Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2011

My first thought when I heard the news that Elizabeth Taylor had died was of my mother. She really liked her a lot as an actress and I know the news would have saddened her. We would have talked about her and about all the films that we liked that she had made. My thoughts go back to my teenage years, when Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were an item, a huge item. If he bought her a big diamond ring, it was news. How much the ring cost was a major news story. If they argued, it was news. If they remarried after divorcing, it was news. My impression of her when I was young was that she was bigger than life, way bigger than life. She was a Movie Star, and I don’t think we will see the likes of her again. For lots of reasons, but perhaps the major one being that there is no one actress today that can match her talent, beauty, and goddess-quality, or her ability to maintain an aura of mystery about her. She had a bit of the Jackie-O mystery, but of course it must be said that she could have mystery in an era where even though people were desperate for news about her, there was still a chance to have a little mystery about you. That is almost not possible today. The news media have dissected my generation of actors, actresses and celebrities to the point where we know what kind of toothpaste they use. They have celebrity status but they are not gods or goddesses, at least not to me.

Elizabeth Taylor was stunning to look at, no matter what her age. She had gorgeous violet eyes and a perfect face, at any and all angles. I never tired of looking at her when she was in films. She was a beautiful child who turned into a beautiful woman. I admired her outer beauty the way I might a perfect thing of beauty--objectively, like I might admire a beautiful landscape, a painting, or a sculpture. Her beauty was sculpted--it defined her. If someone asked me for an example of a truly (outwardly) beautiful woman, I would have held her up as the example.

I have watched many of her films several times when they show up on TCM. The one I always come back to is BUtterfield 8. She poured herself into the role of the high-class call-girl and model who wants to change her life and it earned her an Oscar. I read somewhere that she did not want to make this film but that she was the consummate professional who did her best even though she didn’t want to do the film. I love this film and I’m not completely sure why. The storyline is trashy, the morality questionable, the ending predictable. But it was a vehicle for her acting—it allowed her to be so many things and she did them all well in that film. She rose above the film. The relationship with her mother in the film was touching, real, and even heartbreaking, for all of the things that remained unsaid between them. I have watched it numerous times and I always find something new in it each time—more nuances in her speech, new gestures, frowns, sadness, regret, desperation, and acceptance. Her face reflected them all and it made me wonder if this role reflected her own life in some way—that she wanted to get away from her existence as Movie Star and change her life. But she had to have realized how difficult that would be, hence the painful acceptance of life as it was. The other film I like is The Sandpiper, another morally-ambiguous film about a bohemian woman and single mother who falls in love with the married minister who runs the school her son attends. All sorts of heart-wrenching drama and tortured decisions ensue. You know how it will likely end. Nevertheless, you enjoy the ride on the way. It’s not a great movie, but it’s a good movie, a well-acted soap opera. It makes you want to get to know the characters. It made me want to get to know the long-suffering wife in this film (played by Eva Marie Saint) as well as in BUtterfield 8 (played by Dina Merrill). But these films weren’t about long-suffering wives. I cannot remember any film where Elizabeth Taylor played a passive long-suffering wife; in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof she was anything but passive despite being married to a man (Paul Newman in a great role) who ignored her, ditto for X, Y and Zee (another trashy film that just draws you in when you are watching it). In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, she gave as good as she got in one of the scariest onscreen portrayals ever of a dysfunctional marriage. She was not a woman who hung around waiting to be told what to do or waiting to be loved by a man, or so it seemed at least onscreen. I don’t know how she really lived her life off-screen, but the fact that she remarried Richard Burton after they divorced tells me that she had difficulty letting go of him and he of her. No matter. She will live on in her films and be remembered as the ‘last of an era’ in Hollywood when divas and goddesses reigned. 

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