(30 march 2009, 1 july 2010)
Much as Dionne Warwick is famous for her psychic friends rather than her music career, so Elizabeth Taylor is remembered for everything but her acting. She may be best known for her perfume ads— the commercials that are pulled from the Elizabeth Arden vault like semi-precious brilliants to take their turn on TV every Christmas. Suddenly, as dependable as Peanuts and eggnog, there she is, svelte and gorgeous, sporting that leonine hair all famous women seem to cultivate the minute they hit 52.
There is a jarring disconnect between the ageless Liz hawking sensual perfumes from a cabana overlooking the Aegean in footage that clearly hadn’t been reshot since 1989 and the elderly dame who had been wheeled out publicly every now and again since 2002.
Having first appeared in 1941, in an industry where many die young, Liz Taylor is one of those figures who seems to be stretched thin across far too many decades. Much like Churchill after WWII, she has outlived her use. We do not know what to do with her.
In their recently released Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, & the Marriage of the Century, biographers Sam Kashner and Nancy Schoenberger attempt to figure that out. To find the proper box in which Liz Taylor will fit. And because there is nothing quite so convenient as the marriage box, they, like nearly all her biographers before them, examine her from that context rather than the context of her work. Never mind that amid all the marriages, her career was the only constant.
The first Liz Taylor movie I ever saw was Raintree County, which is essentially a Gone With the Wind knock-off wherein our southern belle imagines she is the love child of a slave and consequently torches Tara.
It’s a stirring mess to behold on its own, never mind the underlying real-life drama of Liz Taylor acting alongside Montgomery Clift, who was quite possibly the love of her life and was gay and would never love her as she needed to be loved and had just survived a horrifying, disfiguring automobile accident in the aftermath of which she knelt by his side in the road and held a severed chunk of his face onto his head.
When I first saw Raintree County, I knew none of this. I was twelve and back then it was all about the pretty lady in the pretty dresses. I didn’t know that the pretty lady in pretty dresses was one tough dame.
We overlook the fact that she has always worked, whether she had a husband or not. Her reasons may not have been noble—usually, just like us, she needed the cash. But even after Mike Todd died, there she was, back on the Cat On A Hot Tin Roof set. Back in front of the camera. Back to work.
Which is pretty admirable for someone primarily known for her breasts.
Liz Taylor is very much an acquired taste, like brandy or sushi or madras pants. She is scary. She is shrill. Whether she is young Liz, old Liz, thin Liz, fat Liz, hippie Liz, or ’80s Liz, she can be hard to watch. Still, when she’s onscreen, it’s hard to see anyone else.
I didn’t begin to appreciate Liz Taylor until I was in my mid-twenties. Hell, I would argue the world isn’t really old enough to fully appreciate her now. Her filmography is comme ci, comme ca— a grab-bag of minor frights studded with a handful of priceless gems. But those gems. Lord, do they sparkle.
The problem with Liz Taylor is that it’s always been assumed that she delivered more memorable performances in life than on film. That she was, in fact, not working but simply being Liz.
The most devastating aspect of her devastating performance in the devastating Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is that it plays as a Burton family home movie. We’re pretty sure she’s not acting. She couldn’t possibly be that good.
I’m pretty sure she was acting. I’m pretty sure she was that good. And the fact that we still overlook that is devastating.