Elizabeth Taylor: The Girl Who Had Everything
March 24, 2011 § 1 Comment
Did you guys hear that Elizabeth Taylor died?
I read a lot of film blogs, and every time somebody dies, the vast majority of these blogs post some kind memorial tribute. Ostensibly most of these film bloggers read other film blogs too, so it shouldn’t escape their notice that somehow their memorial sounds exactly like everybody else’s memorial. “Elizabeth Taylor’s acting career began when she was only a child, when she appeared in National Velvet. Over the years, we saw her grow into a beautiful young lady in Father of the Bride, and then watched her evolve into a legitimate movie star in films like Giant, Cleopatra, and BUtterfield 8.” Throw in a few references to “eight marriages” and “violet eyes” and bam–there’s your five-minute tribute post. Memorials for lazy bloggers.
What’s the point? It would be one thing if it were somebody like, say, Ernest Borgnine or Deanna Durbin, on whose acting careers casual movie fans might need a refresher. But this is Elizabeth Taylor! This is one of the top five iconic Hollywood actresses of all time! People who need to be reminded that Elizabeth Taylor starred in the most over the top production of Cleopatra the world has ever seen are not reading film blogs! Give your audience something interesting to read. Give us something that doesn’t start with National Velvet and end with “legend.”
So in the spirit of a tribute, here’s mine.
The first Elizabeth Taylor film I ever saw was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The second I ever saw was Cleopatra, and I’m glad that wasn’t my first–not that I didn’t enjoy it, because I did, but it was designed to be more spectacle than movie. Watching it, my jaw dropped in scene after scene, the director unveileding yet another jewel-encrusted, mammoth-sized set that would never be seen again. Probably the costumes in the Roman triumph scene alone were worth more than I’ll ever make in a lifetime. The scale of that movie, the sheer enormity of it, completely dwarfed Taylor’s presence. She didn’t have the kind of command, the stage presence, to hold her own on a set like that. To be fair, most actors don’t. But nevertheless, I’m glad that my introduction to Liz Taylor came in a film that was almost its exact opposite, a film that consisted mostly of two actors yelling at each other in a white room.
As a Tennessee Williams fan, I have to say that this is kind of an abortion of a film adaptation. I have no idea why production code-era Hollywood kept trying to adapt his plays into films. The challenges of eliding themes like homosexuality or prostitution when those are necessary (but oblique) plot points is beyond the talents of most filmmakers. Still, Kazan managed it (relatively successfully) with A Streetcar Named Desire, and I’m guessing the studios were hoping for another such hit with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Tin Roof is no Streetcar. In casting Taylor, producers opted for a movie star rather than an actress, and it shows. Still, she and Newman are compulsively watchable, even when all we get to see them do is stand around in an empty room and hiss at each other for ten minutes at a time. (And that is most of what we get to see them do.) Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty has a chance to shine in the spare settings. She isn’t quite as stunning as she is in A Place in the Sun, but her beauty has mellowed, begun to settle over her like an old favorite sundress rather than a sequined ball gown. The film starts to fall apart when she leaves the screen in the second half, although I’m not sure whether that’s due to her disappearance or due to the sentimental, tacked-on ending where Brick and Big Daddy make up.
I’m glad that was my first Elizabeth Taylor film, because it led me to appreciate her more in later movies I saw. Giant currently holds first place in my heart, but you know what I think I like best about Elizabeth Taylor? That I’ve only made it through her greatest hits–and that means that I have plenty more of her films to discover. Here’s to you, Liz–and to our cinematic future together.