After last night's dizzying spectacle at the Oscars, let's talk about someone who really defines the word "star".
As a kid, I remember vividly Life Magazine's 1972 cover of Elizabeth Taylor reaching her milestone fortieth brithday, and glimpsing what glamour really meant. This week, incredibly, Liz turns 77. For those who know her mainly from those recurring news stories about her health problems (she has broken her back several times and endured three serious bouts of pneumonia), her fluctuating weight, an unlikely friendship with Michael Jackson, or her fabled eight marriages (she wed Richard Burton twice), you may want to pay extra attention. Because now we will look beyond all the hype, and celebrate Elizabeth Taylor as a highly skilled and accomplished film actress.
First and foremost, this impossibly beautiful performer was, and is, a true product of Hollywood. Moving there from England with her family at age seven, her striking beauty was quickly noticed by the studios, and she was in front of a movie camera by age ten.
The very next year, she had her breakthrough, supporting child star and life-long pal Roddy McDowall in the immensely popular family film, "Lassie Come Home"(1943). During the next three decades, in the midst of a tumultuous, much publicized personal life, she would navigate that trickiest of courses, achieving a seamless transition from child star to ingénue and leading lady.
Here then are my picks for the best of Liz over time:
"National Velvet"(1944)- Taylor's signature juvenile performance is that of Velvet Brown, a girl from rural England who dreams of taking her beloved horse "Pie" all the way to England's Grand National steeple chase contest. Aided by an older jockey (Mickey Rooney), Velvet shows pluck and determination in pursuing that goal, all the while disguised as a boy (no female jockeys were permitted). Shot in glorious early Technicolor, the camera already loves Liz. Aging MGM child star Rooney (another close off-screen friend) was also ideal for the role of jockey Mi Taylor, and actress Anne Revere stands out as Velvet's understanding mother, winning her an Oscar. As timeless family fare goes, "National Velvet" is solid gold, and a must for girls, whether they like horses or not.
"Father Of The Bride"(1950)- Here a blossoming eighteen year old Elizabeth is the center of attention as Kay Banks, a spirited young woman who announces her intention to marry long-time boyfriend Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor). With this momentous decision and its infinite implications, life for her father, middle-class lawyer Stanley (a brilliantly wry Spencer Tracy), turns inside out. Of course, Stanley's wife, Ellie (Joan Bennett), wants Kay to have the elaborate nuptials she never did, so Stanley finds himself accosted by the exhausting, never-ending business of planning-and paying for- a wedding. A buoyant, big-hearted MGM comedy, director Vincente Minnelli's romp provided the original template for an idea re-made and often imitated, but never quite so charmingly. Minnelli deftly keeps the whole affair-including awkward heart-to-heart talks, a disastrous engagement party and a colossal lovers' spat--from derailing into broad farce. If you're choosing a "Bride," make it the original.
"A Place In The Sun" (1951)-The next year showcased Liz in her most adult role yet, at the center of a sordid, tragic love triangle. For her, it would also mark the beginning of yet another close friendship- with the emotionally fragile, immensely gifted actor, Montgomery Clift. Here Clift plays George Eastman, the proverbial poor relation who gets a job in his rich uncle's thriving enterprise. Lonely and disconnected socially, he begins an affair with factory girl Alice (Shelley Winters). Then he meets gorgeous socialite Angela Vickers (Taylor), and a new world opens up, one that can't include Alice, who now holds something over George. The desperate young man takes drastic measures to seize his one chance at wealth and happiness. Legendary director George Stevens adapted this Academy Award winner from Theodore Dreiser's best-selling book, "An American Tragedy". The cautionary tale still holds you captive, buoyed by potent on-screen chemistry between Clift and Taylor. The young Winters also shines in the most unglamorous of parts, netting herself an Oscar nod; Stevens also won for Best Director.
