Monday Glamour Starter --- Elizabeth Taylor
Liz Taylor wrote a book (that is, one published under her byline) on how fat she used to be, and another about her fee-abulous jewel collection. There were in-person stops behind perfume counters (as nearby as Charlotte!) hawking concoctions to arouse passions fervent as those once inspired by 007 after-shave (imagine the sensory implications of dabbing oneself with both!). So how come she never talks about the lawn party (here) with Lou Costello, Bob Mitchum, and heaven knows who else? That’s the book I’d surely bound across Borders bargain bins to bag (or at the least click on Amazon used). Unfortunately, ours is not (yet) a world of Greenbriar-inspired trend-setters, so Dame Elizabeth won’t likely cash Simon and Schuster advances to look back upon work with Nigel Bruce, Harry Davenport, and C. Aubrey Smith (his arthritic, yet knowing hand forever squeezing my then-trim, but muscular, seventeen-year old thighs --- oh well, as Jerry Colonna used to say, we can dream, can’t we?). Daryl Hickman recently told Robert Osborne how much fun he had playing tackle football with budding tomboy Liz on the MGM lot back in the mid-forties. Had afternoon practice been like this at my P.S., we’d have all made varsity freshman year! Liz and Dick were unavoidable growing up, particularly for those of us canvassing magazine racks seeking Mad or Castle Of Frankenstein. They seemed to be on the cover of everything. There was one day my mother, sister, and I were in Winston-Salem, just across from the Carolina Theatre’s marquee with its glittering invitation to come see the newly married team smolder in The Sandpiper, a 1965 tamale best handled by adults with asbestos hands (but surely not ones with eleven-year olds in tow!). Well, they couldn’t leave me in the car after all, so we all three ventured forthwith to catch the Burton’s latest steam bath (sister being eighteen and presumably wise in such ways of the world). My senses were soon rivened by what I swore (and still do!) was a glimpse of Taylor’s unfettered breasts being captured in oils by artist/bohemian Charles Bronson. Yes, she covered them quickly as Dick entered from stage left, but one or two frames left permanent imprints upon my boyish mind, and I emerged from the Carolina’s auditorium that day forever changed. Our friends at Warners recently offered up The Sandpiper on DVD. My fast forward moved as if possessed to that scene. Did it live up to memories? Damn it all, no! Must surely have been cut, just like that spider fight in The Incredible Shrinking Man. Why don’t these movies ever play like they used to?
Consider that had she been born but a few years later, Liz would have been a fifties teen queen rather than a forties one. Instead of National Velvet and A Date With Judy … Rebel Without A Cause or maybe Jailhouse Rock. A Natalie Wood career perhaps, or a Gloria Talbott one? Forties teens seemed not teens as we understand them. Our concept of adolescence was forged with James Dean and has ossified since. Roddy McDowell and Scotty Beckett were teens once too, but who wants to be gawky, sexless, and so determinably respectful of authority as these one-time courtiers of youthful Liz? A look at any Metro musical/family comedy will find its youth well harnessed and submission to parental controls assured. Elizabeth Taylor might have, at the least, become some sort of sexual threat elsewhere, by looks if not temperament. Imagine her doing Fox noirs. Other girls in their late teens did. Movies let ingenues grow up faster then. Liz was just too adult/gorgeous to go on playing with Lassie dogs and as second fiddle to Jane Powell. Elsewhere she might have co-starred with Burt Lancaster or the aforesaid Mitchum. Post-war dictates wouldn’t tolerate ongoing girlhood for fruit so ripening, as a grown-up pairing (at seventeen) with Robert Taylor demonstrated in Conspirator. A schism developed here between that which fan magazines published and what people saw on screen. The high-school kid of proms and pinafores walked (an uneasy) hand-in-hand with the overnight screen siren. Again, it was looks as opposed to temperament, for beneath a throbbing bodice lay girlish naivete (as least as presented in Conspirator) and a voice seemingly developed at the Margaret O’Brien school of whining elocution. Still, the vault from early adolescence to adulthood was sudden and irreversible, a transition slowed only by the necessity of a ritual screen wedding that had less to do with story demands of Father Of The Bride than a nationwide readership’s hunger to see Taylor in her wedding dress going down the aisle, a scene she would shortly (and unwisely) duplicate in real life.
