Since the late 1960s the nebulous concept of stardom has been subjected to a systematic inflation of values. In a routine television series, for instance, the status of some obscurely minor supporting performer is frequently aggrandised into that of “guest star”; many of the freakish menagerie of hangers-on who peopled Andy Warhol’s Factory-produced psychodramas complacently styled themselves “superstars”; and Barry Humphries’ alter ego, the redoubtable Edna Everage, has risen almost imperceptibly from the humble rank of “housewife” to that of “megastar”.
Elizabeth Taylor was neither a superstar nor a megastar – she was a star. The genuine article. Perhaps the last of a breed that can be traced back to Theda Bara in the teens of the 20th century.
Though she was born in London, her parents were American, her mother a former stage actress, her father an art dealer. In her earliest infancy she seemed already in training for an eventual career in showbusiness. At an age when other children are learning to stand upright, she was attending ballet classes, and such was her precocity (and physical beauty) that, when barely three years old, she performed before the Royal Family.
In 1939, just a few months before the outbreak of war, her parents decided to return to the United States, herfather opening an art gallery, much patronised by the film colony, in Hollywood’s Château Elysée. It was in the wake of a visit there by the syndicated columnist Hedda Hopper,and a newspaper article in which she praised not only the beauty of the works on exhibition but that of the proprietor’s daughter, that Universal, flush with the success of the Deanna Durbin musicals, decided to cast the 10-year-old Elizabeth in There’s One Born Every Minute (1942), a low-budget comedy in which she served as a foil to Carl (“Alfalfa”) Switzer, previously one of Our Gang.
It was not the most auspicious of debuts, but she charmed Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, which signed her up on a 20-year contract (a quite extraordinarily long-term wager on the continuing appeal of a small prepubescent girl). Her first film for the studio, Lassie, Come Home (1943), was an enormous commercial success: its unusually trivial plot of an impoverished family compelled to part with their prize collie may have offered relief from the infinitely greater dramas then holding the world stage and Taylor was as obviously a “natural” as Lassie herself.
She enjoyed even greater public favour in the following year with National Velvet, playing a spunky little girl who trains her horse to win the Grand National, and in 1949 as Amy in Mervyn LeRoy’s queasily sentimental version of Little Women.
Taylor’s first truly grown-up role came in Conspirator (also 1949) asa young wife who discovers that her husband (played by her scowling namesake Robert) is a double agent; butit would be more appropriate to date her emergence into adulthood from Vincente Minnelli’s delightful comedy of middle-class domesticity Father of the Bride (1950). Appropriate because filmgoers who had watched this exquisite creature grow up on screen were now permitted to see her undergo what was, for the period, the only acceptable form of ritual deflowering: a family wedding.
The film became one of the most profitable ever produced by MGM, especially as the studio delayed its release to coincide with Taylor’s own impending (first) marriage, to the hotelier Conrad Hilton Jnr. For she had blossomed considerably more rapidly off screen than on. While still in her teens, she had been escorted by the 44-year-old Howard Hughes; and, when reproached, during the filming of Conspirator, with falling behind in her schoolwork, she tartly replied, “How can I concentrate on my education when Robert Taylor keeps sticking his tongue down my throat?”
Father of the Bride (which prompted a far less inspired sequel, Father’s Little Dividend) remains as sparky as ever; the Hilton marriage, by contrast, went stale after only eight months. In 1952 Taylor was married for a second time, and for five years, to the British actor Michael Wilding. During that period her career flourished, even if only one of her films could be described as outstanding. George Stevens’ A Place in the Sun (1951) was an adaptation of Dreiser’s An American Tragedy which, by glossing over the implicit anti-capitalism of the original, emphasised the sheer power of mutual sexual passion. As Angela, the youthful belle of the country-club set who tragically gives poor Montgomery Clift ideas above his social station, she was touching, even moving, and almost painfully desirable. Of her performance in the film the costume designer Edith Head remarked with pardonable hyperbole, “When Elizabeth moved, she looked like sunlight moving over water.”
Failing to recognise his homosexuality, Taylor fell desperately in love with Clift. Curiously, a personal entanglement of an identical nature occurred during the shoot of another Stevens film, Giant (1956): she grew deeply attached to her co-star James Dean, and was reportedly heartbroken when he was killed in an automobile accident. Giant’s success was commensurate with its title; and, though a large-scale Civil War drama of 1957, Raintree County, was a flop, Taylor’s actually quite undistinguished performance (again opposite Clift) earned her an Academy Award nomination.
Divorced from Wilding (who, as an actor, had lived increasingly in his wife’s ever-lengthening shadow), she married the flamboyant showman Mike Todd, begetter of Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) and backer of the impressive if short-lived optical process Todd-AO. (Another of his novelties, Smellovision, deployed in a single film, Scent of Mystery, 1960, starring Taylor, was widely re-baptised Todd-BO.) No stranger to flamboyance herself, she made a highly public conversion to Judaism; the engagement was announced at the gala premiere of Around the World; and her 30-carat diamond wedding ring looked as though it, too, were in Todd-AO. The marriage, by every account a happy one, was terminated after just a year, when Todd’s private aircraft, The Lucky Liz, crashed with no survivors.
