In Praise of Elizabeth Taylor: Fierce in Her Very Softness
If Elizabeth Taylor, who died Wednesday at age 79, was both a great star and a wonderful actress, she was also the frequent object of gentle, or not so gentle, ridicule. She is survived not just by her children and friends, but by lots of old jokes about her vast collection of husbands and diamonds, by the Saturday Night Live parody of her super-soft-focus "White Diamonds" perfume ad, by the legacy of being one-half of a famous couple (twice!) that even the New York Times casually refers to as Dickenliz. How does an actress hang onto her own identity, with so many people appropriating bits of it for their own aims?
Taylor has at times been treated as camp, but she can never be reduced to camp. Even in her more over-the-top, glitzier performances -- her role in the costly Cleopatra, the movie that brought her and Richard Burton together, comes to mind -- her presence is so magnetic that you can't turn away from it. You can chalk that up to great beauty -- well into her middle age, Taylor was generally considered one of the most beautiful women in the world. But the world is filled with beautiful women; looks alone won't buy you what Taylor had. She was fearless, unafraid to climb straight over the top in performances that often won her awards, like the one she gave in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
But that turn had the kind of ferociously unflattering expressiveness that often signifies -- without actually being -- great acting. For my money, Taylor's most ostentatious work wasn't her best: Her true gifts were subtler than that. And even in movies that are often, by today's standards, considered overcooked, like John Huston's weird, wonderful, unsettling Carson McCullers adaptation Reflections in a Golden Eye, Taylor used her almost otherworldly sex appeal to burrow deep into painful emotional territory: As the luscious wife of Army officer Marlon Brando (who, in turn, has eyes only for a gorgeous young soldier played by Robert Forster), she wasn't just your stereotypical sex-bomb presence but a dangerously erotic one. When Brando taunts Taylor for wearing pants that outline her voluptuous shape, she strips down right in front of him, turning his lack of desire for her into a lacerating accusation. Brando crumples before her, and she earns that crumpling: She's the potent catalyst for his anguish, a reminder of his own inadequacies poured into hourglass form.
Taylor was hardly that kind of harsh mistress in every performance. What made her great was her enormous sensitivity and grace, particularly evident in the way she connected with the most fragile of actors -- namely Montgomery Clift, with whom she appeared in three pictures, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), Raintree County (1957), and A Place in the Sun (1951). (Taylor and Clift were extremely close; he was set to appear alongside her in Reflections in a Golden Eye when he died, in 1966.)
Though Taylor stunned the world with her girlish beauty as a child actress in National Velvet -- who had ever even seen, or even imagined, violet eyes? -- she was arguably most beautiful in A Place in the Sun. She had to be -- she was the kind of girl you'd murder for. But there's no treachery in her beauty; its guilelessness is part of its virtue. Those eyes, seen here in black and white, sparkle so vividly that their color is implied, and that's enough. Her voice has a fluttery softness, the sound of a butterfly's beating wings magnified a thousandfold. The director, George Stevens, shows Taylor and Clift on a moonlit terrace, each reflecting the luminousness of the other.
The hero of Steve Erickson's wild, woolly and feverishly poetic 2007 novel Zeroville is a movie obsessive who has a peculiar image tattooed on his shaved head. "One lobe is occupied by an extreme close-up of Elizabeth Taylor and the other by Montgomery Clift, their faces barely apart, lips barely apart, in each other's arms on a terrace, the two most beautiful people in the history of the movies, she the female version of him, and he the male version of her."
Erickson got it right. Clift, of course, is long gone, one of the sadder of our great movie-star casualties. Taylor lasted much longer, and she even referred to herself a survivor: She outlasted many of her friends and thus had to endure the anguish of those losses. Most of the numerous obituaries and appreciations that will appear today and in the days to come will refer to Taylor as the last of the old-school movie stars. She is the last, and we should count ourselves fortunate that we could keep her as long as we did. Her movies will outlast the fun we sometimes had at her expense, and their worth will always exceed that of her diamonds.