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the girl who had everything
elizabeth taylor 1932-2011
by jason gilmore (@JasonGilmore77)

Even after all that has been written, after she has been rhapsodized and canonized, it is still not redundant to remark that in her youth and deep into middle age, she was a woman of unreal beauty.

But Elizabeth Taylor was a great actress, my favorite actress, and, in saying that, I’m aware that she was neither the most talented nor most ambitious actress and had a light, sometimes shrill voice. Most of her work past 1967 is viewable almost only for its campiness, and, as many triumphs as she had onscreen, there is always the feeling that she could’ve done more. So why was she a great actress? Well, keep in mind that everything written in this paragraph can also be said of Marlon Brando, long acknowledged as the most influential actor of the 20th century. The only difference being that Brando was the most talented, which makes his strange decline all the more sad.
Her beauty and effortless sensuality did more to shift the audience’s point of view in behalf of the story than any actress in screen history. She had a face that divided kingdoms (Cleopatra), that provoked men to risk everything they had to have her (A Place in the Sun, The Sandpiper, Butterfield 8, Doctor Faustus), that caused ruffian oil magnate James Dean (in 1955’s Giant) to plausibly spend 40 odd years of his life pining in vain for her attention.

In her third scene in 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Taylor’s Maggie the Cat takes off her pantyhose, wipes down her legs and puts on new pantyhose, all while talking to her husband. She is 26; her hair is shiny and perfect; she wears a tan skirt and white silk shirt that highlights her hourglass figure. William Daniels’ Oscar-nominated cinematography accents her olive skin and violet eyes. It is possibly her most stunning moment in a career full of stunning moments. And yet her husband, Paul Newman, is completely indifferent to her. Just like that, long before it is said, you know plenty is wrong with their marriage. Because you're watching her and he isn't.

When Van Johnson mistreats Taylor’s doting, supportive wife to the point of causing her death in 1954’s The Last Time I Saw Paris, we are not only unsympathetic when he attempts to atone, we want to punch him in the face. No reason is really given for his decline from strapping war hero to possibly adulterous, failed writer, except that he couldn’t deal with the pressure of being married to such an attractive, receptive and independently wealthy woman. Not exactly a hand that we can feel for when misplayed. Perhaps counterintuitive to the film’s point, but true nonetheless. 68-year-old Henry Fonda’s demanding a divorce from a ripe-looking 42-year-old Taylor in 1973’s Ash Wednesday is downright hysterical, especially since he wants to leave her for a younger woman. (Consequently, the film -- allegedly a serious drama -- is downright hysterical as well.)

When she was focused, there wasn’t a more engaging actress in the world. She never wanders into the greatestactressofalltime conversations that Katharine Hepburn and Meryl Streep have dominated. But Elizabeth Taylor, for all the underestimations she faced in being both a former child star and an alluring Venus, held her own acting alongside studio system OGs (Spencer Tracy, William Powell, Ms. Hepburn herself), the Method trinity (Brando, Dean and her beloved Montgomery Clift), their disciples (Newman, Warren Beatty), and acclaimed British thespians as well (Richard Burton, Angela Lansbury).

Her transition from child star to adult was seamless. The suggestion that she was older than her years as the 12-year-old, horse-loving title character in 1944's National Velvet came to fruition in her breakout role as sought after society girl Angela Vickers in the heartbreaking A Place in the Sun (1951). But she was up for a challenge back then. I can only imagine the legions of laughter cascading after news broke that she would play the frumpy, upper middle-aged, alcoholic Martha in the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966). At the time, she was a young looking 34 and the biggest movie star in the world. For reference, Bette Davis -- middle aged even when she was young -- was supposed to play the part first. Raucous, volatile, untamed, sexual, bitter, funny, tormented: with Martha, Taylor gave the greatest performance of her career. It was also her last great one.

The 1970s were a mess for Taylor, from an artistic standpoint at least. The industry was partly to blame: there were no roles for aging beauties in a world where films like The French Connection, Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now were blowing up. But there was also the fact that she didn’t give an eff; her love of the glamorous life had overcome her creative judgment. She did a few interesting (mostly because she did them) TV turns in the 1980s and had more or less retired by the early 90s.

But that face and that body and those eyes and that airy voice and what she did with them need to be celebrated, now and forever. She really did show us what it means to be a movie star, warts and all. For all her extravagance and tardiness and whimsical marriages, she was still, by most accounts, a very focused actress, equally sweet hearted to everyone -- from fellow movie stars to the craft services guy -- and the absolute first person you’d call if you were her friend and in need. And really, there’s not much more one can ask of anyone.

We will miss her more than we know.


Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.

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