The young singer who had served as best man at their wedding, Eddie Fisher, became Taylor’s third husband; on this occasion, however, she alienated thousands of fans, who blamed her for breaking up Fisher’s apparently idyllic marriage to Debbie Reynolds. Fortunately, her career was entering its most fruitful phase. She won two successive Oscar nominations for performances in a pair of suitably steamy Tennessee Williams adaptations: as the sexually frustrated Maggie, lounging suggestively in her slip against an enormous brass bedstead, in Richard Brooks’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958); and, offering a quite splendidly overripe display of histrionics, as Katharine Hepburn’s mentally disturbed daughter in Joseph L Mankiewicz’s Suddenly Last Summer (1959), a campy yet strangely compelling study of moral and sexual degradation in which she was partnered, for the last time, by a physically ravaged Montgomery Clift.
When she finally did obtain an Oscar, however, it was for an utterly unremarkable performance as an expensive, sable-clad call girl in Daniel Mann’s 1960 adaptation of John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8 (the heroine’s telephone number). Even at the time, this tended to be interpreted as a strictly sentimental gesture made less in recognition of her talent than of her recent, near-fatal bout of pneumonia. As another nominee, Shirley MacLaine, laconically put it, “I lost to a tracheotomy.”
When inflation is taken into account, her next film is arguably still the most catastrophic commercial flop in cinema history: Cleopatra (1963). It all but bankrupted the studio which produced it, Twentieth Century-Fox, it switched directors in mid-shoot (Joseph L Mankiewicz replacing Rouben Mamoulian), it devoured several million dollars as sets remained vacant and actors idle for months on end – and, of course, it united Elizabeth Taylor with Richard Burton, the man whom she was to marry twice and divorce twice, in whose company she would be seen (and photographed) everywhere, and with whom she appeared in no fewer than 11 films.
Most of these were unspeakably bad – pointless, pretentious vehicles for a couple whose interest, as far as the general public was concerned, derived almost entirely from the publicity that they so assiduously courted. Exception should be made, nevertheless, of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), Mike Nichols’ acerbic film version of Edward Albee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, in which Burton gave virtually his last good screen performance and Taylor, raddled and foul-mouthed, this time deserved her Academy Award; and of Franco Zeffirelli’s sumptuously designed The Taming of the Shrew (1967), in which the Burtons made a spirited Petruchio and Katharina.
Thereafter Taylor’s choice of roles and films declined into irretrievable mediocrity, culminating in two musical monstrosities, George Cukor’s grotesquely kitschy Soviet-American co-production The Blue Bird (1976) and Hal Prince’s embarrassingly inept adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim show A Little Night Music (1977). She chalked up her seventh marriage – and matching divorce – with John Warner, an undistinguished US Senator who, conceivably on the strength of the attendant publicity, made a preposterous bid for the presidency. An eighth marriage, to Larry Fortensky, a construction worker, ended in acrimony after five years.
Unlike Cleopatra’s, and despite heroic endeavours to reverse the process, the once infinite variety of Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty was ultimately withered by age and staled by custom. Indeed, there were periods in her later life when she became so plump and matronly that one English critic, reviewing her performance in a theatrical revival of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes, could maliciously compare her to Miss Piggy. Yet, to the end, her capacity for survival was endearing; and, for better or worse, she was the kind of star of whom one might say, simply, “They don’t – and they won’t – make them like that any more.”
The first sign that Elizabeth Taylor was going to have exceptional longevity as a movie star, compared to so many child performers who fade during or after their teens, was in the filmCynthia (1947), writes Tom Vallance. As a girl over-protected by her parents and exceptionally susceptible to illness (shades of the real Taylor in the latter) she gave a convincingly underplayed and touching performance. Herbeauty was plainly growing ever more radiant, and her intuitive response to the demands of the camera was already apparent.
By the time of Little Women two years later, she not only looked the perfect incarnation of pretty, affected Amy, but gave a wonderfully humorous performance. Prissily mangling her “vocabillary” in her efforts to be sophisticated, and refusing to faint in anything but a studied, ladylike way when performing one of her sister’s drawing-room melodramas, she persuasively matures into the young lady who is the ideal companion for her crusty aunt on a European tour. On her return she is touchingly nervous about telling sister Jo that she has wed the boy whom Jo once turned down.
Father of the Bride, A Place in the Sun, Ivanhoe (1952) and Giant confirmed her status as an actress and beauty as well as a genuine star, but her best was yet to come. The years 1957-60 were the peak of her career. She made four films during that period, winning Oscar nominations for all of them.
