Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

Elizabeth Taylor epitomized practically all aspects of show business: from glamour queen to tabloid magnet, from acting joke to respected thespian, from child star to senior stateswoman. Along the way she managed to win two Oscars, one that even she thought was more out of sympathy for a health scare and given for a lesser performance and one that was for the greatest work she ever did on the big screen opposite Richard Burton, the only husband from her eight marriages that she wed twice. Somehow, she accomplished all this, which also included battles with weight and forming one of the first major AIDS charities that to date has raised more than $350 million, with a remarkable amount of grace. She provided one of the last links between the classic Hollywood of the studio system to today's show business. Taylor had so many health scares over her lifetime that I had a tendency never to prepare ahead of time in case I had to write that she was gone because she always bounced back. Alas, this time was for real and Elizabeth Taylor died today at 79 of congestive heart failure.

Taylor was born Feb. 27, 1932, in Hampstead, London, England, and to American parents from St. Louis and lived there until she was 7, when the family returned to the U.S. as Hitler became a threat to the European continent. Instead of returning to St. Louis, they settled in Los Angeles. When I was in college many years ago, I had the chance to interview Samuel Marx, who served many roles in the film industry but most importantly was a producer on 1943's Lassie Comes Home and always was credited (or took the credit, which ever the case may have been) of having discovered the young Elizabeth and launched her film career. However, Taylor did appear in a 1942 film before Lassie Come Home titled There's One Born Every Minute, so who's to say where the truth ends and the myth begins. She did team with Lassie again in 1946's Courage of Lassie, though Lassie may have been the same, Elizabeth played a different character. In her youthful days on the big screen, Taylor's other most notable films were 1944's National Velvet, 1947's Life With Father opposite William Powell and as Amy in 1949's Little Women.

As the decade turned to the 1950s, Taylor took her first walk down the aisle, both in real life and on the big screen. In May 1950, she wed hotel heir Conrad Hilton Jr. The following month, Spencer Tracy played her screen father and gave her away in Father of the Bride, which spawned a sequel, Father's Little Dividend, the following year (They even had more imaginative names for sequels back then), though by the time the sequel was released her marriage to Hilton already was over. 1951 brought her first serious adult role and the chance to work with one of the many close friends she would have in real life who were troubled souls. The film was George Stevens' A Place in the Sun, his adaptation of Theodore Dreiser's best seller from early in the 20th century, An American Tragedy, that starred Montgomery Clift. Taylor and Clift were close friends through what remained of that actor's short but troubled life. Their friendship actually began in 1949 when the studio made her act as his beard and be his date to the premiere of The Heiress. Taylor's on-screen star and off-screen notoriety really took off during the rest of the 1950s. Among other notable films she appeared in were Ivanhoe, Rhapsody, Elephant Walk, Beau Brummell and The Last Time I Saw Paris. The biggest of them all was probably 1956's Giant, with another close friend, Rock Hudson, whose death decades later from AIDS sparked Taylor into forming that charity, The American Foundation for AIDS Research. The last three years of the decade saw Taylor earn her first three Oscar nominations for Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer. She would earn five total Oscar nominations in her career and since the next one came in 1960, that means she received four consecutive nominations, something few performers achieve. Off screen, brought a lot of trips down the aisle. In 1952, she married Michael Wilding, which lasted until 1957. Within days of the end of that marriage, she wed producer Michael Todd, but that marriage ended when he died in a plane crash a little more than a year later. That led to her biggest scandal when she was viewed as a homewrecker. Todd and Taylor were seen as best friends of the married couple Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. When Todd died, Fisher flew to comfort Taylor and eventually left Reynolds for her, marrying Taylor a little more than a year later. Shew.

That fourth consecutive Oscar nomination was the charm, though a conveniently timed health crisis and an emergency tracheotomy didn't hurt and Taylor won the 1960 Oscar for best actress for Butterfield 8, an embarrassing performance in an even worse movie that Taylor even admitted she didn't deserve. The movie, which trashed a John O'Hara novel, was just a disaster on so many levels. Coming out at the height of the scandal over Taylor "stealing" Fisher for Reynolds, she didn't want to make the movie in the first place but was forced to because of a contract requirement. When a movie's most famous line is "Mama, face it: I was the slut of all time" at a time when Taylor was being routinely referred to as one in real life, didn't sit well with the actress who said of the movie, "I still say it stinks." By the time Butterfield 8 had been released and the Oscar contest was getting under way, Taylor already found herself deep in the mammoth production of Cleopatra. During filming, she suffered a life-threatening case of pneumonia and had to undergo an emergency tracheotomy, causing sympathy to turn toward her again and winning her that Oscar. Fellow nominee that year Shirley MacLaine (up for The Apartment) complained jokingly, "I lost to a tracheotomy!" Taylor herself said "Any of my three previous nominations were more deserving. I knew it was a sympathy award, but I was still proud to get it." Cleopatra, not just because of her health, tied her up so that it was the next film of hers to be released, but it didn't come out until 1963. Two other notable things came out of Cleopatra. In accepting the role, Taylor became the first actress to receive $1 million for a single film. She also met Richard Burton and her marriage to Eddie Fisher was on its way to its ending. Within days of her divorce from Fisher being finalized in March 1964, she would wed Burton for the first time.