"Giant" (1956)- Liz's next shining moment came in a movie as big as Texas, and in yet another George Stevens production. In 1922, rancher Jordan "Bick" Benedict (Rock Hudson) marries Southern belle Leslie Lynnton (Taylor), a headstrong beauty who accompanies him home to his million-acre estate, Reata. Asserting herself as mistress of the house, Leslie encounters resistance from Bick's resentful sister, Luz (Mercedes McCambridge), among others. But it's the fortuitous future of churlish, uneducated ranch hand Jett Rink (James Dean) that leaves the biggest impact on Reata and the Benedicts. Based on Edna Ferber's novel, Stevens's vibrant epic about a rivalry that spans decades is every bit as grandiose and visually arresting as it was half a century ago. In his final performance, Dean really hits the mark, playing the noxious Jett Rink--a surly cowboy who inherits oil-rich land and establishes himself as Bick's nemesis--with smoldering angst. Hudson and Taylor offer some of their finest screenwork too, making their often turbulent marital conflicts (especially over Mexican-American workers' rights) equal to the grand majesty of the Lone Star landscape. More than fifty years after its release, "Giant" remains larger than life.
"Cat On A Hot Tin Roof" (1958)- Based on Tennessee Williams's play, this Oscar-nominated drama of familial conflict concerns alcoholic ex-jock Brick (Paul Newman), who refuses to curry favor with his father, Southern patriarch Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives), for a large inheritance. Big Daddy clearly prizes Brick over his older son, but Brick has sired no heirs with ravishing wife Maggie (Taylor). Maggie desires her husband mightily, but Brick is nursing a long-simmering grudge against her, the basis of which is only gradually revealed. This gut-wrenching depiction of a dynastic southern family crumbling from within is propelled by director/writer Richard Brooks's sure hand and a first-rate cast, including Judith Anderson as Big Daddy's long-suffering wife. Newman's Brick is a cauldron of sullen anger dulled with alcohol, while sultry Liz, mostly clad in a white slip, is sexual frustration personified. Ives also delivers a towering performance as Big Daddy. (Trivia note: the portly actor/folk singer in fact won an Oscar that year, but for another picture: "The Big Country".)
"Suddenly, Last Summer" (1959) - Taylor's next winner, also based on a Williams play, would reunite her with Montgomery Clift. When wealthy matron Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) enlists Chicago brain surgeon Dr. John Cukrowicz (Clift), to lobotomize niece Catherine (Taylor), institutionalized since the death of Violet's son Sebastian the previous summer, he sets out to discover what happened to the young woman. But the formidable Violet, nursing a dark family secret, seems intent on thwarting the doctor's inquiry. Adapted by Gore Vidal, Joseph L. Mankiewicz's "Suddenly" is rich with lurid atmosphere and smart, biting dialogue. Hepburn is haughty and indomitable as an overprotective mother, while Taylor is rivetingly sensual even in apoplectic fits of distress-witness the climactic flashback scene. Soon it's open to question as to just who should be lobotomized. Mankiewicz handles themes of forbidden desire and depravity with consummate skill, making this a memorable "Summer" indeed.
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"(1966)-Based on Edward Albee's ground-breaking play, "Woolf" transports us to a nightmare world in the heart of academia. College history professor George (Richard Burton) and his insufferable wife, Martha (a frumpy looking Taylor), invite a young couple for dinner: new faculty member Nick (George Segal) and his childlike spouse, Honey (Sandy Dennis). Making a contact sport out of trading hurtful barbs, George and Martha snap at each other constantly in front of their stunned guests. As the night wears on, the bitter contretemps between the squabbling pair gets progressively uglier-especially when blowsy, gin-soaked Martha mentions the couple's "son." An often agonizing, hilariously warped study of marital dysfunction, "Woolf" was the brainchild of first-time director Mike Nichols and Ernest Lehman, who adapted Albee's scabrous work. Nasty, vicious, and drenched in venomous wit, this is the ultimate Taylor-Burton pairing. (Having won her first Oscar in 1961 for the forgettable "Butterfield 8", Liz received her second Academy Award for "Woolf", followed by an honorary Oscar in 1993.)
Ten years ago, when asked what she would like to see written on her gravestone, this great star replied: "Here lies Elizabeth. She hated being called Liz. But she lived."
Truer words were never spoken.