Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor: Old Time Movie Star and Modern Social Activist

Doubtless a great deal has been said and will be said about the passing of Elizabeth Taylor, a actress frequently cited as "The Last Movie Star". 


I think of Ms. Taylor as two major public figures in one person---as a female screen goddess in the time of Hollywood's "Studio System" from the 1940's to the late fifties where it was a giant group of factories turning out proven products, and into the era of independent productions where it took the improvization of talent coming together on one project--preferably a few well-known ones in front of the camera -- to get a film a wide release. 

  She made many critically successful and big-draw movies in both eras, and just as many unsuccessful ones and critical flops.  Her most famous work has been recounted in the last 48 hours many times on television and the newspapers. "Giant", "A Place in the Sun", "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof", and the notorious "Cleopatra" a film that probably did more to break a crumbling studio system than any other due to cost overruns.                                    (right, a 1952 coloring book featuring the 20 year old starlet)

And yet it created the most popular screen couple of the 20th Century.  Wonderfully paradoxical I think.

Liz Taylor was both a superstar of the studio era and also a more post-modern figure as it were, larger than life and then some. A  movie star who didn't  need to even make movies to be treated as if she were still the biggest name on a marquee.   

Consider just two things about her----that she had a long association with diamonds and remarkably expensive jewelery. That's very old school, very chic by mid 20th century standards of conspicuous celebrity glamour. And really shallow. What serious actress today would want to be known as "Miss Diamonds"?


Throw in the yachts and the husbands and the glam outfits;  in that way she epitomized the film star who lived like a  wandering Queen of Sheba. 


But there was also a down-to-earth quality to her, best exemplified in the way she came across in interviews as a no-bulls*** lady who said what exactly was on her mind and in her groundbreaking (by celebrity standards, or perhaps any standard ) work on behalf on bringing awareness about the AIDS epidemic to the forefront in the 1980's and beyond. She occupied a place of high distinction with two separate personas.  Not bad for one lifetime. (Below, A tribute from the amFAR organization, narrated by Vanessa Redgrave).



If I had to choose one film that had the most impact on me that she did I would pick 1967's  "The Comedians", a quite good adaptation of Graham Greene's novel about foreigners pretending that all is according to Hoyle and straight in the hellhole of authoritarian violence and squalor that was the Haiti of Papa Doc Duvalier. I doubt this film would have reached the audience it did without Burton and Taylor and I have to credit this film getting me interested in Greene's novels and short stories and eye-opening takes on how the world works, especially how people sometimes have to lie to each other and themselves when the truth all around them is the mirror opposite of what they say. 

In this scene Richard Burton is a writer who is having a long affair with the wife of a diplomat in Port-Au-Prince. For  obvious reasons the film was shot not in Haiti, but in the small nation of Dahomey, now called Benin, in West Africa. It says a lot about their commitment to making this movie that it was shot in a very hot and technically primitive place. It is a story that needed to be told and I give both these actors credit for their social and artistic efforts. 

I hope in the afterlife  Elizabeth Taylor has a chance to catch up with all those fellow spirits from her life in both these   personas (and her private self of course).  She was a rare creation in many ways!    


  1. This is one I hadn't heard of, and I guess I don't get it. If I can get to see thwe whole movie, maybe I will

  2. I think it is well worth seeing Jacquie.

    This is just one scene and much of the story plays out in a more dramatic and expanded situations. It's really an underrated film I think.

  3. Heck she seems to have been around forever. And all the husbands. Personally I would have stopped after the first one but it takes all kinds. Cheers Liz.

  4. I would say of Elizabeth Taylor that she was a star of the kind we shall not see again The style created by Hollywood. It could have broken many a person in better health than she had, but, she was a gutsy person in the way she came through illness and personal difficulties. I doubt she will be forgotten in a hurry.

    Thank you for the videos, Doug. How difficult to choose, because she started her film life so young.

  5. One of the greatest.

    As to the film; an overlooked classic.

    She will be missed....

  6. Yes, she has one of those lives that was almost always in the spotlight, at least since she was 12. I assumed she'd always just show up on the television fora chat show appearance now and then.

    I'm not sure you mean you would have stayed married after the first guy, Iri Ai, or got divorced and been done with the whole business after that.

