Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011

After Elizabeth Taylor died on Wednesday, I came to regret The Flinstones even more than I already did. That movie, of all movies,  represented the only chance I ever got to see Liz on the big screen in a movie in first release.  That's only too telling about the state of movies today.

I'm not going to get all sentimental and claim that her cameo was a bright, shining light that made the movie good for about five minutes. Not even Taylor could pull that off. Still, Liz Taylor was Liz Taylor, and I was grateful for any reason to experience her star power, however displaced it might have been.

That film only made me wish all the more I could have experienced her charisma at full force in a movie theater. Even on the diminished contours of the TV screen, she was absolutely entrancing. One of my favorite glamor shots of all time was the moment in Father of the Bride where she is revealed in her wedding dress via multiple mirrors. This shot made me forget to breathe for a few dazzling seconds.

It wasn't just that her beauty was otherworldly, it was that she actually seemed open, engaging, approachable. She wasn't an ice queen, she was passionate, and that passion was magnetic.

Sometimes that passion was taken for granted. While scrolling through the abundance of tributes for Elizabeth Taylor Monday, I came across this interesting quote from UK film critic Barry Norman, who said:

"She was actually not at all a bad actress. In films like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? she was extremely good."

Perhaps Mr. Norman meant well, but that struck me as condescending. Too often, when someone is a beauty, we as a society tend to act surprised when they actually have talent. And that's galling when it should have been obvious with Liz.

Her most notorious role was no doubt Cleopatra - but she and Richard Burton made two much better films - Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? (for which Liz won an Oscar) and Franco Zefereilli's The Taming of the Shrew, in which both of them aced Shakespeare. No small thing, that.

In my book, her best performance may be in Suddenly Last Summer. Yes, it's an overheated drama - it's Tennessee Williams, after all - but Liz more than held her own with no less than the great Kate Hepburn. Author A. Scott Berg quoted Hepburn herself as saying that Taylor "preferred being a movie star to being an actress. But don't be fooled, because I think she is a brilliant actress, truly brilliant. Especially with the Williams stuff."

But Kate boiled down Liz's essential dilemma when she said that Liz preferred stardom to actual acting. Stardom seemed to fuel her. But by the same token, she was a magnet for trouble and tragedy, not always of her own making. As at least one tribute  pointed out, "She was a star at age 12, married at 18 and a divorcee the same year. She became a bombshell goddess at 19 and a widow at 26."  For even other famous people, that range of experience takes an entire lifetime.

Even her scandals affect me personally now. I've been going through some struggles in recent weeks. I won't bore you with the details, but it's been tough - sometimes tougher than I think I can handle.

And yet, Taylor survived one of her most brutal scandals. When she took up with Eddie Fisher, who left Debbie Reynolds for Taylor, Reynolds and Taylor were not exactly on the best of terms for quite some time. And yet on Wednesday, there was Fisher and Reynolds' daughter Carrie saying, "If my father had to divorce my mother for anyone, I’m so grateful that it was Elizabeth. This was a remarkable woman who led her life to the fullest rather than complacently following one around." Reynolds herself paid lovely tribute to Taylor.

If that sort of thing can be forgiven, that gives me hope for my relatively meager troubles.

Still, no one summed up Taylor's legacy better than her son, Michael Wilding, who said "Her remarkable body of work in film, her ongoing success as a businesswoman, and her brave and relentless advocacy in the fight against HIV/AIDS, all make us all incredibly proud of what she accomplished.

"We know, quite simply, that the world is a better place for Mom having lived in it. Her legacy will never fade, her spirit will always be with us, and her love will live forever in our hearts."


PS - Costar Paul Newman paid her fine tribute some years ago on TCM. Watch and listen.


Martha Hardcastle said...

Eric, I tried to read it all the way thought before I commented but I was so excited, I couldn't. You interpreted this in such a way that I just couldn't believe how perfectly you described her and her word. And when I got to the part about "Suddenly Last Summer," well young man, you have bested all of your predecessors. You are better than Tony Macklin and Terry Lawson, too.

Sir Critic said...

You flatter me, Martha. Thank you, I very much appreciate that.