Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Last of the Great Divas - Elizabeth Taylor dead at 79

Elizabeth Taylor died yesterday.

For those who didn't grow up during the immediate post-War period, it may seem difficult to understand the degree of her celebrity. She seemed to belong to another time, and indeed, that began to be true as early as the late 1960's, when she was still only in her late 30's. Beginning as a classic "child star" in the early 1940's, pushed into the business by an ambitious mother, she quickly gained fame with roles in mawkish animal warhorses Lassie Come Home [1943] and National Velvet [1944].

Improbably, she made the transition from kid star to attractive ingenue in Father of the Bride [1950] and A Place in the Sun [1951], which some critics believe to have been her best role. By the age of 19, she had already had a solid movie career lasting a decade. So much early success may often lead to a dead end, but Taylor went on to a series of triumphs which would in themselves have been impressive, even if she hadn't been a child star. Elephant Walk [1954], Giant [1956], Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [1958], Butterfield 8 [1960], Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [1966], Cleopatra [1963] and Taming of the Shrew [1967]. To be sure, there are things to like and dislike about all these roles, but as the Studio System wound down, and Hollywood clung stubbornly to the big, overproduced versions of block-buster first-run clichés, the demands and risks to traditional star figures ended the careers of many actors and actresses of greater range and talent.

It was certainly the tabloid-worthy twists and turns of her private life that magnified and distorted her screen-acting impression during the 1950's and 1960's. Her well-known and -documented marital history, her many brushes with ill-health and even near fatal disease and accident, kept her name and image before a vicarious public, even while her working days were steadily declining. It's popularly believed, I think, that her long, tumultuous relationship with Richard Burton, wrecked her acting over time, and robbed her of the probable fulfillment of a mature movie talent. But if we strip away the superficial values of her best parts--a sort of second-rate Vivian Leigh-style drawling coyness (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof), a bitchy vamping harpy (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), or a voluptuous tramp lolling about on a metaphorical casting-couch (Cleopatra)--what's left? Those legendary "violet" eyes? The stacked figure (36-21-36) packed into a tiny (5'2") frame? As a phenomenon of entertainment, she led a whole, though fragmented, existence, building families and charity campaigns with equal passion, and remaining a loyal friend over the years to those with whom she shared a common concern and interest.

As she aged, her career fell away, the public persona occupying the place her acting self had once held, and increasingly she seemed to be clinging to past glories and notoriety. This too is part of the "legendary" cliché, the sad old diva propped up with plastic surgeries and noble callings, until at last she's seen being pushed around in a wheel-chair, a decrepit old crone draped with oversized jewelry and an ill-fitting wig. But as a part of the mythology of our era, hardly anyone else looms as large or as notorious. Didn't men of my generation fantasize about what it might have been like to bed down this bombshell seducer, the "Liz" of a million fan-magazine exposés, the deadly black widow breaking up marriages and dictating terms to production heads?

In the media now, she's being referred to as the "last of the stars"--but stardom doesn't depend upon longevity. Still, it takes guts and determination to keep in front of the public eye, without losing your sanity or your self-respect (or both). From a psychological point of view, it's a snap judgment about the way people respond to early fame and an abbreviated childhood. I remember, with certainty, seeing on live television--it must have been in 1962 or early 1963-- Taylor being interviewed with her then husband, Eddie Fisher, in Rome, while she was making Cleopatra. I recall it's being with Edward R. Murrow, though his Person to Person show archive seems to end in 1961. Liz and Eddie are sitting on a couch in their "villa" and someone mentions the Via Appia, the "old Roman road" and everything is so terribly cheerful and upbeat and chummy. . .which, if one had only known, as everyone would in a few short months, how disturbingly wrong this scene was, given Taylor's determined pursuit of her Welch co-star in Cleopatra. . . .

At her end, Taylor seemed to have become as sweetly naive as she had been at age 12. She had seduced countless men, had died a couple of times, and made a handful of successful films (three of which, A Place in the Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, are classics). If Marilyn Monroe was the blonde bombshell, Elizabeth Taylor was the dark beauty, and she too has now, 49 years later, passed into history. But the world of which they were a part, and what their lives signified, have long since disappeared.


J said...

Dame Liz gets me irish up.

She was not too attractive, at least like once she hit her thirties and had been .... schikksa'd. Not that talented, either, IMHE except as the usual femme fatale. The Cleopatra flick was a joke, not really funny even as kitsch (and Burton...well not quite Marc Antony either) . Really her success was probably a ...British thing. For some time after WWII the brit theatrical types ruled hollywood (with help from jews)- and Liz fit in that scene though hardly Schackaspearean. I guess Liz did a lot for charity and ...well westside luvved her, regardless if she was La gran Puta de babilon does.

J said...

J said...

Liz the mob mollie needs a bit mo' work.

Curtis Faville said...

Then write it yourself.

Tony Morris said...

You missed out my favourite role, in Suddenly last Summer. She was totally stunning,