Monday, June 21, 2010

Elizabeth Taylor: The Shrillness of You



Despite the fact that Father of the Bride is among my favorite movies of all time, I’ve never been an Elizabeth Taylor fan. I truly believe that from the start of her career as a child star to the tabloid press’ obsession with her personal life, that Taylor has been a media creation from the very beginning. Yes, she’s an Oscar winning actress but are they movies that I’d ever want to sit through more than once? Taylor appeared in more dreadful, turgid, and empty “prestige pictures”—movies created to win Academy Awards—from the 1950s up to the mid-1960s. This list is but one reason why I largely despise 1950s-early ‘60s cinema: A Place in the Sun, Giant, Raintree County, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, BUtterfield 8, and the greatest bomb of all time: Cleopatra. Let's also not forget and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I particularly despise the films Taylor made with director George Stevens, the most bloated, tedious, and overblown director of the era. Giant is pure torture. Just try and enjoy that film with the Texas-baked accents, endlessly crying infants, preachy finger wagging about “tolerance”, and the pre-Johnny Depp performance of James Dean. Any movie where Rock Hudson is its greatest asset is its own worst enemy. Also take a look at Taylor’s 1960s work. It’s a series of glossy artistic flops no better than a TV soap opera of the day. Taylor’s career during the mid-‘50s to late ‘60s coincides with my own decreasing interest in movies of that era and an increased interest in television of the same time, which was memorably derided as the vast wasteland!

Taylor, beginning around 1957, became increasingly shrill and overwrought in her performances. Yes, many times the role demanded it but its just plain unpleasant to watch. I’ve come to associate Taylor and playwright Tennessee Williams as one miserable combination. Why was Hollywood so enamored with this man’s works? Was it the first signs of the Production Code cracking? Were the sexual overtones in Williams’ works—watered-down for audiences’ “protection” and in the case of Tin Roof, rendered unrecognizable somehow appealing to repressed audiences? (Brick’s unhappy. Why? No reason.) Perhaps Elizabeth Taylor’s performances and the increasing circus her personal life was becoming occurred at the same time for a reason. Art imitates life is apt here, but it doesn’t make for movies I’d want to watch more than once. I don’t know of anyone who includes Elizabeth Taylor in their favorite actress lists, or actually enjoys or is moved by anything she’s ever done in what has been a long and fascinating to watch—in a car wreck sort of way—career. Taylor lacks the innocence and vulnerability of Audrey Hepburn, the toughness of Susan Hayward, the comedic ability of Marilyn Monroe. Taylor’s appeal lies in the luridness of her stormy personal life, the dysfunctional relationship with the hammy Richard Burton, and her status as a studio-era creation.

Despite my dislike for Taylor’s acting and films, I credit her with being a survivor of that studio-era madness and so many tragedies in her life: illness, becoming a widow so young, and living life under a microscope. Her dedication to charity is admirable, indeed, and she seems like a genuinely good person, all things considered. I just don’t want to have to watch Giant ever again.

28 comments:

  1. Wow, ummm okay then. I was going to rebut your argument but coming to the end I see it makes no sense, but I realise that the reason you hate her contribute to the reasons I like her. A Place in the Sun is a film I like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? sheer excellence to me. I consider Tennessee to be one of the greatest contemporary playwrights (and Liz puts up one hell of a Shakespeare performance in The Taming of the Shrew. Oddly enough, I don't like Father of the Bride despite my affinity for Spencer.

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  2. I can't stand Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller or 1950s melodrama. So, I'm with you.

