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Monday, March 05, 2007

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 sensory implications of dabbing oneself with both). So how come she never talks about the lawn party (here) with Lou Costello, Robert Mitchum, and heaven knows who else? That’s the book I’d 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 not ones with eleven-year olds in tow). Well, they couldn’t leave me in the car after all, so we all three ventured in for the Burton’s latest steam bath. My senses were rivened by what I swore was a glimpse of Taylor’s breasts captured in oils by artist/bohemian Charles Bronson. Yes, she covered quickly as Burton 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! 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 JudyRebel 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 a 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 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 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 hand-in-hand, if uneasily, 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 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 players seeking independence. Her sustained popularity in the face of nothing output 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 inspired posters heavily weighted toward the sex angle, and 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 for that winning short-lived tabloid sympathy. Nearly dying herself may have helped as well (constant medical crisis 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 Jack’s, with Taylor a higher profile equivalent of Elaine Barrie, but no less destructive to Burton's prestige and sobriety. Actually, the shows they did together aren’t half-bad as sixties-hangover from what was left of Code fifties --- the transition between The VIPs and The Sandpiper to Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf is a steep one. I well remember schoolyard recitations of once forbidden profanities exchanged between ultra-de-glamorized Burton and Taylor, and when I finally grew into seeing it a few years later, there was indeed a seasoned actress in evidence. Few could have played her slattern part so well. Tab readers assumed this was what went on in hotel rooms between the volatile two, poor Burton run ragged from one jeweler to the next, spending fees from bad movies to buy moon-rock finger ornaments for a difficult-to-please wife. Exhibitors, particularly in small towns, dreaded more team efforts, but still came Boom, The Comedians, then Hammersmith Is Out. Taylor’s solo career went ways of discarded fashion and a culture so changed as to make her kind of movie star look like a 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. With acting at least a generation in her past, you could wish she’d have sat down to review the career in whole. Such reflection would endure longer than silly tomes about weight loss and diamonds she’s worn. But this was a woman too often betrayed by media to be candid with them now, for which we'd be the poorer, for Elizabeth Taylor was about the last big-name survivor who could fill gaps on the studio system in its final flowering.


Blogger Vanwall said...

Yeah, Liz was a major movie hottie for me, but too much before my time to seriously consider a relationship, ;-) and besides, she'd already been around the block with, Rooney, Richard, et al. I almost prefer stills of her, at least I can concentrate on her eyes, rather than her 12-year-old's voice. You know, she had an amazing career in film, too.

12:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Those who didn't live through it can never imagine how the travails on the Cleopatra set and the Taylor-Burton-Fisher triangle transfixed the world. Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan -- no comparison. I mean, those three (and others) may be everywhere in their tawdry little way, but have they ever gotten banner front-page headlines in serious newspapers?

I agree, John, that it's a shame Ms. Taylor doesn't open up more to historians. On the collector's edition DVD of Cleopatra, the supplemental documentaries and commentary were riveting and amazingly thorough, but conspicuous by her absence was the violet-eyed beauty at the eye of the storm.

I can certainly understand if Liz has had it up to here with Cleopatra by now, but might she not at least want to set the record straight once and for all? Then again, as a friend of mine once observed, "to set the record straight" really means "to change the record." Maybe Liz thinks the record is straight enough as it is. Or maybe she simply thinks "the record" can go hang, that it's all nobody's business -- not Cleopatra, not Rock Hudson, not Monty Clift, not Michael Jackson. With all she's been through at the hands of the press, I could understand that, too.

2:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Watched Giant the other day and I have to say her and Hudson's performances were first rate in my book.

10:11 PM  
Blogger The Siren said...

I also think Giant is her best performance. She takes the character from girl to wife to grandmother in a very convincing way.

Her chief virtue as a person seems to be a great capacity for friendship, which includes a remarkably steadfast loyalty. My guess is that this loyalty precludes her spilling the things she knows about costars and pals like Hudson, McDowell and Lawrence Harvey--not to mention Burton or Mike Todd. I do wish she would find a way to discuss their work more often, however.

1:00 PM  

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