By Alan Hurst
She was a major screen presence from the mid-forties with her breakthrough in National Velvet (1945) until her screen career wound down after The Mirror Crack’d (1980). She made a few successful forays into television in the seventies and eighties, always generating significant buzz. She was a tabloid sensation from the first of her eight marriages (seven husbands) right up until she died. She was a successful entrepreneur (Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds). And her work on behalf of people with AIDS had a significant humanitarian impact.
Quite a life – and seven years after her death her name still conjures up images of glamour, beauty, extravagance and, on some level, awe. Just say the name Elizabeth Taylor to someone and watch the reaction. She was probably the biggest “star” of the last century – and personified everything both positive and negative that goes along with that.
Ironically Elizabeth Taylor the actress is the one facet – of all the different personas that defined her – that seems to get sidelined. Was she a great actress? I think she was but not all the time. Taylor’s abilities seemed to fluctuate from film to film and she was very dependent on the quality of the material or her director. For Taylor to be at her best she needed to be challenged. Did she make some great films? Yes – many are considered classics. But she also made a lot of films for the money – and you can see that on her resume. For every Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), there’s something like The Only Game in Town (1970), Ash Wednesday (1973) or (gulp) The Flintstones (1994).
Here are some of the essential performances that Taylor gave over her almost 60 year acting career. I didn’t restrict it to just film, so there are a couple of surprises.
National Velvet (1945)
Taylor had been a charming presence in a few films by 1945 – most notably Lassie Come Home (1943) – but this is the one that put her on the map. It’s the story of a young girl who becomes the owner of a horse and decides to enter it in the Grand National, with the help of a jockey (Mickey Rooney) and the support of her mother (Anne Revere in an Oscar winning performance). People have a lot of affection for this film and it’s a perfect example of the classy productions MGM was known for. The 13-year Taylor does very good work as Velvet – she’s not yet a full-fledged actress, but she’s very sincere, appealing and the camera clearly loves her. It’s fun to see Angela Lansbury in an early film appearance as Taylor’s sister – they would be reunited 35 years later in The Mirror Crack’s (1980), Taylor’s last major film lead.
A Place in the Sun (1951)
Taylor was only 17 when this was filmed in late 1949, but it represents her true transition to adult roles. It’s one of the great films of the fifties and an almost perfect look at the drive for the American dream and what it can cost. Montgomery Clift is perfect as George, the poor relative who comes to work for the rich Eastman family and falls in love at first sight with Elizabeth Taylor, one of the elite in the world he so wants to be part of. George Stevens won his first directing Oscar for his work and he does wonders with Taylor. He ensures that she is literally the stuff of dreams with her every appearance – she’s dressed and photographed beautifully, but she’s also very effective and mature beyond her years, particularly in the final, very emotional scene with Clift. Both Clift and Shelley Winters, as his working class girlfriend, received Oscar nominations – but Taylor was overlooked. She shouldn’t have been.
This is a big sprawling film that tells the story of a family who runs a cattle ranch in Texas and the changes they see and experience over the years – the growth and expansion of oil fields, death, the evolution of race relations with neighbouring Mexico – all directed in epic fashion by George Stevens, who won that year’s Oscar for Best Director. Despite the presence of James Dean, the film rests on the shoulders of its two leads – Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson. Both were established stars, but neither had been tested in this way before. They drive the narrative and they’re also required to age from young marrieds in their early twenties to grandparents. While the make-up lets them down in their latter scenes, they are both very good – Taylor is particularly successful in showing the well bred, but feisty side of her character, and she communicates a knowing maturity later in the film. Both Hudson and Dean received Oscar nominations for their work here, but again Taylor should have been in the running as well. Hers is a strong and steady performance.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
I will always quibble about the need for this screen adaptation of the hit Tennessee Williams’ play to eliminate the underlying theme of Brick (Paul Newman) and his attraction to his dead male friend. But even without that element as a motivator for the marriage challenges of Brick and Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor), this is an excellent film and one of the best things Taylor ever did. I can’t think of a more attractive pair than Newman and Taylor, which adds to the tension – these are two people who should be all over each other and the fact that he isn’t attracted to her is fascinating. The drama also centres on the declining health of Newman’s father (Big Daddy played by Burl Ives) and decisions that need to be made, with a lot of greedy relatives jockeying for position. Taylor (a Best Actress nominee that year) holds her own with everyone and achieves what is probably the finest portrayal of Maggie the Cat to date, on screen or stage (others have included Elizabeth Ashley, Natalie Wood, Jessica Lange, and Kathleen Turner).
Suddenly Last Summer (1959)
Along with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? seven years later, this is Taylor’s best performance. The story, another adaptation of a Tennessee Williams play, is one of the most macabre of the era, shocking (and titillating) a lot of audiences. Taylor plays Catherine, the niece of Violet Venebale (Katharine Hepburn), who is in an asylum for the insane following the death of Violet’s son Sebastian. The previous summer Catherine was travelling with Sebastien when he died in a horrible death and her aunt now wants her lobotomized, so she can’t share what she saw. The film, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, is an intense mixture of psychiatry, homosexuality, cannibalism, greed – heady stuff for audiences in 1959. Hepburn is very good as the aunt, but Taylor is an emotional hurricane as Catherine. Her climatic speech detailing what she knows and what she has seen is a tour de force. Nothing Taylor had done previously indicated she was capable of this kind of intensity. She was nominated for Best Actress that year (along with Hepburn) and should have won. This is one of the best performances of the decade.