    RetroHound.com

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  3. Well, hey, to each his own, right? (I absolutely cannot stand Susan Hayward and have been through the ringer for it, believe you me!) Anyway, you don't have to like her movies, I'm just glad you gave her props as the true survivor she is. (Dare I ask what you think of her in Taming of the Shrew…? ;)

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  4. I am very sensitive to voices, and Taylor's shrill voice is hard to take.
    I completely agree with you about the films mentioned. "Giant" is boring, pretentious, terribly over-rated and WAY TOO LONG. Hudson had the dramatic acting range of a fence post although he was OK in comedy. Taylor is glamorous and dull. James Dean plays the ...James Dean troubled youth character. If Dean had lived I assume he would have been a respected and versatile actor, unfortunately he died while he was a still cinematic one trick pony. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof would have been OK if they hadn't whitewashed it so. My mother had to explain it to me.
    I have not read the original play but thought Virginia Wolf was fine and her shrillness worked for the character - two drunks fighting and boozing? Taylor would know about that.

    She was a really darling child star and I like all her youthful movies. She was especially charming in Life With Father. (And National Velvet! At an age when most girls wanted to be ballerinas, I wanted to be a steeplechase jockey.) I just checked her TCM.com filmography and would say I don't like any of her movies after "Last Time I saw Paris", often because it's just glossy studio output, or because her acting range wasn't up to it. I sat through many of them as a relatively uncritical teenager, but cannot now. If she hadn't been so beautiful, she wouldn't have been in some of those showpiece movies. Maybe she could have developed her comedic talents.
    That said, Liz Taylor the human being is one spunky dame and so beautiful!

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  5. CK:

    If you are looking for controversy skewering one of Hollywood’s sacred presences you will likely get it -- but not from me. Taylor bores me with rare exception. And you are right, I rarely see her name listed among those I review regularly, which publish such lists. I keep a favorite actress list which comprises roughly 400 names. Elizabeth’s name does not appear. Perhaps only Hollywood still loves her. But they all love each other – in public.

    I am in accord with your obliterating the James Dean legend -- it is long overdue. (Julie Harris loved his work, which perplexes me, as she is high on my list.) And dynamiting the likes of Giant is fine. Stevens’s output in the period you address (1950s-early 1960s) is less than ten. But Shane was very good – and I have come to terms with A Place in the Sun, because of reasons other than Taylor. The rest do not matter. Yet like its name, Giant does cast its shadow wide and is impossible to avoid. Thinking of Sondheim, James Dean had the biggest foot of all. Your “Any movie where Rock Hudson is its greatest asset” needs no further evidence.

    Not satisfied with making Taylor stew, you also throw Tennessee Williams into the cauldron. The comments should be interesting.

    Gerald

    (I am not totally on your side. I do not even like Father of the Bride.)

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  6. Liz Tailor’s biggest asset was the striking beauty of her face. The only movie I really like from her filmography is The Taming of the Shrew. Let's face it, most women and even men made it into movies and stayed there thanks to their looks.
    To me Tennessee Williams was a sick man obsessed with psychiatric disorders.

    Probably she isn’t a bad person, but charity doesn’t make you a good person, either. The rich use charity as publicity stunt and/or to get tax deduction.

    Why don’t they just withdraw some money from their accounts and give it directly to the needy, instead of auctioning off their old clothes, throwing glamorous parties to flash designer evening gowns or putting on concerts (for which in most cases they do get paid)?

    On the other hand, she pinched her best friend’s (Debbie Reynolds) husband (Eddie Fisher) only to dump him a few years later for Richard Burton. Now what kind of person does this make her?

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  7. I adore Elizabeth Taylor, I think that she was a better actress then most would credit her for. I understand however why some people would dislike her, she is as is said melodramatic at times, and admittedly she did star in a lot of (particularly in the 1950s) ''prestige'' pictures, but I still find her fascinating to watch. My favorite performance of hers has already been mentioned on the comments, was Taming of the Shrew. But I enjoy a lot of her other works too. I think the problem with Taylor was that she never was considered by the film studios as nothing other then a great beauty, and because of that her beauty hindered any great ''WOW'' acting that may have arisen from her.

    That being said she did act very well in some of the movies she did (I disagree with you, I loved her in Cat On The Hot Tin Roof, Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Giant -though perhaps this may have been influenced by the presence of James Dean as well, National Velvet etc etc.)

