Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Legacy of Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor died today at the age of 79 from congestive heart failure. Her famous eyes, that sometimes turned a shade of violet, her tiny cinched waist, those tiny hips that fluttered from side to side as she argued with her main co-stars from Kate Hepburn to Paul Newman, were the symbols that came to define a woman cursed and blessed with undeniable beauty.

She is best remembered for her eight marriages and her cyclical weight losses and gains, but in the 1950's and 1960's she was one of the premier actresses of the cinema. Her performances in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958) and "Suddenly Last Summer" (1959) marked her as one of the great interpreters of Tennessee Williams, combining the paradoxical strength and fragility of his heroines with her consummate beauty. Finally reaching her apex in 1966 with her performance of the firebrand Martha in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

She began as an MGM contract player in roles in "Lassie Come Home" and "One's Born Every Minute." She became a star with "National Velvet" (1944), a story of a girl in lover with her horse. She was propelled into the limelight. Even the notoriously acrid critic, James Agee, wrote that he had been "choked with a peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were in the same grade of primary school."

With the beautiful and tremulous performances of the late 1950's, she blossomed into one of the great actresses of Hollywood. She displayed her inner talents in George Stevens' "A Place in the Sun" (1952). She played the object of Monty Clift's affections, the sybaritic rich girl who entrances Clift and drives him towards tragedy. This powerful film became a hit and pushed her to her greatest triumphs by decades end, becoming the only woman in Oscar history to receive four consecutive nominations for Best Actress.

Her status as a camp icon comes from the talent married to the extravagance and absurdity of her private life. After her husband Mike Todd died in 1958, while she was filming "Cat," she found solace in the arms of Eddie Fisher, a mutual friend of the couple; however, Fisher was married to Debbie Reynolds, in a union celebrated by Louella Parsons and Hedda Hopper for its storybook qualities. Suddenly, Fisher was divorcing Reynolds, much to the blonde dancer's surprise and chagrin. (Her bitterness about Fisher would become one of the highlights of her cabaret shows in the 1970's. At an AIDS benefit in 1990, Reynolds came on stage and said: "And now another thing Liz and I share." ba da boom!).

In 1960, Taylor's life resembled her performance in "The Last Time I Saw Paris," where her heroine dies of pneumonia tragically. Taylor was rushed to the hospital for an emergency tracheotomy while she was unconscious from a bout of pneumonia and too much booze. She had just finished filming "Butterfield 8" an adaptation of John O'Hara's torrid melodrama about a call girl. Taylor reportedly hated the finished movie so much that she threw her shoes at the screen when she first saw it on the MGM studio lot. However, the sympathy of Hollywood parlayed itself into her first Oscar for the film. Although she received nominations for 'Raintree County," 'Suddenly," and "Cat," her first Oscar came for her weakest performance of the period.

Then while making "Cleopatra," Taylor ditched Fisher for the bad boy of the British stage, Richard Burton. Burton and Taylor slowed production down on the Egyptian-set drama with their drunken antics. Taylor was somehow able to match the famously alcoholic Burton drink for drink. "Cleopatra" was a major disappointment. The film cost a record-breaking $40 million dollars, which almost bankrupted 20th-Century Fox.

Her greatest triumph on the screen was undoubtedly Mike Nichols' adaptation of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1966). She eschewed her tiny waist and immaculate hair styles to gain weight and age herself twenty years to play the bitter wife of an academic whose marriage comes to the brink of disaster during a night-long dinner party with a junior faculty member and his wife. Rather than the brittle woman she cultivated to play Maggie in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," Taylor created a Martha whose tough exterior covered up an insecure and bitter woman, unhappy with the banality of her life. Her fierceness shined next to her then husband, Richard Burton, whose calm docility in the film allowed Taylor to run wild as her ravings were a cry of desperation to make him pay attention to her. Although Taylor was not the first actress to deglamorize herself in order to gain critical respect and an Academy Award (Susan Hayward was the master of this in the 1950's), but for a woman like Taylor who was celebrated around the world for her face and body, it was a brave act. The performance brought her a second Oscar, and far more deserved than her previous one for "Butterfield 8" (1960). Burton, however, lost to Paul Scofield. Burton famously and bitterly said, "Elizabeth won, and I didn't."

She never had a triumph on the level of "Virginia Woolf" again. Her life devolved into a circus of drunkenness, fights with Burton and divorce after divorce. There were minor hits, such as Zeffirelli's version of "Taming of the Shrew," and there was glamor in the period. Burton gave her two famously large diamonds, worth millions of dollars. The couple fought in public in both restaurants and the yacht that was moored on the Thames near central London.

Her subsequent marriages to John Warner, which helped propel him to the Senate to represent Virginia, and Larry Fortensky, the construction worker she met while in the Betty Ford Clinic, were famously ludicrous. She turned to philanthropy in her later years, raising over $100 million for AIDS research. She was honored by the Academy with a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award in 1992.

Hopefully, her charity and those luminous performances will triumph over the drunken brawls and years of bloated indulgence in the collective memory of Liz Taylor. Those scenes in "Cat" or "Suddenly, Last Summer" when she turns towards the camera in frustration shows her face lighted with her grace and supreme intelligence. Those eyes will continue to bewitch all of those who watch.

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