Monday, December 11, 2006

SPOILS TO THE VICTOR

The indestructible Elizabeth Taylor

by Nick Zegarac

“I, along with the critics, have never taken myself very seriously.” – Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor is Hollywood’s last true goddess. Yet, her legacy is only partly captured on film. As a child star she was the personification of youth and innocence, joy and happiness. In her teens she was often cast as the female viper, a bad girl easily converted to the side of righteousness by the love of a loyal companion. In her waning years of film stardom (though never popularity), Taylor was often the shrewish manipulator – a role fueled by negative popular opinion about her private affairs with Eddie Fischer and Richard Burton. That the optimism she infused into those marriages ended in feuding disarray and convoluted divorces are a personal tragedy – one of many the actress endured after the cameras stopped rolling.

Yet, through the adversities and the name-calling, from “luscious Liz” or denouncements by congress as “a home wrecker” Elizabeth Taylor remains ‘above it all.’ She is – as MGM producer Arthur Freed had predicted long before her legend had been established – a sport; that rare departure from the realm of mere mortals, whose stunning good looks and intense passion for life now seem destined for the ages of perennial heroines in popular folklore. Elizabeth Taylor is no longer a person. She has become America’s national myth.

She was born Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor; a British subject to American parents Francis and Sara Taylor in London, England, on February 27, 1932. In her youth, Sara had been on the stage; a past life that brought about erroneous speculations that she had forced Elizabeth into an acting career. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” Sara commented in a 1949 interview, “I not only gave up the theater when I married Francis Taylor, I never looked back.”

Elizabeth Taylor’s childhood generally gets the short shrift, but certain points about the young girl’s pre-film life bear mentioning. To begin, Taylor’s track record for illness started practically from birth with bouts of ear infections and influenza, and, a penchant for accidentally bruising, burning and otherwise injuring herself under the aegis of childhood curiosity. If it had not been for her faithful brother, Howard, she might very well have drowned – twice; once in a creek near her family home, and again, in Malibu after a dangerous undertow dragged her beneath the surf.

England was home to the Taylors until Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in March of 1939. By May, Sara and Francis had moved the family to Pasadena California. Neither Sara nor Francis had any interest in exploiting their daughter as a child star. However, at the tender age of seven, Elizabeth had already developed a mind of her own. When asked by her teacher what she wanted to be when she grew up, Elizabeth replied, “I don’t want to be a movie star. I want to be a serious actress like my mother was.”

Taylor got her chance inauspiciously and quite by accident when her father, Francis (while dealing in art), met Andrea Berens; a woman who was then engaged to Cheever Cowdin – the chairman to the Board of Directors of Universal Pictures. At the insistence of his fiancée, Cowdin met the Taylors and became enamored with Elizabeth. Cowdin also attempted to fashion a career for Taylor as a childhood chanteuse, something he had done for Universal’s then protégé, Deanna Durbin. Taylor even took lessons from Durbin’s singing coach, Andre De Segurola for a time.

As luck would have it, at a recital Elizabeth wowed Carmen Considine, wife of producer John W. Jr. who finagled a meeting with MGM’s lion, L.B. Mayer. The audience between Elizabeth and Mayer was brief and tainted by Mayer’s usual gruffness.

“Well,” Mayer told Considine, “What are you waiting for? Sign her up!” Unfortunately for Elizabeth, Cheever Cowdin was prepared to double Mayer’s initial offer to $200 a week. Cowdin got Elizabeth – then didn’t know what to do with his new acquisition. Universal dropped Taylor from her first Hollywood contract after only one year.

Elizabeth spent nearly two years in limbo thereafter – living resplendently in Beverly Hills with her parents - until a turn of events once again brought her to the attention of MGM. This time the catalyst was a minor B-movie produced by Samuel MarxLassie Come Home (1942).

Initially, Margaret O’Brien had been cast opposite Roddy McDowell. But O’Brien’s star had been on the ascendance. As Lassie was not of the caliber of her previous endeavors, Elizabeth got the part instead. No one, least of all Marx expected the whirlwind of publicity that followed the film’s debut. An instant hit with audiences of all ages, Lassie Come Home provided the springboard for Elizabeth Taylor’s movie career.

MGM loaned Taylor to 20th Century Fox for Jane Eyre before recalling her for White Cliffs of Dover (both in 1944). With each assignment, her reputation as a consummate professional with no hint of self consciousness steadily grew. But by far, Taylor’s most ambitious project to date was National Velvet (1944), based on Enid Bagnold’s bestseller. MGM cast a horse of genuine pedigree, King Charles (grandson of the famous Man O’ War) as the fictional Pi whom Taylor rides to victory in the film. The horse, “a lunatic” by Elizabeth’s own reflections, once ate the front off her blouse.