    Perhaps you are all right, perhaps the media and public was more fascinated by her personal life and that of her relationship with Richard Burton. I'd also like to make a point that just because she has done some less-then-honorable-things, such as stealing away her best friends husband etc, that doesn't make her a bad person. I think she behaved in a manner quite ill befitting while she was in her prime, however I think that once she aged and got older and the spotlight was more and more off her, she began to grow up and mature. Something I think, due to her constant presence in the media from a child, that she never really got to do before hand.

    Hate her or love her, you can't deny that she had one hell of a career, one hell of a personal life and one hell of a style.

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  8. we love elizabeth for many reasons, her acting abilities not always at the top of the list. if for nothing else, that over monty's shoulder shot of her in "a place in the sun" is worth a lifetime of drek.

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  9. I think it would have been interesting to see her in more comedies. She's always entertained me more in real life, and primarily because she's sort of wacky.

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  10. The post doesn't fit my usual "tone", but since Kate Hepburn performance reviews weren't cutting it...why not spit some words to see where they'll splatter? ;)

    First of all, I never claimed to "hate" Liz Taylor. I don't dislike James Dean, either; I just despise *everything* about GIANT, a movie I've tried time and again to like, but it just won't let me!

    I actually enjoy Taylor's early films, but beginning with the late '50s it all came undone for me. I'd love to have seen her in a Doris Day-type comedy or something that wasn't just doom and misery for the sake of another Oscar nod.

    Oh! I do enjoy Liz in Reflections in a Golden Eye(is that the title?)--that creepy 1968 John Huston movie with Brian Keith, Brando, and Julie Harris. The kookiest film ever made by mainstream Hollywood, considering the cast and director!

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  12. I'm with you almost all the way - and in most cases further. I like virtually none of her films or performances, find her 'beauty' as elsuive as her talent, and everything I've read about her - which is a good deal - predisposes me to think I would not like her personally either. (To put it mildly.)
    I'm also with you on Giant, and go further than you, I think, on the subject of Dean, the Johnny Depp of his day as you so rightly point out. Had he lived we would all have forgotten about him by now.
    We disagree, so far as I can see, on one point only: I find Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? compelling, if admittedly pretentious, and full of superb moments and performances. Taylor's role is probably the film's showiest and least taxing - any competent actress of the right age could pull it off - nonetheless, she does so with a degree of self-deprecation unusual for her. It is, I think, her best work on screen.

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  13. Great comments everyone, even the one that claims my argument "makes no sense"!

    I don't like "Woolf" because it foisted the likes of George Segal and Sandy Dennis on the world. I wouldn't wish a George Segal performance on my worst enemy. It's one of the few Richard Burton performances I don't totally dislike--Where Eagles Dare being the other. There's just something wonderful about anachronistic bouffants--not on Burton, mind you--that a kid just loves; Eastwood helps a lot, too. ;)

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  14. Well: She COULD act - as for shrill, Shirley MacLaine gets that prize and I like her.

    Tennessee Williams and Albee were regardless of their personalities... FANTASTIC writers, why would so many excellent actors and directors, Newman and Woodward incl. perform their works multiple times? In fact forget actors, just read "The Glass Menagerie".

    Taylor was actually believable from a young age to her later films, with NO formal training or a theatre bkg.

    C.K. Dexter H, you need to venture forth from Philadelphia soon and smell the "white diamonds" ;)

    P.S. Nobody adores "Giant".

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  15. I love Tennessee Williams mainly for A Streetcar Named Desire, but on the whole I agree with this post. I'm not the biggest fan of Taylor, and Giant is a terrible movie, in my opinion. Terrence Malick's Days of heaven reminds me of Giant in a lot of ways--mainly stylistically, but it's by far a better film, and not very many people I know have seen it.

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  16. "A Streetcar Named Desire" was such an outstanding play (and film) that it's understandable Hollywood sought to tap from the same Williams well many more times. And while I have nothing against Taylor as a person, I agree with you that she's more a personality than an actress. One doubts that had she played Blanche DuBois in "Streetcar" (when she was of age to play the character, something she certainly wasn't in 1951), she could have come close to what Vivien Leigh did.

