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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Farewell to Elizabeth Taylor

What a long, strange trip it's been. Elizabeth Taylor, who left us today at age 79, seemed to have had at least her fair share of lives. Child star. Adult star. Sex symbol. Homewrecker. Tabloid fodder. AIDS activist.

One role that always remained with her, though, was that of glamorous Hollywood celebrity. Even though her film career ended years ago, one can't invoke her name without bringing to mind visions of spotlights cutting through the night at Grauman's Chinese, the flashbulbs of the paparazzi and evenings out on the town with Richard Burton.

She was a product of the old MGM studio system, which was at its zenith in the early 1940s. Although National Velvet (1944) made her a child star at the age of 12, she never seemed like a child, already possessing the great beauty that would help her to easily transition to adult roles. A Place in the Sun, with Montgomery Clift, is one of the best.

She won America's sympathy when her husband Mike Todd died in a plane crash, and then courted controversy when she stole singer Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds. It was Fisher's turn to get dumped, though, when she fell in love with Richard Burton during the filming of the disastrous Cleopatra (1963), beginning a very public—and often very messy "supercouple" marriage. Make that marriages—they did it twice.

When you think about it, Taylor isn't a stranger at all to Weird Movie Village. After Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she made her way to England where she alternated between arthouse-style films and outright bizarre projects, frequently with Burton. They did The Taming of the Shrew for Franco Zeffirelli, and then Burton co-directed an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe's play of Dr. Faustus (both 1967). Many people admire the former, which served as a warm-up for Zeffirelli's even more successful Romeo and Juliet (1968), but just as many derided the latter, labeling it boring and pretentious.

1967 was a busy year for Taylor, as she nipped back to the States to do Reflections in a Golden Eye with Marlon Brando, directed by John Huston. Talk about strange movies—she plays the wife of an army major with repressed homosexual urges. She's having an affair with the doctor next door, whose wife has cut off her nipples with garden shears after the death of her baby. Meanwhile, the major has the big-time hots for a private (Robert Forster) who likes to ride horses in the altogether. If you haven't seen this film and you're saying "Ehhh?", that's a perfectly adequate reaction. Clift was supposed to have played the major, but he died before production began.

The strangest was yet to come. Boom! (1968), starring Taylor, Burton and Noel Coward, was based on Tennessee Williams' play "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," and directed by Joseph Losey. I saw a bit of it many years ago when it aired on television, but I was too young to appreciate it (if there's anything to appreciate). John Waters loves it—you can see a poster for it on the wall of the Marbles' home in Pink Flamingos.

It was at this point that Burton seemed to enter the "somnambulistic" phase of his career, shambling through roles in a hammy daze, demonstrated most amusingly in Exorcist II: The Heretic. Fortunately, he managed to snap out of it to turn in a good performance as the psychiatrist in the film adaptation of Equus, winning a Golden Globe.

Losey wasn't done with Taylor. Next they made Secret Ceremony (1968), a strange thriller also starring Mia Farrow. Taylor plays a former prostitute who meets a waiflike girl (Farrow). The girl reminds the hooker of her daughter, who died as a child, and the hooker reminds the waif of her mother, etc... I haven't seen it, but it evidently has elements of Bergman's 1966 Persona (I can see that), and Polanski's 1965 Repulsion.

Taylor's most out-and-out horror film has to be Night Watch (1973), also starring Laurence Harvey and Billie Whitelaw. It's an "old dark house" type of thriller in which she plays a rich widow who witnesses a murder and can't get anyone to believe her because she'd recently recovered from a nervous breakdown. This title isn't available on DVD in the States, but I'd like to find a VHS copy from one of the few stores that still carries tape.

She reteamed with Burton for the 1973 TV movie Divorce His-Divorce Hers, a two-parter that tells their story from his point of view in the first half and hers in the second. Made during the period when their first marriage was actually crumbling, it was a surefire audience-grabber.

Later Taylor made more frequent appearances on television, including guest spots on "General Hospital" and "All My Children." She played Louella Parsons against Jane Alexander's Hedda Hopper in 1985's Malice in Wonderland, about the feud between the famous gossip columnists who exercised such influence in Hollywood that their words could make or break a career.

But when her friend Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1985, she became an activist to find a cure for the disease at a time when no one in the industry dared utter the acronym for fear of blacklisting. She tirelessly organized fundraisers, founded the American Foundation for AIDS Research and even testified before Congress.

She survived numerous illnesses, more marriages and a very public weight gain episode (remember John Belushi's parody?), but she remained an independent woman and a true friend. She supported Michael Jackson through all of his trials even as the press commented snarkily about their unusual, close relationship.

Even as her health was failing, Taylor was an avid Twitterer. Her last Tweet was on February 9th, celebrating her final interview in Harper's Bazaar.

And I always know it's Christmastime when her "White Diamonds" perfume ad airs. "Not so fast, John Ryan!" They'd better damn well show it this year.

Godspeed, Elizabeth. There's a bright new star in heaven tonight.

Let's finish this tribute with a shot of the luminous Taylor in the final scene of A Place in the Sun:

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