Elizabeth Taylor was the youngest recipient of The American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award, yet her career spans a half-century, nearly all of her life. She first appeared on film as a child and immediately exhibited a rare combination of ability, versatility and charm. She would eventually become a great actress. She was always a dominating force on the screen.
In A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951) she stands on a balcony with Montgomery Clift, her perfect face bathed in moonlight and captured in a tight, dreamy close-up. It is a moment of perfect romance, of erotic electricity; highly stylized yet absolutely believable. Clift cannot quite put his feelings into words, but she urges him, “Tell mama.” She murmurs, “Tell mama all…”
Audiences, then and now, can fully appreciate Clift’s stunned, stammering reaction. Elizabeth Taylor is a cinematic dream come true; so ravishingly beautiful that it’s impossible to concentrate on anyone or anything else when she’s on the screen; such a powerfully good actress that she unerringly finds the truth of a scene and brings her character — and the film — to life. She is everything we desire in a movie star: actress and icon, beauty and brain, image and substance.
The camera loved her from the first. As she matured, she began to control her screen image with increasing skill. Her fragile melancholy in JANE EYRE (1944) is, to a great extent, affecting because of what we see in her. However, her air of tragic bitterness and self-mockery in BUTTERFIELD 8 (1960) is something she reveals to us. Miss Taylor began as a natural and transformed herself into a skilled artist.
Certainly, Elizabeth Taylor could have been far less accomplished an actress and still held audiences spellbound. She is the compleat — some would say the last — movie star. Her face and charisma, gifts of God, could take the place of a good deal of talent but have never had to do so.
For so celebrated a beauty, Miss Taylor has never hesitated to show the ugly side of a character. Her high-class call girl in BUTTERFIELD 8, for example, is possessed of what one character calls “the first genuine wildness I’ve ever come across.” She is vain and shallow and cynical but yearns for self-respect and true love. Her Martha in WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966) is plump and disheveled, with a whiny, screechy voice. Tellingly perhaps, it is for those two roles that Miss Taylor won Academy Awards. It is as though Academy voters felt that only by minimizing her beauty and sweetness could she “really” act. They were right about the brilliance of these two performances, but much of her previous work is similarly impressive.
Her powerful gift as an actress would have proved just as compelling if she had been plain; we might, ironically, have recognized it earlier without the distraction of her beauty. Ultimately, though, she occupies her unique place on the screen for reasons that are less definable than beauty or talent. She fascinates us simply because of who and what she is; along, without plot or drama, she demands our attention and rewards it.
The long, nearly wordless opening scene of BUTTERFIELD 8 celebrates her ability to infuse her least action with drama and intensity. She awakens slowly and, wrapping a sheet around her, gets out of bed and wanders around an apartment. She shudders with the first drink of the day, brushes her teeth with whiskey, tries on a fur coat…But while we’ve been feasting our eyes on her face and body, she has been revealing little facets of character. Before she leaves the apartment and the plot gets underway, we know who this woman is. That is movie-star charisma; it is also acting at its subtle best.
Elizabeth Taylor’s private life has often seemed as public as, and sometimes more dramatic than, her movie roles. It is safe to say that far more words have been written about her in the tabloids than in scholarly film journals. Sometimes, during the turbulent months of filming the gigantic CLEOPATRA (1963), for example, the line between reel and real seemed irredeemably blurred. That public fascination can perhaps be explained by the enormous power of her personality. That power is part of what creates her extraordinary screen presence. If its reverberations are sometimes felt in the real world, that’s just one of the hazards of the game.
“I guess I’m a fighter and a survivor,” Elizabeth Taylor once said. She would have to be, in order to surmount the amazing hurdles life has thrown before her. The earnest little beauty who urged her horse to victory in NATIONAL VELVET (1944) now urges a nation — a world — to combat AIDS and discrimination. A survivor? A life marked by excellent work and tireless good works is more than survival — it is a triumph.