Sunday, February 27, 2011

Best Of The Best: Elizabeth Taylor

National Velvet - Before she was given access to the kind of animals who'd leave their wives for her and devote themselves to buying her the kind of jewellery with which her name would one day become synonymous, Elizabeth Taylor's co-stars were the more traditional animals associated with little girls - namely dogs and horses. Of course, the previous year's Lassie Come Home (only her second film appearance) set a precedent of its own, by featuring her first gay co-star, Roddy McDowall, whereas this particular outing paired her with renowned pint-sized cherry-picker Mickey Rooney.

Little Women - The three versions of Louisa May Alcott's Civil War era chestnut each have their own unique charms; George Cukor's 1933 version is known for the verve demonstrated by its cast struggling hard to overcome the limitations of antique film-making equipment, whereas Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version has the accuracy in its art direction which is the hallmark of the modern movie industry*. Mervyn LeRoy's 1949 version might just be the version Goldilocks would choose; not only is it technically perfect and sartorially accurate, it features a sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor fairly bursting her stays with dewy goodness.

*I've neglected to mention David Lowell Rich's 1978 version because... Well, just because. Besides which, it was made for TV... 'Nuff said!

Father of the Bride - Occasionally (okay, often) art doesn't so much mirror life as plagiarize it outright; nowhere is this more true than in Hollywood where, in 1950, art held up the life of Elizabeth Taylor with a knife and thoroughly menaced it before making off with a goodly amount of loot. As Taylor prepared to embark upon the first leg of what would eventually become a 10K walk down the matrimonial aisle - in this case with Conrad 'Nicky' Hilton, great uncle of that other tabloid mainstay - MGM chose to give Taylor the gift that keeps on giving, namely publicity. Cast as her parents were screen legends Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, while her fiancee in this case was played by Don Taylor, one of the few men in Hollywood Taylor didn't end up marrying.

A Place in the Sun - The process by which a movie camera burns images onto celluloid with the assistance of light is one of the most important in my life, and yet one which I only barely understand (as evidenced by my ham-handed description of the process at the beginning of this sentence); by itself it forms the core of my faith more certainly (not to mention in the here and now) than some magic tricks performed by a Jewish troublemaker who may or may not have lived two thousand years ago ever could. Yet when it comes to over-egging the faith pudding, having Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift share a screen in the shimmering black and white that was abundant in 1951 provides for a very rich treat indeed, not to mention one high in protein. As the other side of Taylor's glamourous coin, Shelley Winters offers a rare, moving performance as a drudge.

Giant - A big movie adapted from a big book, larded with big stars and shown on some of the biggest screens in film history, no movie ever had a more accurate title than Giant. Director George Stevens' adaptation of Edna Ferber's novel costars Rock Hudson and James Dean as rival oil men or something, while Taylor is the woman who comes between them*; Giant's place in pop culture was assured when Robert Altman made his 1982 film version of the play Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which was set in the Texas town of Marfa where Giant was shot.

*Talk about the willing suspension of disbelief; like a woman ever came between those two.

Raintree County - Taylor received her first Academy Award nomination under the direction of Edward Dmytryk for her portrayal of a southern belle with a secret; as would eventually become standard for any of her movies, the story of what happened behind the scenes easily rivaled the story that ended up onscreen - in this case the near-fatal car crash that shattered what little peace of mind her perennial costar Montgomery Clift would enjoy. The film also stars Eva Marie Saint and Agnes Moorehead.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - The incendiary movies adapted from the even more incendiary plays of Tennessee Williams helped to put fatal cracks in the myth of the 1950s, and who better to play the kind of woman determined not to be trapped by conformity than the raving beauty who'd only recently emerged from America's one-time sweetheart? As Maggie the Cat, Taylor gave her most nuanced performance ever, blending hurt and fury into each lengthy monologue and using the sexuality her husband rejects to plead their case with the dying Big Daddy against the grasping machinations of the hopelessly square Gooper (Jack Carson) and his perennially pregnant wife Mae (Madeleine Sherwood). Opposite Paul Newman and Burl Ives Taylor gives a surprisingly strong performance, given that her real-life husband Mike Todd died in a plane crash during production.

Suddenly Last Summer - By 1959 Elizabeth Taylor's life was bound up with those of two of the world's most famous gay men - Tennessee Williams and Montgomery Clift - and one of the Broadway stage's most famous fictional gay men, Sebastian Venable. It all made this film the perfect storm, even before the involvement of Katharine Hepburn, playing against type as a villainess in major denial about her too-beloved mama's boy. Dealing with the still-shocking taboo of mental illness - and under the threat of a lobotomy - Taylor's character makes a harrowing descent into madness, culminating in a three-minute monologue in the last reel that will blow whatever part of your mind may have been left unblown by the rest of it.

BUtterfield 8 - John O'Hara's shockingly frank 1935 novel was never going to be made into a movie in the decade after it was published, nor even in the decade after that, but it had to be toned down considerably* to even reach movie screens when it did, in 1960. Despite a strong, surly performance from Taylor opposite the reptilian Laurence Harvey and the real-life paramour (Eddie Fisher) whose scandalous desertion of his wife Debbie Reynolds for the recently widowed Taylor caused the considerable sympathy directed at her following the death of her husband Mike Todd to evaporate overnight, Taylor won her first Academy Award for playing Gloria Wandrous after nominations in each of the previous three years; still, Taylor and Fisher hated the film once it was done.

*In true Hollywood fashion, the movie bears almost no resemblance to the book.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - Taking a major risk by setting her sex symbol status aside at its height, Taylor tears up the screen opposite her famously on-again off-again husband Richard Burton as the slatternly, horrible Martha to his bitter, cranky George. The four handed cast* (Taylor and Burton were joined by George Segal as Nick and Sandy Dennis as Honey) gives director Mike Nichols' adaptation of Edward Albee's play a claustrophobic feeling which feels perfect, given the claustrophobic feeling of many marriages, including that of George and Martha's. Nevertheless, it netted Taylor her second and final Oscar.

*There were two minor characters in the film not present in the play - the roadhouse owner and his waitress wife - portrayed by the film's gaffer Frank Flanagan, and his wife Agnes.

The Taming of the Shrew - The last time Elizabeth Taylor's extraordinary beauty found itself served by a quality script was under the able tutelage of Franco Zeffirelli; of course, it helps that the film was adapted from a work by the greatest writer who ever lived, William Shakepeare. Yet not even Shakespeare could have imagined a relationship as stormy and eternal as that of Taylor and Burton. More of an imagining of the play rather than an adaptaion - since it pushed the major subplot of Bianca and her various suitors (among them Michael York) into the background - Taylor's Kate and Burton's Petruchio got more of an opportunity to be three-dimensional characters, besides being well-photographed in a lush Italian landscape.
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