This week's Nomad Wide Screen is devoted entirely to Elizabeth Taylor...as it should be. Free 30-day trials are available here. The issue includes Glenn Kenny's "Auteurist's Guide to Elizabeth Taylor," Tony Dayoub's tour of Taylor on DVD, and Vadim Rizov's analysis of the many Taylor obituaries and two extensive photo galleries.
An excerpt from my own tribute follows.
...It's odd to comb through old pieces about Taylor and discover how frequently people — usually men — felt the need to say hey, she wasn’t that beautiful. There’s Rex Reed’s vicious description of her “enormous derriere” in Hammersmith Is Out (1972), a movie in which, whatever else you want to say about it, the 40-year-old Taylor was still breathtaking. Or Raymond Chandler, complaining about too many close-ups of Taylor in A Place in the Sun (1951): “I could have gagged.” “Plumply pretty” was how the New Statesman waved off her supernal looks in Cleopatra (1963). Even Richard Burton once remarked that she “has an incipient double chin, her legs are too short and she has a slight pot belly.”
This is what’s known as a defense mechanism, I suppose. Elizabeth Taylor was beautiful all her life, and for a period that lasted into the 1960s, she was the most beautiful woman in movies. She never needed to blossom, she was a goddess from the cradle — ravishing as a child, stunning as a teen, heart-stopping through adulthood and middle age, through weight gain and weight loss, bad hairstyles and caftans, whether lacquered up at the side of a senator or, as she often was in the final years, ushered into an event in a wheelchair. Her looks were the central fact of her life, and she must have been used to that, and occasionally bored with it, quite early on. An ordinary woman hears someone say she’s lovely and glows with pleasure; to Elizabeth Taylor, it was probably like hearing, “My goodness, you have teeth.”
There were riders to that awestriking gift, however. There was the minor matter of her voice, an unexpectedly girlish, high-pitched mew that had charm when she gave a good performance, but grated when she did not. Stewart Granger noted the “rather squeaky voice,” but added cheerfully, “You can’t have everything, can you, and she had practically everything else in abundance.” True. Unfortunately for Taylor, that also included an abundance of health problems, usually tied to random catastrophes of some sort. Back injuries, an emergency tracheotomy, hospitalizations — the problems occurred with such regularity that it seemed the gods scheduled meetings to plot revenge on Taylor because they gave her too much in the first place.
“Everything else” also included a life that was never, in any real sense, private, despite the fact that she was far from the most forthcoming of stars. She got a great deal from that bargain with fame, but what it cost her was brought out by Bob Geldof in his memoirs. Geldof described speaking to a photographer who had been in the scrum of paparazzi at Richard Burton’s grave after the actor’s death. Taylor had pleaded with them to let her pay her respects to her former husband without the flashbulbs popping. And, uncharacteristically, they all agreed — except one, who said his job was to take a picture and that was what he intended to do. The others couldn’t agree to be scooped, so no deal. And Taylor left without visiting the grave.
Kitty Kelley called her Taylor biography The Last Star, but she had it the wrong way round. Taylor was instead the first star of the modern era, the first whose fate it was to have the public image smother the one on screen. Particularly for any movie she made after Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), it requires conscious effort to watch Taylor without her legend intruding. Curl up on the couch with Franco Zeffirelli’s 1967 The Taming of the Shrew — one hell of a problematic Shakespeare play in any case — and just try to crowd out the images of Burton and Taylor falling in adulterous love, marrying, separating, then marrying again. It would require an exorcism. Even early movies like Father of the Bride (1950), or Conspirator (1949), with Taylor as the almost indecently young bride of Robert Taylor, arrive with her immature marriages to Conrad Hilton Jr. and Michael Wilding hovering around like escorts who don’t know their place.
The way to judge a Taylor performance, then, is to seek out the ones for which the headlines and the gossip discreetly exit the cinema and don’t come back until the lights go up...