The Explosive Elizabeth Taylor

There's not much to be said about Elizabeth Taylor that writers closer to the source haven't already said, but I wanted to mention her passing on the blog in my own form of tribute.  I waited a few weeks past her death, avoiding the initial outpouring of memorials and obituaries, because I wanted to stake my own ground, and totally not because I wrote this post on my iPhone in the back of a car the day she died and forgot about it because I had to do a lot of law stuff all the time.

But sincerely, I figure it's better to be amateur and tardy than silent.  I've always been a little mesmerized by Liz, in the way that everyone alive was in the 1960s.  Her sexuality, her lavishness, her papal condemnation for "erotic vagrancy" that no obit can omit.  Vanity Fair published a summer cover story this year about Liz and her fifth-and-sixth husband -- the Antony to her Cleopatra -- Richard Burton.  I poured over the piece, and it read just like Liz and Dick: somewhere between classic and tabloid, marvelously juicy and full of gossipy scandals, but not inelegant and tawdry like today's more popular paparazzi fodder. 

Through all the husbands, the diamonds, the utter unearthliness of Liz's life and beauty and her phenomenal film career, to me, Liz and Dick were always George and Martha, the characters they played in Mike Nichol's movie version of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf?  I'm not the first one to point out a hovering similarity between this volatile, passionate, perversely sexual on-screen couple and the tempestuous, "erotically vagrant" pairing of Taylor and Burton in real life.  Maybe the movie is a close approximation of their real relationship, and maybe it's not, but the constant comparison certainly highlights a popular desire to see the inner workings of Liz and Dick, to get inside the insane, romantic, living, breathing entity that was their life together.

I tried unsuccessfully to get my family to watch Virginia Woolf when it came on television Christmas day (why network execs chose to air that movie on Christmas is a mystery to me, unless they thought the booze-soaked feuds, bickering, and purging of family secrets would make people feel better about their own families).  And, my family wasn't wrong to change the channel: Albee's seething, scathing script is at times tortuously uncomfortable.  But it also happens to be nearly perfect in every way.  (So subtly escalating, so complex, so probing, so witty! I digress...)  And with Mike Nichols (The Graduate, The Birdcage) behind the camera and Liz and Dick in the leads, the whole thing is just, well, merry Christmas to me.

But, what I noticed at Christmas, watching disjointed snippets of the film during the commercial breaks in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, is that no matter where you come in, Elizabeth Taylor always looks like she's about to explode.  Not get mad, but literally, explode.  Like, her wig is going to fly into the air and her clothes are going to burst open at the buttons and her shoes are going to shoot off her feet and she's going to bypass Burton and the set and the camera and streak out into the atmosphere and then start to really stretch and shine.  She was just too big for the room, too big for her space, too big for just one persona, for just one man.  Liz was famously quoted once saying, "Everything makes me nervous - except making films."  And that's because the only place in the world that could fit her was the cinema screen; Elizabeth Taylor was otherwise uncontainable.  No wonder Vanity Fair titled its story about Liz and Dick, "A Love to Big To Last.

If this at all piques your interest, I encourage you to read the profiles out there about Liz - there've been lots in the last month since her passing.  She lived a mythic life in the spotlight, and in many ways defined the role of today's celebrities.  And don't forget -- though today it's no longer a prerequisite for staggering fame --she was also extraordinarily talented.  Do yourself a favor and watch her work.  I'll leave you with my top five Elizabeth Taylor must-sees films, and a heartfelt goodbye.


A Place in the Sun

Cat on Hot Tin Roof

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

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Write comments
April 13, 2011 at 11:11 PM delete

My Father's mother took him to see Ivanhoe when he was a boy. After the movie, he mentioned how beautiful Elizabeth Taylor was. My grandmother asked, "Now you don't think she's prettier than your mother, do you?" Naturally, he answered, "Well Yeah!"

He was grounded. That says a lot about my grandmother, but it also says a little about Elizabeth Taylor.

April 16, 2011 at 12:36 AM delete

She's wearing a WIG in that movie??

That film molded my libido.

This changes everything.

Who am I?


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