It seems like Elizabeth Taylor had been ill or at least in fragile health for at least fifty years, when she won her first Academy Award in 1960 as a call girl in Butterfield 8, a movie she hated. After her name was called, Taylor ascended the Oscar podium and thanked everyone in her most whispery voice; she had just undergone a tracheotomy. “When Elizabeth Taylor got a hole in her throat, I canceled my plane,” said Shirley MacLaine, who until Taylor’s illness had been an Oscar favorite for her role in The Apartment. 1960 was a kind of hinge for Taylor, when the most beautiful woman in movies began to morph into the most talked-about and most scandalous woman of her time, eating, drinking, marrying, indulging, her violet eyes a symbol for the most unrepentant and innocently childlike greed. I gasped when I read that she had died this morning; it didn’t seem like death was ever a real possibility for her. Taylor was always too busy not just living but living it up; even confined to her bed, she still managed to keep our attention on Twitter.
This was a woman with such an appetite for life that finally jokes had to be made about her, by Joan Rivers and other comedians, because her huge needs and urges could not be allowed to go un-mocked or un-chastised. Her passion for jewelry was well known; she even wrote a book about it. Once, in a restaurant, with the photographer Bruce Weber, Taylor spotted a rich woman wearing a beautiful diamond; she approached the woman’s table, smiled, looked at the gem and brazenly asked, “Can I have it?” The woman turned her down, but there weren’t many things Taylor couldn’t get; in her 1960s prime and beyond, Taylor was large, she was bawdy, and she was unapologetically vulgar. After being schooled in the 1940s at MGM, the stuffiest of the major movie studios (she sometimes seemed to be sleepwalking through some of her minor films there), Taylor won the first million-dollar salary for playing Cleopatra (1963), a film so expensive that it nearly destroyed Twentieth Century Fox. “If someone’s dumb enough to offer me one million dollars to make a picture, I’m certainly not dumb enough to turn it down,” she said at the time, as she exchanged one famous husband (Eddie Fisher) for another (Richard Burton), and then went on a drinking and lovemaking and filmmaking tear with Burton, all in the most merciless media glare.
She won her second Academy Award for playing Martha opposite Burton’s George in Mike Nichols’s film version of Edward Albee’s play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), and it was a hard-won victory in a tricky, complicated role. When Taylor was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by The American Film Institute in 1993, she was modest about her acting: “I don’t think I was so bad,” she said, after viewing a lifetime of film clips, but she had no need to be so self-deprecating. Taylor has her impressively histrionic moments in Virginia Woolf, especially in her liquor-soaked battles with Burton, but if you want to talk about precise, emotionally truthful film acting, take a look at the scene she plays by a kitchen door where Martha quietly talks about how she does not wish to be happy. Taylor was trained by MGM, not by Stella Adler or Lee Strasberg, but in a scene like this she is able to make an imaginative leap and exactly catch the masochistic heart of one of the most difficult and rewarding roles for a woman in all of twentieth century American theater.
After this success, Taylor took on parts that emphasized a kind of succulent and campy comedy playing, and if her roles weren’t inherently comic, she would make them so. In Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), a golden-hued Carson McCullers adaptation, Taylor enjoys taunting her rigid husband (Marlon Brando), but she really goes to town in a lengthy monologue where she describes the food she’s going to order for a party in mouth-watering, tongue-wagging detail; this is a key example of Taylor’s outrageous hedonism, which was always so offensive yet titillating to puritanical American middle-class taste. Camille Paglia has written of seeing Joseph Losey’s Secret Ceremony (1968) with a male friend and gasping with him in pleasure at the moment when Taylor is suddenly seen in a purple suit with a purple turban against a blue background, a riot of color that pops with her violet eyes.
Secret Ceremony is a crazy movie, as is Losey’s Boom! (1968), and Taylor really gave herself over to her run of lunatic features in the late 60s and early 70s. In X, Y and Zee (1972), a little-seen Edna O’Brien adaptation, Taylor is at her honking, goofy, horny, screeching best as a vulgar wife derisive of Susannah York’s moonbeam MGM sensitivity. And anyone who hasn’t seen the all-out camp climax of her fearless and hilariously committed performance in The Driver’s Seat (1974; pictured) should search this demented movie out from where it’s hiding immediately. In this priceless run of late film vehicles, it was as if Taylor was thumbing her nose at the whole idea of “acting” and treating these movies to exhilaratingly larkish work
The Driver’s Seat (also known as Identikit, also known as Psychotic) marks a gap in Taylor’s career as a star performer, and she returned only in small roles or half-hearted leads, like her recumbent Alexandra Del Lago in a TV movie of Sweet Bird of Youth (1989). During the height of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Taylor unflinchingly talked about the disease and tirelessly raised money and awareness (it is said that she helped to make over 100 million dollars for AIDS research). She continued to acquire husbands and jewelry, of course, and she was the first one to make jokes about that. In the last ten years, her health was particularly delicate, and she made the rounds mainly in a wheelchair, yet in 2006, at the urging of friends, Taylor took a plunge into the Pacific Ocean to look at sharks in a Plexiglas cage; she later described it as “the most exciting thing” she had ever done, and that’s saying a lot.
There will be fans who will savor her work in two late 1950s Tennessee Williams adaptations, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), where she stood in her white slip and nuzzled Paul Newman in his blue bathrobe, and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), where she emerged from the sea in a nearly transparent white bathing suit as sexual bait for her homosexual cousin, and certainly she did well in those strange and bowdlerized movies. Surely her fresh performance as the horse-loving little girl in National Velvet (1944) is worthy of the adoration that critic James Agee shyly admitted to in his review of that film. But the essential Taylor, the one I want to remember, is Angela Vickers, the rich young woman in George Stevens’s A Place in the Sun (1951) who makes an immediate connection to Montgomery Clift’s George Eastman, first over a pool table and then on the dance floor, until they’re overcome by feelings for each other and rush outside to a terrace. Stevens gives us screen-filling close-ups of their lusciously modeled, dark young faces as Clift kisses Taylor’s hands and she reacts to his tormented sensitivity; it’s as if Taylor herself is finally able to escape the prison of being constantly looked at by feeling compassion for someone else. They stay still for a moment, and then she murmurs, “Tell Mama,” and then, “Tell Mama all.” Stevens chooses to end his film with a repeat of these rapturous close-ups, and that’s the way that any consideration of Elizabeth Taylor should end, too, at the height of her beauty, in thrall to a male beauty of equal standing, reaching out to him and to us.