Sunday, March 27, 2011

Electric Ladyland: Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2011

A few months ago, I was beginning a lecture series on the evolving role of women in Hollywood cinema from the pre-censorship Hays Code era of the early thirties to the present. To begin the talk, as a way to introduce my overall theme of the enduring power of the female image, I quoted from an essay by feminist scholar Camille Paglia on Elizabeth Taylor from her book, Sex, Art, and American Culture (1992). In that piece, Paglia called Taylor "the pre-feminist woman" who she described as a more substantial screen actress than Meryl Streep. "Cerebral Streep was the ideal high-WASP actress for the fast track yuppie era, bright, slick and self-conscious," she wrote. Whereas, Elizabeth Taylor "instinctively understands the camera and its nonverbal intimacies." Paglia went on to write that Taylor "takes us into the liquid realms of emotion" where "economy and understatement are essential." She says that "an electric, erotic charge vibrates the space between her face and the lens."

While I couldn't claim, in technical terms, that Taylor was the better actress, I understood why Paglia preferred her to Meryl Streep. With Streep, every acting movement is highlighted in the same manner that an operatic diva's high C's are designated to get massive applause. She transforms the fluidity of human emotion into a catalogue of mannerisms: the flick of the hair, an accent, a hand gesture, they all become tics and inflections that call attention to her acting abilities rather than revealing more about the character she is playing. (This is why I usually prefer Streep in comedy where she relaxes her steely control.) Elizabeth Taylor, on the other hand, is so sexually charged that she becomes (to borrow the Jimi Hendrix title) electric ladyland.

Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet
Not everyone at the lecture could reconcile the throne to Elizabeth Taylor. That may perhaps be due to Taylor being perceived a movie star, while Streep was seen as an actress. But Taylor was actually both star and actress; one who had, what Paglia called, "the hyper-reality of a dream vision." When she died this week at the age of 79, Elizabeth Taylor (as that dream vision) represented the passing of an era: the classic movie star of the studio period of old Hollywood who then morphed into the new Hollywood. Over her long career, she transformed dramatically from a luminous child actress in the forties (National Velvet) to the regal beauty in the fifties (A Place in the Sun, Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof); to both a self-conscious icon (Cleopatra) and an overbearing broad in the sixties (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?). Later in that decade, too, she harnessed her star power to play a sexually rapacious southern belle in John Huston's unjustly ignored Reflections in a Golden Eye, just as she dove beneath her glamourous mask in X, Y and Zee (1972), where she grew into, what critic Pauline Kael called, "the raucous-demanding-woman role she faked in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" In fact, she had dramatically evolved with the times. The changes she'd undergone Kael described as beginning with "the fragile child with a woman's face to the fabled beauty to this great bawd."

Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun
No star though became a pop Queen quite like Elizabeth Taylor. While many actresses, like Garbo, retained their power through the image they portrayed on the screen; Taylor came with plenty of outside baggage from her personal life. If Garbo wished to be alone, Taylor never was. Her many marriages included dozens of tragic circumstances. Just consider her short time with producer Michael Todd (who would die in the chartered plane called The Lucky Liz). Not so lucky. That featherweight actor Eddie Fisher (who Kael once called "a vacuum on the screen" in his pairing with Taylor on Butterfield 8) couldn't last. Then the stormy tempest that became her war of the roses with Richard Burton (where their worst romantic instincts created even worse dramatic instincts in The V.I.P.'s and Boom!). Her life became as much of a compelling melodrama as the diverse roles she sought and occupied over her career.

But despite the tabloid culture that she helped feed and nourish, Taylor righteously commanded the attention of a diverse crowd. Director John Waters (Female Trouble, Hairspray) was a huge fan. "She was a real movie star," he told critic Michael Sragow. "Right up to the end she had a great sense of humour." (She would even appear on The Simpsons.) Taylor was also the model for Divine, who was Waters' cross-dressing Grand Dame. "Look at some of the movies we made like Multiple Maniacs, and you can see we were paying tribute to her. Divine wanted to be Elizabeth Taylor."

Marlon Brando and Taylor in Reflections in a Golden Eye
That made perfect sense. Her intuitive empathy with homosexual men, from her friendship with actor Montgomery Clift, whom she played opposite in A Place in the Sun, to her bringing awareness to the AIDS epidemic in the eighties, Taylor made herself real flesh and blood beyond the iconic status she may have had among many gay men. (Her love for Rock Hudson, with whom she starred in Giant, led to her becoming the national chairwoman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research until later becoming the founding member of the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS foundation.)

Taylor and Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Where some stars become dwarfed (even destroyed) by the turmoil of their personal lives (Marilyn Monroe certainly comes to mind), Elizabeth Taylor was by contrast emboldened by them. She didn't shirk from the tabloid press and she didn't wilt from the excesses of her personal life. Taylor was all of a piece, whether regal or debauched, or lounging comfortably in her sensual prowess delivering a line (as she did to Marlon Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye) like, "Have you ever been collared and dragged out into the street and thrashed by a naked woman?"

Taylor polishing her Oscar on The Simpsons
It's rare that a big movie star could also command the screen as an actor. Often the two parts are held in conflict. For example, Brando was never comfortable being a star. But like Paul Newman, Taylor was able to integrate both parts into one whole. Unlike Newman, though, whose personal life didn't have the turbulent weather of Taylor's, he was allowed the freedom to be both great actor and huge star. Taylor will always be associated with the bad marriages and tragedies. But where Meryl Streep achieved acclaim playing a parade of victims, Elizabeth Taylor barrelled through life unbowed. Nobody before (or since) will likely ever find as many ways to captivate and electrify an audience with a wink, a sneer, or a solid kick in the ass.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. Courrier continues his lecture series on Film Noir (Roads to Perdition) in April at the Revue Cinema in Toronto. His four-part lecture series, Film Music: A Neglected Art,  continues at the JCC Prosserman on Wednesday, March 30, from 1pm-3pm.

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