Thursday, March 24, 2011

Last of the Legends

When I was a young teen, my brother and I shared an upstairs bedroom across from the attic. My side, often delineated by a chalk border, had its share of funny angles because of the roof's steep inclines. So, before I turned out the lights at night, I would look up at a bevy of Hollywood beauties--Ava Gardner, Marilyn, but especially Liz. Liz in a white slip-like garment, Liz in a tightly bodiced white gown in a shot from ELEPHANT WALK, and Liz in close-up with that amazing skin, those mesmerizing violet eyes, those smoldering lips. Yes, I was hooked. In 1953 I would take the bus down town, buy a bunch of Krystals, and take my seat of worship at the Strand Theater to watch a melodramatic pot boiler called ELEPHANT WALK. Liz played an innocent English girl who marries a rich plantation owner from Ceylon. In an obvious rip-off of REBECCA, Liz is haunted by the spell of her husband's domineering father who deliberately built his mansion across a traditional elephant path to water. By the end of the film, a love triangle has heated up and the elephants are on the war path. Naturally Liz is alone in the house in that little white dress as the elephants storm through. I sat through this movie five successive weekends.

Such was the power of Elizabeth Taylor for me as a teen, but it grew, along with my awareness that she could do a lot better than ELEPHANT WALK. And she already had, especially in one of her best films, George Stevens' classic social/romantic drama A PLACE IN THE SUN, based on Theodore Drieser's AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY. Taylor plays a wealthy capitalist princess who falls in love with a distant relative who works in her father's factory. Their love is doomed because he has made another worker pregnant and is eventually accused of her drowning death. Montgomery Clift plays George Eastman and the love scenes between Taylor and Clift are among the most memorable in movie history, especially their sudden realization of passion in the middle of a crowded dance floor. Angela Vickers pulls George out to the patio, and Stevens' camera frames them as closely as possible, their gorgeous features filling the screen.

As Angela offers to see George after work each day, she coos, "you'll be my pick up."
George: "I am the happiest person in the world."
Angela: "The second happiest."
George: (filled with guilt and repression) "Oh, Angela, if I could only tell you how much I love you. If I could only tell you all.."
Angela: (comforting him with a breath-taking closeness, pulling him into her as the camera swoops in) "Tell Mama. Tell Mama, All." FADE OUT.

Elizabeth Taylor, who died this week at the age of 79, managed to pull that special magic in many other movies, with many men in her personal life, and with her public. Yes, she made some truly terrible movies. THE SANDPIPER, 1965, features Taylor as a free spirit living at Big Sur and seducing a doubting Episcopal priest to the tune of "The Windmills of Your Mind." And it gets much, much worse (or better, depending on what you are into). But the next year she won her second Oscar as Martha, the foul-mouthed harpy in Edward Albee's scathing drama WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. Mike Nichols' direction of Taylor and Richard Burton as her husband was brilliant as were the performances of the cast. Playing radically against type and adding weight and age, Taylor transformed herself into Martha, giving heart-rending, often hilarious pathos to the character.

Taylor's "private" life was always more news than her movies, but to see her worth as an actress one needs to look back at her Maggie in Tennessee Williams' CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF or her face-off with Katherine Hepburn in the sinister SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER to know that beauty is not her only asset. Her innocent but compelling early beauty in films like FATHER OF THE BRIDE and especially IVANHOE, in which she bewitched both Robert Taylor and George Sanders, show not only her beauty but her humanity.

As the post-mortems pile up, they emphasize Taylor's lust for life, her husbands, her medical traumas, and her beauty. They haven't caught the full life. Elizabeth Taylor was too much for such a paltry pigeon hole. She was Elizabeth Taylor and she knew it.

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