The Queen Is Dead: Long Live Liz Taylor
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The Kobal Collection
A piece on Elizabeth Taylors final decade in this months Vanity Fair cites Corey Feldman and a former Michael Jackson employee, who claim that on September 11, 2001, Jackson, Marlon Brando, and Dame Lizhaving assembled in NYC for Jacksons Madison Square Garden showretreated from the smoldering city together, taking turns driving a rental car and getting as far as Ohio.
That 9/11 road trip sounds like the setup to a joke, the punchline of which is todays metastasized celebrity culture. (Gracing the cover of that Vanity Fair is Katy Perry, generous cup-size and a tablespoon of presence.) Paralleling Taylors life/career with changes in the celebrity press industry, William J. Manns recent biography How to Be a Movie Star argues that with the demise of the studio system, Elizabeth Taylor created the model for stardom and turned it into big business. He does not argue that this was necessarily a good thing.
Still, the younger generation that remembers Taylor only as a diaphanous presence in perfume commercials has much to discover as she lies in state at Lincoln Centers three-day, 10-film retrospective, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, a biography in close-ups, accompanied by a photo exhibit. The individual movies are a mixed bag; Taylors sustained iconographic performance, extraordinary.
The woman who said, I dont ever remember not being famous wasnt, briefly. Born in London to social-climbing American parents, her family escaped the war to Beverly Hills, where her ex-actress mother pushed her into pictures, and 12-year-old Elizabeths accent won her a breakthrough part as the English village girl who dreams of horses and finally wins the Grand National in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayers National Velvet (1944), a charmer that holds up thanks to draughts of outdoor Technicolor and loving attention to youthful ardor.
Taylor found steady contract work, though was cosseted by the wholesome MGM entertainment complex, an orderly Ptolemaic universe revolving around Louis B. Mayers office. The fine-featured little girl became the young woman whose leaving of the nest is the crisis of Father of the Bride (1950). Wholesome ingénue, wife, and matron roles awaitedAll in the proper order at the proper time, per mothers lecture in Velvet.
Notably, Taylors best young-adult parts came while playing hooky from MGM. She went to Paramount for George Stevenss A Place in the Sun (1951), her huge close-ups opposite Montgomery Clift enveloping, luxurious. (Clift treating his other co-star, Shelley Winters, like something he stepped in is, however, strictly for sadists.) In Giant (1956), made for Warners and, again, directed by Stevens, Taylor acquits herself in a time-lapse role opposite Rock Hudsonbut like everything else in that mega-production, she pales next to James Dean. Dean plays Jett Rink, the embodiment of nouveau Texas oil wealth. In the films second half, as the drunken, brand-name husk of his former striving self, Jett shows the wear and tear of a lifetime of fame that Dean would never experienceand in this role, Dean makes the more accomplished actors in Lincoln Centers series look overly careful.
The release of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) was accompanied by Taylors controversial marriage to husband No. 4, Eddie Fisher, who had been husband No. 1 to Debbie Reynolds. Homewrecker headlines and the skintight role of Maggie the Cat synchronized, and Taylors new prickly aliveness on-screen sealed into legend her attributes: Double lashes over eyes that press releases branded violet for eternity; the raven-tressed foreignness that landed her Cleopatra (1963), though her family tree bore no fruit more exotic than Kansan Christian Scientists; a wasp waist, with abundance above. My breasts are filled with love and life, said Queen Cleopatra; co-star and husband No. 5 and No. 6 Richard Burton called them apocalyptic, adding that they would topple empires before they withered.
And they did! Cleopatra, filmed in 70mm Todd-AO (a process patented by husband No. 3, Mike Todd) with a $44 million price tag, brought Fox to near-bankruptcy and predicted the final crumbling of the studios. Taylors front-page on-set tryst with Burton, both actors otherwise spoken for, predicted similar instability in the institution of marriage.
Amid the ruins, Taylor took to playing the rude coquette with the gusto of a villainous pro-wrestler; this, paired with her gossip-fodder life, made her a full-bodied assault on American family, patriarchy, and propriety. In Hot Tin Roof, Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1965), and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), all playing Lincoln Center, Taylor attacks husbandsplayed by Newman, Burton, and Brando, respectivelywho are drunk, closeted, cuckolded, or some combination of all three. Kids get off no better, called no-neck monsters by Maggie the Cat. (Missing in the series is 1960 sluts mea culpa, BUtterfield 8.)
Though Taylors image changed, the equestrian association with Velvet persisted. She has adulterous horseback outings with Brian Keith in Reflections, is introduced riding in Giant, giddyups on Burtons back and taunts George Segal as a gelding in Virginia Woolf. We may remember her, then, in saddle, field marshal in pop cultures Battle of the Sexes.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.