    In any case, getting married eight times is a real triumph of hope over experience as Samuel Johnson said. Thanks for stopping by. :-)

  7. Yes, that studio system has especially hard on women (Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, et al) with all the stress on maintaining youth and stamina, overlapping film assignments, pressures for taking diet pills to look thin and more thin for a unforgiving camera and such.

    She had many near-death illnesses as a younger woman and I gather was never in robust health except for short periods.

    She had guts I agree, with her every aspect of life and spot difficulty in the gutter press or the antional medias. That's for sure.

    Yes, there was a plethora of choices: she was a long time in stardom after all. Thank you.

  8. I'm glad you esteem "The Comedians", Will. I saw it recently again and this captured so well the fears of state-sponsored terror and how the outside world stands back.

    And then of course our leaders stand flat-footed when all that tacit support comes back to haunt us, as we are seeing in the Arab world today.

  9. Yes, Doug, all those uppers and downers must have left the mind very confused as to what was expected of the body. From what I have read, the way of filming leaves much in the hands of continuity, but what it does to coordination of actors makes the mind boggle. After all, the film isn't even shot in sequence. Elizabeth Taylor made many films, but she also worked on television programmes as a guest. How she found time for a private life I don't know!

  10. Of course, the Hollywood contract studio system--at its peak from 1925 to 1955, just before the full impact of television hit, had advantages to the movie-goer---lots of new movies every month with familiar faces.

    It's disadvantage was the need to pull a "star" player like Ms. Taylor as an ingenue in all directions. MGM worked their young star "like a rented mule" while she was obligated to her contract. Other examples could but needd not be cited.

    As you say, films were shot at places like MGM out of sequence, which made it all the more tempting to put a lead actor of either sex in three or four films a year while they were hot. And that doesn't include publicity tours and such. No wonder some actors simply broke down under the weight of media exposure, overwork, under-the-table medications, a lack of privacy, et al.

    I suppose in some ways being a stage actor enables one to be more grounded.

    One thing I found interesting reading from a biography of Richard Burton; at one time in the late sicties he and Elizabeth accounted for about 25 percent of the box office revenues for all major films coming out in a single year! (Including the films they did solo of course.) I gather their private life --such that it was---had to be trying and in a security bubble that must have been like a gilded prison.

    They di take advantage of their joint star luster to make some interesting and unconventional movies, like "The Comedians'", but perhaps the most unusual effort was a film version of Kit Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus" (1967) done with Burton in the lead and a cast of mainly university actors. If I recall correctly, Ms. Taylor has a brief role as none other than Helen of Troy.

  11. Tremendous tribute here Doug. I think there were two stages for her in here life. 1. Would have been the prime era and all the acting that she did and everything that went with it including all the men that she married. She was saw very much more than the girl next door - as the eyes and all that went with it as this was the era right after Hepburn. I think here down fall was much like Jackson's and so many celebrities which at that time drinking and pills where no big deal. Perhaps she was rebelling or as time went on she was not that same 18 year old in front of the camera. But back then she could very well have been one that kick started the paparazzi as I watched a documentary on here the evening of her passing. And it did give some real good insight on Elizabeth.

    2. I think there came a time in here life where she had been through so many Betty Ford clinics and here life came to be a turmoil that she started to help others. We see Oprah as one of the prime people that give money to a variety of areas. But I remember very well, that day that she stood there with Rock Hudson. I was in awe, and here too, I think that she had her own demons, but she managed here life as best as she could with a dedication to Aids. An obviously many other areas. But from what I can tell is that she was one of the best of the best. We speak so often of this era being so mixed up. But even she came to be remembered for he films. As well, as she really was the last of this era of actors. I think the door closed with all the older great actors. And there will never be another Elizabeth Taylor but she left us with great movies and is the last of what I call the "Red Oaks" of entertainment.
    Tremendous tribute Doug.

  12. I think the movies she made (many of them at least) will be, along with her work for finding a cure for AIDS and raising awareness when other celebrities and politicians stood by, her great legacy.

    Thanks Jack.

  13. Yes this I think Doug shall override the other stuff and her legacy shall. She was in an interview in which they asked her what would she like to be remembered by. She said, " I would like to be remembered for the fighting for the things I did ".

    ~ Determination Maximum ~