A Person Called Elizabeth Taylor

Born in 1932 Taylor became an international star at the age of 14 when she started in MGM’s National Velvet (1944). Following the success of that film she became one of the biggest and busiest child stars who successfully managed to make a smooth transition post childhood. By the time she made Giant (1956) with the iconic James Dean and Rock Hudson, Taylor was considered to be one of the most glamorous actress’ in the world.

Taylor notched up her second Academy Award nomination for her brilliant portrayal of Maggie Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). Based on a Tennessee Williams play the film featured Paul Newman as the impotent washed out athlete Brick whose father is dying of cancer and is worried sick about Brick’s childless marriage.

Maggie persuades Brick to give up drinking while enticing him and taunting him about his dead friend at the same. Taylor’s Maggie has a mesmerizing effect thanks to the ease with which she portrays the numerous shades which at times call girls in islamabad make you wonder perhaps you are watching different women at the same time.

Taylor matched steps with the legendary Katherine Hepburn in Suddenly, Last Summer (1959) where she plays a girl who witnesses the horrible death of her cousin and goes insane. Taylor got yet another Oscar nomination but it’d be her flawless performance in Butterfield 8 the following year that finally got her the coveted Award. Butterfield 8 saw Taylor play a posh call-girl whose need for respect is much stronger than her indecent lifestyle.

In spite of some towering performances and many great films Cleopatra ended up becoming the most important film of Elizabeth Taylor’s life. She became the highest paid actress with Cleopatra when she got the paid 10 million dollars for a film that was originally budgeted at $2 million! The film ended up costing $40 million and was a financial loss even though it was 1963 top grossing film! Cleopatra is also remembered for the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton romance that brewed on the sets and culminated in her fifth marriage. Her next few films didn’t really set things on fire till she teamed up with Burton again for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Directed by Mike Nichols, this seminal classic arguably features two of the greatest on-screen performances ever and got Taylor her second Oscar. The tale of an aging and bitter aging whose use a younger visiting couple to vent out their anguish towards each other has Burton and Taylor so naturally into each other that one feels it’s not a film anymore. An excellent cinematic experience no matter how times one revisits, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a treat to watch thanks to the two different acting styles of Burton, an actor who was acknowledged but never really revered as much as he should have, and Taylor, an actor who never really lost out to the star she became, work together so seamlessly.

After Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the only Elizabeth Taylor film that stands out is John Houston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967). Based on Carson McCuller’s novel this strange film is a mix of exceptional wit and tragedy. Taylor plays an unhinged Army wife to Marlon Brando’s impotent and closet homosexual Army Major both of whom are trapped in a very personal emotional cage.

Taylor puts in a very natural performance as the wife of a sexually repressed officer; she humiliates him in front of everyone, has a rollicking affair with a fellow officer and rarely lets an opportunity to ridicule him escape her.

Like Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard Taylor remained big all though her life, it’s the pictures that got small. When the films got smaller Taylor moved on to bigger things.

Before she famously held Michael Jackson’s hand during a public appearance as the loyal friend of someone whom everyone was ready to fry, she had held another friend’s hand for a bigger cause. When most shied away from the archetypal all American ‘reel’ Rock Hudson when he became a ‘real’ homosexual person dying of AIDS, Taylor stood by him publicly and championed the cause of AIDS much before it became fashionable. Before she died she Taylor led a campaign for the American Foundation for AIDS Research which has raised more than $200 million till date.

Yes, Dame Elizabeth Taylor married eight times, twice to the same man; yes, she was the friend whose hands Michael Jackson held when Oprah Winfrey interviewed him; yes, she was the most glamorous Cleopatra ever but there is much more to Dame Elizabeth Taylor that being the crazy woman of many marriages for in a life she led… these things don’t really matter.

 

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