William Flew and Liz Taylor R.I.P
March 24, 2011 § 1 Comment
From the age of 10, Elizabeth Taylor was a superstar, perhaps one of the biggest Hollywood ever made. Her career, its rise and decline, was inextricably linked to the story of that town, to the glory days of the studio system and to the advent of the modern age of film-making.
HULTON GETTYFiery couple: Taylor with Richard Burton on their yacht off the coast of Capo Caccia, Sardinia, in 1967But her talents as an actress went only a small way to explaining her rumbustious, headline-making appeal. Married eight times to seven different husbands, she conducted her affairs like a Beverly Hills Wife of Bath. Plagued by accidents as she was, she was also blessed with apparent indestructibility. She bounced back after divorce, bereavement, alcohol and drug addiction, career droughts and the venom of the world’s press.
In her youth she was often described as the brunette counterpart to Marilyn Monroe. But there was nothing remotely vulnerable about Taylor. She proved to be tougher than any of her husbands, and she claimed, after a lifetime’s hard work, the right to enjoy her money and celebrity.
Her greatest gift as an actress was her face. She was incomparably photogenic, with jet-black hair, so dark it seemed almost blue on screen, and eyes the deep purple colour of an aubergine skin. Her figure presented more problems for cameramen. Small, curvaceous and top-heavy, she had the bust of a much taller woman.
Beauty aside, she could strike those who met her, particularly when she was sober, as rather ordinary, happiest talking about her children and dogs. It was that streak of normality which saved her.
Her acting talents were peculiarly limited to the big screen. Both Paul Newman and Richard Burton, when they first rehearsed with her, complained to their directors that Taylor was wooden and gave them nothing to act against. Both had to agree, when they saw what the camera had picked up — her instinctive, understated gestures, the flicker of her eyes — that she knew what she was doing. Even so, there were some critics who made a living out of lambasting Taylor, those who could never look past the awfulness of some of her early work, or who could not admit that such a pretty girl could act.
While they conceded that she had been excellent in National Velvet and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, they complained that these roles were merely aspects of Taylor’s own character, and therefore required no effort.
They were right, to the extent that Taylor could be lazy as an actress. She never attempted to improve her worst faults, which were her high-pitched voice and weight problem, and she was at her best when the plot revolved around sex. But it was her misfortune to be hitting her stride as an actress just as she reached middle age, and the plum roles began to dry up.
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in London, near Hampstead Heath. Though Hollywood fan magazines later liked to stress her upper-class English background, she was, in fact, the daughter of two Americans. Her mother, Sara, was a promising actress who had given up her career to bring up the children, and her father was Francis Taylor, a handsome art dealer, whose job in London was to ship Constables home for the American market.
The family’s entrée on to the bottom rungs of British high society was guaranteed by their friendship with the Cazalet family. Victor Cazalet, the gregarious Conservative MP, acted as unofficial godfather to the young Elizabeth. In truth, he was also her father’s lover for several years — one reason, perhaps, why Elizabeth, as she grew up, seemed happiest in the company of homosexual men.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, Francis Taylor left England with crates of drawings by his friend Augustus John and set up an art boutique in the Beverly Hills Hotel. The Cazalets’ family friend Hedda Hopper gave the boutique a good notice, and also announced in her column “a new find — eight-year-old Elizabeth Taylor”.
In the beauty-obsessed culture of Beverly Hills, Elizabeth enjoyed being at the centre of attention. She was a compliant child who danced for guests and allowed herself to be fussily dressed and ringletted. Having watched Shirley Temple, she also harboured ambitions to act, ambitions which her mother eagerly encouraged. A year’s contract at Universal gave her her first screen outing, There’s One Born Every Minute (1942). It was a flop.
But her father, who had got to know a producer at MGM, persuaded him to take a look at his little girl. Sam Marx was then casting for Lassie Come Home. He already had six children lined up in his office when in walked his friend’s daughter, Elizabeth.
“It was like an eclipse of the sun,” said Marx. “The child, dressed in blue velvet with white trim and matching hat, was breathtaking. She looked so splendid that we opted to forgo a screen test. I walked her to the casting office and we drew up a contract.”
For the next two decades, Louis B. Mayer’s MGM was Taylor’s teacher, surrogate parent and eventually, in her eyes, her jailer. After Lassie Come Home (1943), in which she was cast opposite Roddy McDowall, her career stalled momentarily. The next year she played the consumptive Helen Burns in Jane Eyre, such a tiny part that she did not even receive a screen credit.
However, backed by her resourceful mother, she accosted Clarence Brown, who was to direct National Velvet, and, legend has it, talked him into giving her the lead. The film was about a little girl who rides her horse to victory at the Grand National, disguised as a boy.
Taylor was very short, with a high-pitched voice that tended to screech. But the real problem was that Velvet Brown was an adolescent with breasts.
“Don’t worry,” Taylor is supposed to have said. “You’ll have your breasts.” Three months later, as if by willpower, she had grown three inches and graduated to a B-cup bra.
Her performance put her in the top rank of child stars. But considering that she was still a child, Elizabeth was blossoming into a surprisingly adult-looking creature, with the face — slightly oversized for her short body — of a much older woman.
Even at this age, she had a disconcertingly sexual effect on men around the MGM block, an effect of which she seemed fully aware.
Studying during her afternoons at MGM’s Little Red Schoolhouse, she made a film a year steadily through her adolescence: with another dog in Courage of Lassie (1946); in Victorian costume in Life With Father (1947); and in a blonde wig for Little Women (1949).
When she moved on to adult roles, Vincente Minnelli drew a charming performance from her in Father of the Bride (1950), opposite Spencer Tracy, as the eager young virgin, ready for marriage but tearful at the prospect of leaving her still beloved father.
A Place in the Sun (1951) showed what she was capable of with another good director, when George Stevens cast her as the spoilt rich girl who proves to be Montgomery Clift’s nemesis.
In real life, with two broken engagements behind her and an enamoured Howard Hughes in pursuit, Taylor’s love life was worryingly out of control. Her parents persuaded her to marry, and in 1950, disastrously, she chose Nicky Hilton Jr, heir to the Hilton hotel chain.
After a spectacular MGM stagemanaged wedding, the marriage barely outlasted the honeymoon in Europe. Taylor returned to Hollywood covered in bruises and determined on divorce. While she enjoyed a little plate-smashing with her men, she would not stand for being beaten.
In 1952, seemingly as a reaction to Hilton’s temper, she married the much older, kindly British actor Michael Wilding, by whom she had two sons. But Wilding proved too mildmannered for Taylor.
Not content with having destroyed his career by transplanting him to Hollywood, she proceeded to humiliate him with her affairs with Victor Mature and Frank Sinatra, much as she was later publicly to emasculate the gentle Eddie Fisher.
Eventually she left Wilding for the producer Mike Todd. They were married in 1957, when he was in the middle of a publicity drive for Around the World in 80 Days, and she bore him a daughter. Having declared twice before that all she wanted was to settle down to a happy marriage, Taylor now seemed genuinely to have met her match in Todd.