All, however, was not idyllic beyond those fabled walls of the dream factory. Mayer’s relentless pursuit in crafting Taylor’s career often led to over work and increasing demands. Sara Taylor tried to intervene but she was no match for Mayer’s imposing nature.

Elizabeth’s temperament was quite another story. At one such meeting in which Mayer frightened Sara almost to tears, Elizabeth suddenly defied the mogul with, “Don’t you dare speak to my mother like that! You and your studio can both go to hell!” Refusing to apologize for her outburst, Taylor and Mayer never spoke to one another again.

She was loaned to Warner Brothers – as punishment – for the film adaptation of Life With Father (1947); a delightful excursion and departure from Mayer’s tyrannical reign that kept Elizabeth busy and away from MGM for five months. The film’s director, Michael Curtiz did his own predicting. “Elizabeth is the most promising dramatic ingénue in years.” Jack Warner concurred. But an attempt to secure her for a part in Green Mansions was unsuccessful. Henceforth, and for sometime thereafter, Taylor would be preoccupied on the Metro backlot with films like Cynthia and A Date With Judy (1947).

Originally a Broadway flop (dubbed Junior Mess in pun and comparison to the play Junior Miss which was a resounding success) the filmic version of Cynthia proved to be yet another triumph in Taylor’s rising star. Commenting on her natural ease in front of the camera, her genuine warmth, interest and reality amidst the artifice of the story, The New Herald-Tribune declared, “Elizabeth Taylor does a brilliant job with the title role.”

Taylor was given less to do in A Date With Judy – a Pasternakian “light and beguiling” musical mish-mosh that starred resident winsome singer Jane Powell. The film, a delightful (if somewhat plot-less bit of fluff and nonsense) did little to either enhance or detract from Elizabeth’s rising stardom. But by now, Taylor was beginning to grow slightly bored with her assignments.

Throughout her MGM years, Elizabeth had often quietly resented the dichotomy of life imitating art. She found most of her contemporaries (save Roddy McDowell) quite shallow and pretentious and she also resented the fact that most of her adolescent fancies and early adulthood was the well orchestrated product of studio P.R. Even her first date to actor Marshall Thompson was a planned affair. More distressing all around was the fan magazines’ sudden rabid fascination to brand Elizabeth Taylor as the movie’s amoral temptress. She had grown out of her freshness into a woman with A Date with Judy, and the exposure and backlash reaped by that experience was not lost on the press.

“Name me one actress who survived all that crap at MGM. Maybe Lana Turner. Certainly Liz Taylor. But they all hate acting as much as I do. All except for Elizabeth. She used to come up to me on the set and say “If only I could learn to be good,” and, by God, she made it!”
– Ava Gardner

What saved Taylor’s sanity during this awkward public fascination with her teen years were the weekend escapes Elizabeth had at her family’s Malibu beach house with her ever expanding troupe of swains and close friends. On one such retreat in 1948, Taylor was introduced to Glenn Davis – a champion football hero. However, with a breakneck schedule on her latest MGM project, Little Women (1949) and the studio PR desperate to fabricate a whirlwind romance between she and Davis, the encounter was doomed to never go beyond the cordial stage of polite friendship.

It was at this junction in Elizabeth’s career that two moves; one professional, one personal, conspired to alter her child star image to that of the undisputed siren of the 50s; her casting opposite Montgomery Clift in Paramount’s A Place in the Sun (1951) and her first serious attachment to heir apparent to a hotel fortune, Conrad Nicholas ‘Nicky’ Hilton Jr.

The romance was spirited and fueled by MGM’s campaign to release Father of the Bride (1951) to coincide with Taylor’s real life nuptials to Hilton on May 6. It was a Hollywood ending for MGM’s favorite filmic daughter and by all accounts it ought to have launched Taylor into unrequited bliss. Unfortunately, the marriage had begun to deteriorate practically from the moment the couple departed for their honeymoon. Taylor herself would later reflect, “When I married Nick I fell off my pink cloud with a thud.” Eight months later – divorce #1 was finalized.

MGM was shaken by the sudden turn of events. They were in the process of shooting an idyllic follow up to Father of the Bride which presented Elizabeth as the happy mother with only hearth and home on her mind. But Taylor had already polished off the dust from her awkward first husband with a blossoming affair concerning director Stanley Donen who was then married to Jeanne. On April 5, 1951 Father’s Little Dividend premiered, and although successful, it failed to meet MGM’s expectations or the box office receipts garnered by the first movie. By the time Taylor began shooting Ivanhoe (1952) she had also begun courting her second husband, actor Michael Wilding.

