Wednesday, May 02, 2007

An appreciation of La Liz

When I was growing up, Liz Taylor was one of the most famous women in the world. Jackie Kennedy Onassis was her only competition. Princess Grace and Sophia Loren certainly had their fans, but when it came to dominating magazine covers, Liz and Jackie were in a class by themselves.

Jackie is a woman I always admired. Stylish and stoic, smart and enigmatic, she is still the lady I wish I could be. Liz, on the other hand, had become a garish joke. She and Burton always seemed to be drinking, fighting and smoking. She wore mu-mus and obscenely big diamonds and too much makeup. Her movies sucked.

But then I discovered her old movies, and suddenly I understood what all the fuss was about. She might not ever have been a great actress, but for a time she was a most compelling movie star. Did they coin the phrase, "she makes love to the camera" about her? If they didn't, they could have. Her cinematic charisma is genuine and powerful, like a force of nature.

She herself once said, "Some of my best leading men have been dogs and horses," and that's certainly true of her child-star years. She's so affectionate and natural when she throws her arms around Lassie or The Pie that you remember that your first great love was was four-legged, too.

Her teen movies are all pretty dopey, as MGM teen movies tended to be. The only one I've watched more than once is Little Women. She made a terrifically selfish, yet somehow lovable, blonde Amy.

Then she grew up, and her beauty was breathtaking. Father of the Bride and Father's Little Dividend show her as this ideal little 1950s girl. She had no aspirations in the world beyond being a good daughter, then a beautiful bride, a supportive wife and a loving mom.

Then came A Place in the Sun. She is fabulous in this film, literally the embodiment of the American dream. She made a ton of really great movies during this period. She came to dominate the screen and seem somehow more modern, more vibrant and more carnal than anyone around her. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Giant, Suddenly Last Summer, even Butterfield 8 (a movie she hates) are all watchable and rewatchable because of her.

Then there's her Martha. Her work in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the high water mark of her career. This was the perfect material for her contemporary, carnal qualities and she is simply brilliant. I had the opportunity to see Virginia Woolf live a few weeks back. Kathleen Turner was ill that night, so I don't know if her live Martha could have eclipsed Liz' cinematic creation. But the understudy who played the part was unable to erase the memory of Liz's boozy voice barking out those lines.

Now when you think of Liz, it's easy to dismiss her as silly. Her friendship with Michael Jackson, her weight gain, her ceaseless health problems, her addictions, her jewelry. I understand this because when I was growing up, I thought she at best irrelevant and at worst frivolous.

But then I saw her work, and I'm the better for it. Thank you, Dame Elizabeth, for some indelible screen moments.

2 comments:

  1. Absolutely right on! I felt the same way about her until I saw A Place in the Sun. My gosh she was beautiful and enigmatic, wasn't she? Great post.

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  2. In her good movies (50s and early 60s), she seems so DOMINANT. It's odd, because physically she's usually smaller than anyone who appears with her. But you forget that quickly. I was talking to my mom in the hours between Princess Diana's car crash and the announcement of her death. They showed the car in the Paris underpass and my mom said, "No one could walk away from that unharmed." Swear to God, I said, "Liz Taylor could."

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