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.