Sad To See You Leaving 2011: Elizabeth Taylor

by George_East on December 30, 2011

By the time she died in March this year she was a slightly absurd figure and had been so for three decades or more.  Overly made up, overly jewelled up, the Queen of conspicuous consumption – an appropriate friend for that most ridiculous of all megastars of recent years, Michael Jackson.  It is not surprising that both Jackson and Taylor were subjects for Jeff Koons, contemporary art’s king of kitsch.

But it was not always like that – as a young actress at the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, she was one of the most alluring and beautiful presences in a string of great films.   It is often forgotten that she was born in London, albeit to American parents, and lived in the UK until the outbreak of the Second World War.   She retained British citizenship  throughout her life.

And she could act too.  Although excellent as the daughter in the Spencer Tracey comedy vehicle, The Father of the Bride (the subject of a very average Steve Martin remake in 1991), it was in  George Stevens’ A Place In The Sun released in 1951, that she first showed her true abilities as the siren like Angela Vickers, who tempts Montgomery Clift’s George Eastman away from his pregnant dowdy working class girlfriend, Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters).   The film was a scouring indictment of the American dream and the notion that class does not matter in the US, as Eastman ends up being executed for murdering Alice a crime he intended to commit but when push came to shove couldn’t.  Her accidental death by drowning being laid at his door – rightly in his own mind.

She would also appear in George Stevens’ Giant with James Dean and Rock Hudson.  However for me her finest role and most consummate performance would come in 1958 in the film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on A Hot Tin Roof alongside Paul Newman.  As Maggie the Cat she slyly gets what she wants by wiles, wit and charm, as she convinces the dying patriarch, Big Daddy that she is pregnant by his favourite son Brick (Newman) on his birthday, having discovered he has cancer and will not see another.  Brick’s alcoholism and impotence (and in the play homosexuality – barely hinted at in the film made as it was under the Hays Code), has meant that he and Maggie have no sexual relationship left at all.

Brick’s brother, Gooper, his grasping ambitious wife, Mae and their children, ‘the no neck monsters’,  are consistently outwitted by Maggie in their competition for the attention of Big Daddy.   Maggie is not going to let something as small and irrelevant as a dead marriage get in the way of her and her rightful place alongside the head of the household when Big Daddy dies.   It is a brilliant performance from a young actress surrounded by method actors.  She is the star of the piece.

Her role in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof was followed soon after by another Tennessee Williams’ adaptation, Suddenly Last Summer – this time with Katherine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift.   This is the film which has Elizabeth Taylor in the famous white bathing suit on the beach in Italy.   Taylor is again excellent but her role is somewhat underwritten compared to that of Hepburn’s aunt and Clift’s psychiatrist.

1960 would see her make Cleopatra and mark the beginning of the Richard Burton saga.  The rest of Taylor’s career, with the exception of her Oscar winning turn as the alcoholic acid tongued Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (with Burton) in 1966, would be first disappointing and then by the time the 1970s arrived simply dire.

From the coverage of the auction of her jewellery over the last month or so, you would think that acquiring sparkly things was what she should be most remembered for.  This would be unfair.  For a brief period in the 1950s she was one of the most exciting and impressive actresses in Hollywood.   And it is for this that she will be sorely missed.

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