Favorite Taylor vehicles include those she made as an old-fashioned studio system collapsed around her. Things like The Girl Who Had Everything and Rhapsody were throwbacks to simpler forties days when all they needed was a star to show up and be beautiful. Teenage girls cut out her photos and pasted them lovingly in scrapbooks. Lots of these turn up on Ebay --- so many as to confirm the huge following Taylor had among those still willing to be starstruck even as merchandising wheels gathered rust within studios dumping contracts and their players seeking independence. Her sustained popularity in the face of such nothing pictures is itself tribute to whatever something she had, and a public’s patience waiting for her to display it. George Stevens was alone in having channeled real star magic, but it had been five years since A Place In The Sun, and now, to the rescue again, he directed Taylor in Giant. Finally she had a picture wider audiences might take an interest in seeing. A stalwart friend to those tormented or with something to hide, she kept secrets on behalf of Rock Hudson, James Dean, and Montgomery Clift, and was rewarded with felicitous leads opposite them all. The shattered wreck of Clift reteamed with Taylor in Raintree County and showed what a delicate mechanism sex symbolism could be. Maybe it was his tragic example that resolved her to become serious about acting. Suddenly, Last Summer pointed the way, but skittish Columbia ignored Tennessee Williams in favor of publicity (indeed, their whole campaign) built around Liz crouched in the surf wearing a cling-tight bathing suit. Respect comes hard to women with looks like hers. Husband complications qualified Taylor for scarlet roles. Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and Butterfield 8 represented a summit, though as late as 1966, her steam quotient was such that a combo-ed reissue of the two (again) inspired posters heavily weighted toward the sex angle (as shown here), and thus generated way above-average encore business (both topped domestic rentals of $700,000).
Whatever was left of fan mags in the sixties weren’t napping. They’d long since given over to full-time scandal mongering, and no one sold like E.T. and her offscreen Delilah ways. Eddie Fisher was the husband stolen from Debbie Reynolds, this after Taylor losing just previous mate Michael Todd to a plane crash and winning short-lived tabloid sympathy thereby. Nearly dying herself may have helped as well (constant medical crisis became part of her ongoing drama). She was the biggest star not getting out pictures between 1960 and 1963, but the slow cooking Cleopatra was worth its weight (and wait) in hot press coming off European locations. The latest purloined mate was her ultimate prize, for co-star Richard Burton might have been a Barrymore were he born fifty years sooner. As it is, there was at least a finish not unlike poor Jack’s, with Taylor a higher profile modern equivalent of Elaine Barrie, but no less destructive to Burton's prestige and sobriety. Actually, the shows they did together aren’t half-bad in a sixties-hangover from what was left of the Code fifties way --- that transition between The VIPs and The Sandpiper to Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf is indeed a shocking one. I well remember schoolyard recitations of once forbidden profanities exchanged between ultra-deglamorized Burton and Taylor, and when I finally grew into seeing it a few years later, there was sure enough a newly seasoned actress in evidence. Few could have played that slattern part so well. Tab readers assumed it merely reflected what went on in hotel rooms between these volatile two, and sure enough, poor Burton was run ragged from one jeweler to another, spending fees he’d earned in slumming movies to buy moonrock sized finger ornaments for an increasingly difficult-to-satisfy wife. Exhibitors, particularly those in small towns, dreaded their ongoing team efforts, though it’s hard to imagine any ready audience for Boom, The Comedians, and Hammersmith Is Out. Taylor’s solo career went the way of discarded fashion and a culture so changed as to make her kind of movie star look like the second coming of Norma Desmond. Burton(s) spoofing in a 1970’s Here’s Lucy episode emphasized what viewers already knew. We’d never again believe in them as anything other than their outrageous selves --- and to think Taylor has lived another thirty-seven years beyond this. With acting at least a generation in her past, you’d have hoped she’d sit down and review that amazing career, not to mention remarkable personalities she worked so closely with. The only one she seems willing to talk about is Montgomery Clift (once for TCM, again for Paramount’s DVD of A Place In The Sun). What of William Powell, Larry Parks, and yes, even C. Aubrey Smith? Only a McFarland Press or university publisher would permit such obscure dredging, but I’d spring for a copy. Chances are those reflections would endure longer than silly tomes about weight loss and diamonds she’s worn. Won’t likely happen even if mainstream book sellers were interested, for this is a woman so often betrayed by media as to make candid cooperation a near impossibility, and we’re all the poorer for that, as Elizabeth Taylor’s nearly the last big-name survivor who could fill gaps on the studio system in its final flowering.