Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, R.I.P.

She was just the most beautiful woman who was a movie star in my lifetime. And she could act.

That was Elizabeth Taylor, Dame Elizabeth Taylor, the title awarded for good works by a queen who remembered that Liz was born English. The first picture I saw her in was Ivanhoe, opposite the stolid Robert Taylor, no relation, in the title role, and she was Rebecca, the ultimate Jewish princess and a doctor no less! (It's been a week for reviving my contact with Sir Walter Scott. Saturday was the broadcast and movie-house transmittal of Lucia di Lammermoor, Donizetti's opera based on Scott's The Bride of Lammermoor. A potboiler, to be sure, but it has wonderful music and the Mad Scene, and was the vehicle for Joan Sutherland's triumphal debuts at both Covent Garden and the Met--the coloratura soprano who made all the trills and scales sound easy. The current soprano filling the role was the French Nathalie Dessay, who was magnificent.)

But Elizabeth Taylor, with the violet eyes, fascinated us from National Velvet through playing Rock Hudson's wife (!) and James Dean's heartthrob in Giant, to Maggie the Cat, title character of Tennessee William's wonderful Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Gloria Wandrous in BUtterfield 8, for which she got the Oscar she had deserved for Cat. Later there was the marvelous and draining tour de force with then-husband Richard Burton in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Aren't those enough for anyone--and she made many many more pictures, some as good as those.

She did become the modern definition of a celebrity, with all the negatives that that implies. And of course, I still enjoy Philip Roth's view of her, seen through Portnoy, if I recall correctly, who, musing that the dynamic showman Mike Todd, husband 3, was the only one of her fabled eight spouses who could handle her, and he of course perished in a plane crash. Portnoy sees her as "the ultimate shiksa who could do the ultimate shiksa thing--ride a horse--and who would have thought that what she craved was a guy like Mike Todd, who might as well have been my Uncle Hymie?"

There were plenty of awful pictures and brawls with Burton, himself a fine actor brought low by booze. It got to where she was being caricatured on TV by John Belushi. But I found it wonderful that her skill as an actress was recognized even by those who had reason to despise her, such as Debbie Reynolds, whose storybook marriage with Eddie Fisher she broke up, and who said she even voted for her for the Oscar.

I will, however, always remember her as Rebecca, beautiful and skilled daughter of Isaac of York, in Ivanhoe, who nurses the hero back to health and then has to lose him to Joan Fontaine's Rowena. Even then, as a kid, I couldn't see how he couldn't have chosen Elizabeth Taylor.

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