The same year that Cleopatra finally made it to theaters, Taylor also had another film she was able to make during post-production. She was part of the all-star cast stranded at a fogged-in London airport in The V.I.P.s. It was her second film co-starring Burton, who still wasn't her husband at this point. By the time they co-starred again in 1965's The Sandpiper, they were married. Burton and Taylor weren't just partners in love and life, but art as well and they made it four films in a row in 1966 when both gave their best screen performances in Mike Nichols' directing debut, Ernest Lehman's adaptation of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virgnia Woolf? It won Taylor a second Oscar (a deserved one) as the glamour gal not only dressed down as Martha but displayed acting chops she'd never shown before. Burton also was nominated, but alas did not win. The only other two actors in the movie, George Segal and Sandy Dennis, were nominated as well and Dennis did win. It also won Oscars for art direction, black-and-white costume design and Haskell Wexler's exquisite black-and-white cinematography. In all, the film was nominated for 13 Oscars and as far as I'm concerned is not only Taylor's greatest performance but her best film as well.

Unfortunately, Virginia Woolf really marked the end of notable films from Taylor. The next year, she and Burton did a screen version of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, which I've never seen, but did not go over well. That year, they also co-starred in Doctor Faustus, which Burton co-directed. As if 1967 weren't busy enough for the couple, they also teamed for The Comedians. That year, she actually appeared in a film without Burton, John Huston's Reflections in a Golden Eye. In total, not counting documentaries and specials and a cameo here or there, Taylor and Burton co-starred in 11 feature films and television movies. Their marriage came to an end on June 26, 1974, the first one anyway. They tried it again Oct. 10, 1975, but the second try only lasted until Aug. 1, 1976. Later in 1976, she married Sen. John Warner, R-Va.

Being a Sondheim fan, I've always been warned to stay away from the 1977 film adaptation of A Little Night Music that Taylor starred in so I've trusted those who have seen it. Taylor had a very funny cameo in the underrated 1979 dark comedy Winter Kills starring Jeff Bridges and based on the Richard Condon novel. In 1980, she was part of an all-star cast in the Agatha Christie adaptation The Mirror Crack'd with Angela Lansbury playing Miss Marple, 35 years after playing Taylor's older sister in National Velvet and before Lansbury created TV's Jessica Fletcher.

As the 1980s got rolling, Taylor tried different things. She made her first Broadway appearance in a revival of The Little Foxes in May 1981 and earned a Tony nomination. She revealed herself as a soap opera fan, especially General Hospital, which had taken the genre to new heights with the adventures of their characters Luke and Laura. With the soap planning a wedding for the pair November sweeps, Taylor asked to be a part. The show created the role of Helena Cassadine, widow of a villain that Luke and Laura vanquished, and Taylor appeared as her for three episodes so Helena could place a curse on the pair on their wedding day. She did squeeze in time for a divorce from Warner in November 1982. She went back to Broadway two more times in the early 1980s. In 1983, she reunited with Richard Burton, but only on stage, in a revival of Private Lives. Later that same year, she starred in a revival of The Corn Is Green.

Her acting appearances began to become more sporadic though she did play Louella Parsons to Jane Alexander's Hedda Hopper in the 1985 TV movie Malice in Wonderland and appeared in one episode of the miniseries North and South the same year, but Taylor seemed more content with her burgeoning perfume empire and her charity work. She married her last husband, Larry Fortensky, for a change someone with no fame of his own, in 1991. They divorced in 1996. In 1993, her charitable work earned her a third Oscar statuette, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Her voice appeared on The Simpsons, speaking Maggie's first word, "Daddy." Her final feature film was 1994's dreadful The Flintstones where (and I don't exaggerate) her performance as Fred's mother-in-law was the only good thing about it and the comic highlight of the movie. Her last credit on IMDB was another piece of voice work on God, the Devil and Bob in 2001. Her last public appearance was at the private memorial service for Michael Jackson, a longtime friend and another damaged soul she embraced.

RIP Ms. Taylor.

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Few stars ever shone as brightly, or demonstrated as much durability as Elizabeth Taylor. She was never just a movie star - it's not overstating the matter to refer to her as one of the most fascinating figures of 20th Century American life. It's strange to think of her as being gone - but the movies remain, and collectively testify to a singular presence that cannot be duplicated, or even easily defined. She cut a bold path through life; while beauty made her famous, it's not what made her a legend. Onscreen and off, there was no else quite like her.
And we have to make do with Hilary Swank.
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