It was a toss-up for me as to whether to include Taylor’s Oscar winning work in Butterfield 8 or Cleopatra. Although Taylor does what she can with the script for Butterfield 8, it’s ultimately a lousy film and she readily admitted she didn’t deserve the Oscar that year (coming off a near fatal bout of pneumonia during voting time and after three previous losses helped ensure her win). Her work in Cleopatra (again directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz) runs the gamut form excellent to just OK, but it’s with this film that the Taylor legend truly takes hold. Cleopatra is alternately both fascinating and tedious, with some stunning scenes, it’s visually spectacular, and with a haunting score by Alex North. The stories about Taylor’s behavior on the set – illness, delays, the affair with Richard Burton – are legendary, as are the stories about the three years it took to film and get it into theatres. As always with films during this period Taylor looks wonderful. What I find impressive here is that Taylor’s performance is as good as it is considering the circumstances – there’s a consistency to her Cleopatra that helps anchor everything, but there are scenes where some of the demands of the script and language are beyond her. More successful are Rex Harrison and Richard Burton, but at the end of the day it’s Taylor who consistently draws your attention.
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
This is Taylor’s peak as an actress, winning her a second Oscar and this time it was unquestionably deserved. There was considerable surprise when both Taylor and husband Richard Burton were cast as Martha and George – Taylor seemingly too young and beautiful to play the vulgar, aging wife and Burton too charismatic to play the downtrodden George. But boy did they surprise everyone. First-time film director Mike Nichols worked wonders with the entire cast and the material. It’s probably the most dysfunctional marriage every portrayed in a film and Taylor is near perfect – blowsy but still sexy, loud, vulgar and ultimately quite moving. Burton is equally good – initially beaten down but discovering his slow building anger throughout the film. For me this film represents the start of the second golden age of film – coming just ahead of the juggernaut that was to happen the following year with Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate.
The Taming of the Shrew (1967)
A loud, rambunctious adaption of Shakespeare’s battle-of-the-sexes comedy by director Franco Zeffirelli (but now understandably viewed as disturbingly misogynistic). Coming on the heels of the previous year’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this represented a perfect follow-up, showing that the now inseparable duo of Taylor and Burton could have some fun. Burton has the easier time of it with Shakespeare’s language and gives a wonderfully blustery comic performance. But Taylor shows she’s up to the challenge – she does very well with the language, she’s full of anger and spirt as Kate, and she meets every physical demand of the role – this must have been an exhausting shoot for her. And, of course, she also looks stunning in the period clothes. I’m not sure either Burton or Taylor would have had the discipline at this point in their careers or marriage, but it would have been spectacular to see them on stage as Kate and Petruchio.
Here’s Lucy (1970)
At some point in 1970 Lucille Ball was at a party where she met Richard Burton and he told her he and Taylor would love to do an episode of her current series, Here’s Lucy (1968-74). Ball wasted no time getting her writers on board and they fashioned an entire episode around Lucy getting Taylor’s spectacular diamond ring stuck on her finger. That ring was the subject of intense media attention at the time. Never really known for her comedic chops, Taylor is wonderful in this episode and matches Ball move for move in the climatic comedy scene where Taylor – looking tanned and lovely – is showing her ring to the media, but with Lucy’s very white left arm doubling as Taylor’s. It’s a great scene. The joint appearance by the Burtons on this episode was a major TV event and it garnered Ball one of her highest ratings. When the Lucy character first meets Elizabeth Taylor and address her as “Your Highness”, it’s funny precisely because it wasn’t far from how everyone viewed Taylor at that point.
The Little Foxes (1981)
Her movie career had essentially finished by 1980, and after some very public challenges with weight gain and weight loss, Taylor was enticed to make her theatrical debut in a revival of Lillian Hellman’s classic play The Little Foxes. It had been a major Broadway hit 40 years earlier with Tallulah Bankhead, and Bette Davis delivered a memorable portrayal in the 1941 film version. Skeptics were out in full force to watch Taylor try and pull this off: it was a huge part in a classic play – long and intense – with no chance for retakes or a break between scenes. She pulled it off. I saw the production late in the run and Taylor’s work here was superb. She made the part of Regina more feminine than her predecessors, but no less steely and determined when required. It was a terrific Broadway debut in a part that now seems tailor made for Taylor – a spoiled, sexy, flirtatious but demanding woman who wants her own way and will stop at nothing. She received a Tony nomination for her work here and should have won. It was the last great performance that Taylor gave.
There were other strong performances from Taylor over the years – a nice comic supporting turn in Little Women (1949), the young bride-to-be in Father of the Bride (1950), the disturbed southern belle in Raintree County (1957), John Huston’s bizarre but interesting Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), and two B films from the seventies where she still showed she could deliver – X, Y, and Zee (1972) and Night Watch (1973). But an insurmountable number of bad films – Boom (1968), Secret Ceremony (1968), The Only Game in Town (1970), Under Milk Wood (1971), Hammersmith is Out (1972), The Driver’s Seat (1974), and The Blue Bird (1976) – ultimately spelled the end of her film career far sooner than it needed to.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.