Raintree County was one of several films that started out with hopes to emulate Gone with the Wind and ended up as overstretched bores, but Taylor’s performance as a Southern belle who goes mad was hauntingly vivid. While it may not have won universal acclaim, it alone made the film worth sitting through.
She suffered from hyperventilation and tachycardia (a fast heartbeat) during the sultry location shooting, and her close friend Montgomery Clift was nearly killed in a car crash, but such drawbacks possibly added to the intensity of her work. Initially proud, spoilt and wilful (in the manner of Scarlett O’Hara), Taylor’s character gradually betrays signs of inheriting her mother’s insanity. In her convincing portrayal of growing instability and regression, including her pitiful attachment to a tattered doll, Taylor is immensely moving and gives a performance that stays in the memory.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had been a choice vehicle for several high-powered actresses on stage, and the film had Taylor surrounded by fine performers, including Paul Newman, Burl Ives, Jack Carson, Madeleine Sherwood and Judith Anderson, but Taylor dominated the screen in every scene she was in. Never has “Maggie the Cat” seemed more febrile, more angry, more steamily sensual or more of a force to be reckoned with.
Dressed for much of the film only in a satin slip, she prowls around her bedroom, her pent-up passion seething beneath the surface, doing verbal battle with the father-dominated husband who now refuses to sleep with her because of his suspicion that she slept with his best friend. She also proves a formidable sparring partner for her vituperative, grasping in-laws, whose horde of children she contemptuously describes as “no-neck monsters”. Again, tragedy intruded on the shooting when Taylor’s husband Mike Todd was killed, but she later stated that working on the film was her salvation, because she was only able to stop crying when playing Maggie.
She returned to the works of Tennessee Williams with Suddenly Last Summer, reuniting her with Clift, but pitting her, in her most dramatic scenes, opposite Katharine Hepburn, who was also Oscar-nominated for her performance. There were resonances of Maggie in the desperation of Taylor’s character, who witnessed the death of Hepburn’s son and who is now the victim of the rich Hepburn’s plan to keep her from telling others the true circumstances of the death. With Clift an almost silent witness to the riveting confrontation of the two ladies, Taylor and Hepburn do full justice to Williams’s brilliant, poetic writing as they spar in a waspish battle of words. When Hepburn accuses Taylor of having caused her son to break off from writing poetry, Taylor counters with, “Yes, something had broken, that string of pearls old mothers . . .” “Old?” interrupts Hepburn, seizing on the repulsive word. “. . . hold their sons by,” continues Taylor. Neither actress has ever been finer.
When, in 1960, Taylor was finally awarded the Oscar, it was for a movie described by the cinema historian Robert Osborne as “possibly the weakest film ever to produce an Oscar-winning performance”. Taylor herself had battled with the studio over Butterfield 8, based on John O’Hara’s novel, which she called “a piece of obscenity”. But it was to be the final film of her MGM contract and would free her afterwards to accept Fox’s offer of a million dollars to make Cleopatra. If she refused to do MGM’s bidding, they could legally have prevented her from taking another offer for the next two years. “They put a gun to my head,” she said. As part-time model and sometime high-priced call girl Gloria Wandrous, Taylor won praise even from critics who loathed the film (and most of them did).
It has often been conceded that Taylor might not have won had she not just been through a life-or-death battle with pneumonia. Others felt it was recognition of so much fine work. Ingrid Bergman said, “I don’t think it’s unfair to one day give an actress the award because of all the good performances she has given through the years.” Perhaps it is the mark of a fine actress to be able to make something out of second-rate material, as Taylor did. “I still think it stinks,” she said, after her Oscar victory. “It made it almost impossible for me to win. I have never seen it and I have no desire to ever see it.”
After the debacle of Cleopatra’s protracted shooting schedule and the disappointing result, Taylor’s work sometimes lacked the passion and fire of earlier performances, and the vehicles that she and husband Richard Burton chose were not always well-advised, but there were glorious exceptions.
Her Oscar-winning Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was magnificently blowsy and foul-mouthed, and the following year she gave one of her most brilliant, thoughtful and to some extent underrated performances, in Zeffirelli’s sumptuous mounting of The Taming of the Shrew. In one of the best screen versions of a Shakespeare play, Taylor was beautiful, fiery and passionately feminine, giving a luminous performance as the lusty Kate.
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor, actress: born London 27 February 1932; DBE 2000; married 1950 Conrad Hilton Jnr (died 1969; marriage dissolved 1951), 1952 Michael Wilding (died 1979; two sons; marriage dissolved 1957), 1957 Mike Todd (died 1958; one daughter), 1959 Eddie Fisher (marriage dissolved 1964), 1964, 1975 Richard Burton (died 1984; one adopted daughter; marriage dissolved 1974, 1976), 1976 John Warner (marriage dissolved 1982), 1991 Larry Fortensky (marriage dissolved 1996); died Los Angeles 23 March 2011