older actress’ English Rose prettiness literally pale and blanch by comparison, just as one identified with George Sanders’ hopeless love for this gorgeous outcast and dismissed as a tad insane Robert Taylor, completely blind as he was in the film to Rebecca’s charms and adoration of him.
Speaking of Taylor and Fontaine reminds me of what Sylvia Sidney once told me about how she lost the plum role of Cathy in WUTHERING HEIGHTS. Free-lance producer Walter Wanger owned the rights to the Bronte book and wanted Sidney to appear in ALGIERS as well, alongside the unearthly Hedy Lamarr. Sidney refused and to spite her, Wanger sold WUTHERING HEIGHTS to Samuel Goldwyn who cast Merle Oberon. More than 40 years later, however, Sidney was still adamant about her choice, saying, “No way was I going to stand next to Hedy Lamarr!”
Taylor did her best acting as a young adult as Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, being perfectly cast in a sympathetically wronged woman role calling for tons of easy, sexy bravado. And in widescreen Technicolor, the swoon-worthy combination of her and Paul Newman in closeup really made you believe that gods walked the earth in 1958.
She was highly lauded for WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, but while impressively audacious and brassy at the outset, Taylor did not possess the right, sufficient emotional well to draw from to sustain the later passages of marital Sturm und Drang and what emerged was a shrill histrionic thinness all too familiar from other Hollywood studio glamour girls (when dramatically pressed, her MGM contract constituents Lana Turner and Ava Gardner, not to mention other femme fatales like Linda Darnell and Rita Hayworth, were also guilty of the same kind of gratingly empty, pout-filled posturings). Her climactic hysterical monologue in SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER is a prime, near-risible example of this synthetic type of star emoting.
No, her best “mature” performance was in Edna O’Brien’s X Y & Zee, in which she was flamboyantly over-the-top but completely in wonderful character and hilariously funny to boot. Taylor’s talent for all-out low comedy was never utilized enough as is so often the case with great screen beauties (Carole Lombard and Michelle Pfeiffer being notable exceptions), but here, she was absolutely riveting, a Bruce Oldfield caftaned, profanely unbridled tornado you could not take your eyes from. This, too, was probably the character closest to her own personality she ever played.
So the crazy marriages and divorces, the weight fluctuations, the chronic illnesses, the substance abuse, the insane shopping sprees, the indifferent vanity project films, the over-hyped stage appearances (like occasional royal appearances), the suffering through horrendous Larry King interviews, the endless, “ageless” portraiture, the acclaimed AIDS work, the God-awful fashion choices, all the fun, in short, all her revels, now are ended, and the world a somehow dimmer one.
Her reputation always preceded her, and now even follows her, as you wonder, in her afterlife, which favored husband she’ll spend more time with, Mike Todd or Richard Burton? Is there a cross over edition of PHOTOPLAY magazine?