THE LEGEND AFTER THE FALL

“I remember a time when I went down on my knees to an executive at MGM who shall remain nameless. I was married to Michael Wilding and was pregnant and they put me on suspension. We had bought a house and we desperately needed$10,000 or else we would lose it.

I begged him to loan me $10,000. It seemed the end of the world. He said, ‘you didn’t plan things very well did you?’…He pulled out a wallet choked with hundreds of thousands…to humiliate me. I got the money only on the condition that I would make an exhausting tour – pregnant mind you – to promote a picture. I vowed then and there that I would never have to ask anybody for anything again!”
– Elizabeth Taylor

On January 6, 1953 Michael Howard Wilding was born to Taylor and Michael Wilding in Santa Monica. MGM offered Elizabeth a substandard script to get their most popular asset back into movies. Taylor balked at the assignment. Instead, she was loaned out to Paramount for Elephant Walk (1953) an abysmal tale of ineffectual relationships doomed to extinction against the exotic backdrop of Ceylon. Suffering an eye injury on the set, from which drastic surgery was required to save Elizabeth from blindness, MGM recalled Taylor a scant six weeks post-op to star in Rhapsody (1953), a cliché ridden tale that costarred her husband.

Elizabeth’s next pair of efforts; the convoluted and artifice laden clunker, Beau Brummel and pretentiously phony, The Last Time I Saw Paris (both in 1954) were ill received, particularly the former which various critics in Britain found “ridiculous,” “stupid” and “boring.” Though Elizabeth garnered praise for her work in the latter – Variety deemed her performance “a milestone” and “her best work to date,” these rather glaring financial failures marked an end to MGM’s supremacy in motion picture entertainment. It was also the beginning of the end of Taylor’s reign as the studio’s resident vixen. Henceforth, her talents would rise or fall on their own merit as a free agent.

However, by the mid-1950s minor cracks in Elizabeth’s marriage to Wilding could no longer be ignored. Confidential Magazine, a rag tabloid of its day, began a quiet smear campaign, entertaining notions that Wilding had invited strippers to the family home while Elizabeth was off on location. Although Elizabeth had fluffed off such nonsense, a bitter feud between she and Wilding led to a barb spun a bit closer to home.

“Elizabeth has very little of the housewife in her,” Wilding told reporters, further commenting on his wife’s sloppiness so as to present a portrait of a careless dirty and ill kempt woman. He might have first reconsidered that he had married a star not a hausfrau. Yet reporters who interviewed Elizabeth were quick to defend her “lack of vanity” and complete unselfishness which was deemed as “an astonishing lack of ego.”

Amidst this personal and professional turmoil, Taylor made Giant (1956), a colossal acting achievement and superb epic which earned back some of the respect for her abilities that had been squandered on substandard and ill-timed product like Elephant Walk and Beau Brummel.

However, another MGM misfire; Raintree County (1957) which Time Magazine accurately assessed as “begins in tedium and ends 168 leaden minutes later” once again threatened to push Taylor’s reputation as an actress into the celluloid dust bin. Because of these flops many roles that should have gone to Taylor throughout the 1950s (or at the very least, been proposed as subsequent projects) were never optioned, either from the producer/director working on the project at another studio or by MGM for their own star vehicles with Elizabeth in mind.

Meanwhile, Taylor’s second marriage fast unraveled. Somewhere into her malaise Elizabeth developed affections for producer Michael Todd. They might have begun with spying him across the MGM commissary or perhaps only after the Wildings had become Todd’s frequent house guests. Regardless, the attachment was steadily growing, mutual and quite palpable, so much so that Todd – in his usual bombastic aplomb, told Taylor shortly after her separation from Wilding, “Now understand one thing and hear me good, kid. Don’t start looking around for somebody to latch on to. You are going to marry only one guy, see, and his name is me!”

The two were married on February 2, 1957. But the whirlwind bliss between Todd and Taylor was short lived. While on their honeymoon, Taylor slipped and fell down a flight of stairs, rupturing five discs in her lower back. Three were eventually removed, leaving her temporarily paralyzed and with the very real prospect that she might never walk again. Months of rehabilitation with Todd, lovingly supportive by her side, eventually resulted in a complete – though frightfully painful - recovery. But on March 22, 1958 Todd died in a fiery plane crash, leaving Elizabeth a very wealthy but utterly distraught widow.

In the wake of her shocking loss, Taylor’s emotional state went into a tailspin. She rebounded by throwing herself into one of the best film properties MGM had offered her in years – Maggie Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). The film received rave reviews from the critics and an Oscar nomination as Best Actress. The subsequent year the statuette went to Elizabeth for BUtterfield 8 (1960) an MGM prior commitment project that Taylor positively despised.

