A piece on Elizabeth Taylor’s final decade in this month’s Vanity Fair cites Corey Feldman and a former Michael Jackson employee, who claim that on September 11, 2001, Jackson, Marlon Brando, and Dame Liz—having assembled in NYC for Jackson’s Madison Square Garden show—retreated 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 today’s metastasized celebrity culture. (Gracing the cover of that Vanity Fair is Katy Perry, generous cup-size and a tablespoon of presence.) Paralleling Taylor’s life/career with changes in the celebrity press industry, William J. Mann’s 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 Center’s 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; Taylor’s sustained iconographic performance, extraordinary.
The woman who said, “I don’t ever remember not being famous” wasn’t, 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 Elizabeth’s accent won her a breakthrough part as the English village girl who dreams of horses and finally wins the Grand National in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 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. Mayer’s 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 awaited—“All in the proper order at the proper time,” per mother’s lecture in Velvet.
Notably, Taylor’s best young-adult parts came while playing hooky from MGM. She went to Paramount for George Stevens’s 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 Hudson—but 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 film’s 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 experience—and in this role, Dean makes the more accomplished actors in Lincoln Center’s series look overly careful.
The release of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) was accompanied by Taylor’s 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 Taylor’s 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. Taylor’s 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, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1965), and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), all playing Lincoln Center, Taylor attacks husbands—played by Newman, Burton, and Brando, respectively—who 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 slut’s mea culpa, BUtterfield 8.)
Though Taylor’s 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 Burton’s back and taunts George Segal as a “gelding” in Virginia Woolf. We may remember her, then, in saddle, field marshal in pop culture’s Battle of the Sexes.