Elizabeth Taylor was one of the most underrated legends of American celebrity. She lived just long enough to turn into a caricature of herself: the weight gain and loss, the grotesquely youthful look, the friendship with Michael Jackson, and not a single worthwhile movie role after 1968’s Secret Ceremony. I mean, do we really want to remember Miss Taylor in dreck like Ash Wednesday and The Flintstones?
But for two decades, Miss Taylor was not just a star but one of the kinds of stars which burns up the entire galaxy in its wake. Even then, the celebrity surrounding her extraordinary beauty and multiple marriages detracted from her talent. Her first of two Oscars was won for the tepid John O’Hara adaptation BUtterfield 8 in which she played the world’s most unlikely prostitute…but in real life she had just undergone major surgery and Hollywood was noticing. Miss Taylor had really earned that Oscar for her acting: in her greatest roles, she came off as smart, firm, and feminine. More importantly, she had a knack for taking a well-written part, seizing on one particular quality of the character, and making that a focus of empathy. This worked in spectacles such as Giant (her very realistic progressivism) and the underrated Cleopatra (frustrated ambition in a male-dominated world), and was even more effective in the great theatrical adaptations she really shone in: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Maggie’s desperate need for love and affection), Suddenly, Last Summer (Cathy’s struggle to recover her sanity), and her masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Anyone who doubts Miss Taylor’s renown need only watch her Martha, sarcastic, angry, but terribly lonely and needful of a partner…with not a single false note.
I will forget Miss Taylor’s later years and remember the grand passion–and some great films–with the equally mythic Richard Burton…and how gorgeous she is coming into the frame in A Place in the Sun.
I wish she’d made one more good movie…for she will be missed.