While professionally things had begun to look up, Taylor’s private life was in total disarray thanks to her much publicized affair with Todd’s best friend, Eddie Fischer (then married to actress, Debbie Reynolds). The frankness of Fischer’s infidelity once more drew out the specters that Elizabeth Taylor was a ‘home wrecker,’ ‘deviant’ and ‘unfit mother.’ There were also some who suggested ‘mental illness’ as a probably cause for her inability to remain faithful.

Amidst this hullabaloo, Taylor and Fischer left the United States to begin work on Elizabeth’s most notorious project to date; Cleopatra (1963). When producer Walter Wanger initially approached her, Taylor had remarked that nothing short of a million dollars would make her even consider the part. Wanger’s acceptance of the then unheard of salary made Elizabeth Taylor the highest paid actress for a single movie. “If someone's dumb enough to offer me a million dollars to make a picture, I'm certainly not dumb enough to turn it down,” Elizabeth explained. But her acceptance placed the responsibility of the film’s success squarely on her shoulders.

With an arduous schedule and persistent health problems plaguing her nearly from the start, Taylor eventually found solace in the arms of her costar and future fifth husband, Richard Burton. The epic exploitation of their affair in the tabloids shattered Eddie Fischer’s fragile ego, but ironically, it fueled public interest in the elephantine movie.

When the dust settled, 20th Century Fox had a colossal dud on their hands. Although Cleopatra had received advanced ticket sales that made it the 8th highest grossing film in Hollywood’s history, that record was dwarfed by the film’s gargantuan $62 million budget and mammoth marketing efforts. In the end, Cleopatra did not even recoup even its initial production costs. For her part, Elizabeth publicly decried the movie as cheap trash. “The final insult…” she told a reporter, “…was being forced to go to the premiere and see it.”

Taylor married Richard Burton for the first time on March 15th 1964. They divorced ten years later, only to remarry for a second time in 1975. That brief reconciliation lasted one year. Elizabeth’s subsequent films following Cleopatra were disappointing; particularly 1963’s The VIP’s (1963) with Burton. But an artistic reprieve in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) rounded out her decade’s worth of efforts with another Best Actress Oscar nod.

It was at this juncture that Taylor officially departed from making movies – perhaps from the boredom of it all; the reoccurring failure of her later efforts or realistically, because with all her money she really didn’t have to work any more. A chance meeting with Senator John Warner was lead to their brief marriage from 1976 to1982. During this interim Taylor devoted her life to her husband’s political causes and all but vanished from the movies.

Single again in the eighties, Elizabeth reappeared in cameos on several popular television programs including reoccurring roles in General Hospital and All My Children and, as the Southern madam in the epic mini-series North and South. Taylor also made the talk show circuit on Phil Donohue and The Tonight Show.


In these later years, Elizabeth Taylor’s strengths derived from a devotion to causes. When close friend and Giant costar Rock Hudson succumbed to AIDS in 1985, Elizabeth transformed her celebrity into a spokeswoman for cultural awareness about the disease and became one of the most committed and ardent supporters to help find a cure. Taylor also found time to debut a line of perfumes; Passion (1987); White Diamonds (1991); Diamonds and Rubies, Diamonds and Emeralds, Diamonds and Sapphares and Black Pearls (1995).
She married for the 8th and final time to a construction worker and recovering alcoholic, Larry Fortensky (1991-1996). The two had met in rehab. “I had a hollow leg,” Taylor later admitted, “I could drink everyone under the table and not get drunk. My capacity was terrifying.”

In 1997, Elizabeth made headlines once again for the successful removal of a brain tumor. In 1999, she was made a dame by Queen Elizabeth and in 2002 the John F. Kennedy Center Honors were awarded her. “There's still so much more to do,” Taylor declared, “I can't sit back and be complacent, and none of us should be. I get around now in a wheelchair, but I get around.”
As of the writing of this article, Elizabeth Taylor is still very much with us – literally and figurative. A 2004 rumor of congestive heart failure has not diminished either Taylor’s verve in support of charities or her spirit and desire to build a Richard Burton Memorial Theater in Wales.
Asked about her commitments apart from being a Hollywood diva, Taylor frankly replied, “If not to make the world better, what is money for?”
There has never been, nor is there ever likely to ever be, someone quite as enduring and endearing as this great American icon of beauty, wit, charm and sophistication. “Success is a great deodorant,” Taylor once remarked, “It takes away all your past smells.”

Taylor’s Hollywood past is one of the most remarkable and prolific, marked by great strides against seemingly insurmountable adversities. Throughout her journey, Elizabeth has flourished where most others fail. Her resilience is not merely commendable, but confounding. “It is very strange that the years teach us patience,” reflected Taylor “that the shorter our time, the greater our capacity for waiting.”

There remains but one word for Elizabeth Taylorindestructible.

@Nick Zegarac 2006 (all rights reserved).