    In some ways, Taylor was her generation's Jennifer Aniston -- more famous for her celebrity than her ability (although you can elicit a decent comedic performance from Aniston every now and then).

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  17. What an interesting discussion! I like Taylor as a child star very much, but after the early '50s my interest in her work peters out...although ironically the two movies of hers that come to mind that I like quite well, post FATHER'S LITTLE DIVIDEND, are GIANT and CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, especially the former. I'm fascinated GIANT has so many detractors here, especially as I often have similar opinions with those who register not caring for it -- I like GIANT a great deal but then, I'm also a fan of Ferber's books so that may be part of it. I felt it was a very authentic retelling of Ferber's novel.

    Best wishes,
    Laura

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  18. TCM Summer Under the Stars is having an Elizabeth Taylor day on August 23 2010. Many of the films mentioned will be shown and we can re-address the "controversy". I look forward to "Life With Father" and the fluffy "Date with Judy" which I have never seen.
    July 27 - 8:30 AM National Velvet (1944)
    July 29 - 3:00 PM Life With Father (1947)
    July 30 - 8:00 AM Date With Judy, A (1948)
    August 15 - 2:45 PM Little Women (1949)
    August 16 - 3:00 AM Date With Judy, A (1948)
    August 19 - 10:45 AM Julia Misbehaves (1948)
    August 21 - 10:45 AM Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958)
    Taylor Day! August 23 - 3:00 AM Lassie Come Home (1943)
    4:30 AM National Velvet (1944)
    6:45 AM Life With Father (1947)
    8:45 AM Father Of The Bride (1950)
    10:45 AM Place in the Sun, A (1951)
    1:00 PM Last Time I Saw Paris, The (1954)
    3:00 PM Butterfield 8 (1960)
    5:00 PM Raintree County (1957)
    8:00 PM Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (1966)
    10:30 PM V.I.P.S, The (1963)
    1:00 AM X Y & Zee (1972)

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  19. A DATE WITH JUDY is what I think of as a "Technicolor candybox" musical -- pretty, sugary fun -- I have always loved it. That is a good lineup of many of Taylor's best movies from her earlier acting years.

    Best wishes,
    Laur

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  20. I'm just not that much into Liz myself. I actually always preferred Joan Collins.

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  21. I don't dislike Liz as a person, she seems to be really lovely, but I'm with you on her films (mostly her later ones too...). I much prefer her earlier films.

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  22. Much of her work isn't to my taste, but take a look at her performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. It's outstanding.

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  23. If it's any consolation, apparently she's never even liked the sound of her voice!

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  24. Elizabeth Taylor is one of the greatest actresses that has ever lived, and the films of Liz you claim to despise are a bunch of the greatest films made in Hollywood. I think you are a fucking ignorant idiot with no real taste.

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  25. I have to agree with the author on this one, many of Taylor's films didn't strike me as anything more than soulless prestige pictures designed to win awards. I don't think she's the worst, but I do think she is one of those people who receive praise at a much higher proportion than they deserve.

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  26. Brightvictory - nicely put. I like Taylor very much, she's a treat to look at, she's generally fine in movies, she is a pro. It's her movies (and voice) which I don't like, not her performances. I'd rather watch Signoret or Stanwyck any day.

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  27. You're mostly right, and somewhat wrong about Liz, aren't we all? ;-) It's a question of taste, and yours is elegant and clear. Many of the movies she was in WERE bores (see my "Cleopatra" review in HALLUCINA (http://hallucina.blogspot.com) but not necessarily through any fault of hers. She was good as a sexy, fleshy, vulgar actress who could go dark places, (she was also good as a human being)- but she's not as good at being an actress as she was at being a STAR, in that she could fulfill any number of dreams for a wide variety of audiences.

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  28. I love this blog!!! I also wrote a rememberance of her as well that I hope you all will like.

    http://alwaysmakingsense.blogspot.com/

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