March 23, 2011
I can’t shake the idea that Elizabeth Taylor has majestically (if drunkenly) swept past St. Peter and, while gazing upon heaven, made her pronouncement: “What a dump!” Those words -- her character Martha’s first in Mike Nichols’ production of Edward Albee's Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf -- were originally spoken on screen by Bette Davis in King Vidor’s Beyond the Forest. It's a mark of Ms.Taylor’s greatness that her reading has all but eclipsed Ms. Davis’s.
Elizabeth Taylor combined movie star beauty with amazing depth as a character actor. So, while she was as much of a Hollywood “sex symbol” as Marylin Monroe or Jayne Mansfield, she tackled rich, complex roles those icons would never have attempted. Her Maggie in Richard Brooks’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Kate in Franco Zefferelli’s Taming of the Shrew and Catherine in Joseph L. Manciewicz’ Suddenly Last Summer were mulitidimensional characters who spoke in poetry penned by the likes of Tennessee Williams and William Shakespeare.
What’s more, Ms. Taylor held her own among truly heavyweight actors. In Manciewicz’ picture, she stood out in a cast that included Katherine Hepburn, Montgomery Clift and Mercedes McCambridge. Her portrayal of “Maggie the Cat” was as moving as performances by cast-mates Paul Newman, Burl Ives and Dame Judith Anderson. And, of course, her work with Richard Burton in Taming of the Shrew and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf was astonishing.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Elizabeth Taylor's career, though, was its longevity. From Lassie Come Home, National Velvet and Life With Father in the 1940’s; Father of the Bride, Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer in the ‘50’s; Butterfield 8, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Taming of the Shrew in the ‘60s -- and right on through voice work on The Simpsons in 1989, Ms. Taylor’s work was known and embraced by generation after generation.
In 1981, I got to see her on stage in a Broadway production of Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes. Live theatre is always the test of whether or not an actor is truly skilled; there are no re-takes, no editing, no tricks. Indeed, Elizabeth Taylor truly “had the stuff.” And, as in her films, she shone brightly in a stellar cast.
Austin Pendleton contributed a piece to The Los Angeles Times about directing Ms. Taylor in the play. “I never met anyone more generous than she was,” he wrote. “She was generous in every way -- emotionally, artistically. She shared every moment on stage with the other actors -- she didn’t act like the star, which she was. I never met anyone of her celebrity who could so instantly put people at ease. I think she (was) known for that.”
Indeed, Elizabeth Taylor was one of those rare Hollywood luminaries about whom no one ever had anything bad to say. Even Carrie Fisher, who was two years old when Eddie Fisher left her mother to marry Ms. Taylor, issued the following statement: “If my father had to divorce my mother to marry anyone, I’m grateful that it was Elizabeth.”