Thursday, June 21, 2018

Essential Liz

"Look ... look at this face!!" Taylor in "Ash Wednesday."
New York’s Quad Cinema Celebrates “Essential Liz.” (The Star of Stars Greatest — and some of her Strangest — Films!)
by Denis Ferrara

“YOU WANT a younger woman. That’s it, isn’t it? Well, look, Mark — look at this face! Isn’t it almost the face you married? I took all my old photos. Look at the stitches, Mark, don’t turn away. Count them, because every one of them was for you, can’t you get that? Look, at these breasts, aren’t they beautiful? What more do you need?!”

What more do you need?!” — ET in the 1973 glamour soap opera “Ash Wednesday."
That was Elizabeth Taylor in the 1973 glamour soap opera “Ash Wednesday,” coming to the terrible realization that her husband, Henry Fonda, does not wish to resume their long marriage, despite the fact that she has had a total face and body rejuvenation in Switzerland.

The film begins with wonderful absurdity — Taylor, who was 41 at the time, and was supposed to be about 50 in the movie, is made up to look like Margo after she leaves “Lost Horizons” Shangri La — withered and weathered beyond recognition; ET appears to be 75! When the bandages come off, she looks like ... 41-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, slender, beautifully made-up, and ravishingly costumed by Edith Head.

The movie is a glorious valentine/tribute to ET’s early MGM romances, such as “Rhapsody,” Elephant Walk,” “The Girl Who Had Everything,” “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”

“Ash Wednesday” was not a hit, and it is among a clutch of latter-day Taylor movies some critics insist represent her “decline.” I beg to differ. And apparently, so does Manhattan’s Quad Cinema, which is now presenting a festival tribute to the Star of Stars titled “Essential Liz.” Among the films chosen is “Ash Wednesday.”

The Quad is offering some early Taylor — the delicate, fine-grained, unmannered young actress, the ingénue. So much more natural — and very American! — than some might recall. “A Place in the Sun,” “Giant,” “Father of the Bride.” We also get Top Young Dramatic Actress Liz in “Cat on a Hot Roof,” “Suddenly Last Summer,” and “Butterfield 8” (her first Oscar).
“He ... bought me a bathing suit I didn’t want to wear. It was a scandal to the jaybirds! The water made it transparent. But he pulled me in, all the way in, and I came out looking ... naked!” Taylor in “Suddenly Last Summer.”
"You haven't heard the worst of it. I LOVED it. Every awful moment of it I LOVED!" Taylor's big confession in "Butterfield 8."
But even by the time of “Cat” Taylor was moving into a very different and rarefied category, one where her public could not, would not, separate her from the roles she played — much to the benefit of her box-office. Thanks to Taylor’s opulent 13-month marriage to Mike Todd, his death in a plane crash and then the stunning “Liz Steals Eddie From Debbie” scandal, the public looked at her increasingly dramatic and sexualized roles as extensions, one way or another, of her real life.

(Warner Bros. Home Entertainment)
By the time of ET’s then-record million dollar salary for “Cleopatra” (the Quad will run this too, natch), her near death in London, the resumption of the film in Rome, her second “husband stealing” extramarital scandal with Richard Burton, she was no longer capable — or likely even interested — in convincing audiences she was somebody else in her movies. From then on, with or without Richard Burton, it looked as if she was conveying a message to fans — it’s really me, isn’t this a hoot? “The VIPs,” “The Sandpiper,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Taming of the Shrew” all looked to be variations of life with the passionate, battling, boozing Burtons. (Making movies was that thing Taylor did in-between marrying, partying, mothering, eating, drinking, procuring jewels and nurturing friends and animals.)

Then — and the Quad has these movies too — Taylor began to go delightfully off the rails — “Boom!” (multi-married, dying millionaires, spouting hilarious Tennessee Williams monologues about life and death) ... “Reflections In a Golden Eye” (ET as the rather dizzy, sexually rapacious wife of repressed homosexual Marlon Brando) ... “Secret Ceremony” (Taylor as a London prostitute, plucked off the streets by demented Mia Farrow, who thinks she is her dead mum, come back to life.)
ET in “Secret Ceremony.”
The less commercial and quirky Taylor’s movies were, the more interesting, if less sensitive an actress she became. From all the years with Burton she picked up a posh quasi-Brit accent, along with a host of mannerisms and vocal tics. One never knew quite where or how she was going to put an emphasis on certain words. It was great, hypnotic fun. The Quad festival includes a couple of bores — “The Comedians,” which she only took to prevent Sophia Loren from co-starring with Burton, and “The Only Game in Town,” in which she plays, hilariously, a poor Las Vegas dancer, wooed by Warren Beatty. Even ten years previously Taylor would have been too lush, too famous to be convincing as a girl who claims to have “no real jewels, no furs!” (Not to mention too short!) George Stevens, directing her for the third time, attempts to resurrect her youthful delicacy, but only succeeds in making her appear ridiculous.
The piece de resistance of this festival appreciation is 1972’s “X, Y and Zee,” script by the great Edna O’ Brien, co-starring Michael Caine and Susannah York, this is the movie that Taylor was born to make. She is Zee Blakely, a wealthy, hard-drinking, foul-mouthed, sexy, heavily painted, gaudily costumed woman who will do anything — anything! — to hold onto her husband. (Caine.) It is in many ways her best performance — certainly one of her most committed. Vital, energetic, raucously funny, vicious and convincingly vulnerable (when it suits her purposes), Taylor is a diamond bright, diamond hard peacock, thrillingly unfettered.

Although “Zee” did not turn out to be a blockbuster, I recall seeing it more than once with New York moviegoers, who were genuinely enthusiastic. Taylor describes her rival, Susannah York — “She’s a slob. A soulful slob. Nothing I hate worse than soulful people. She’s always a little out of breath, and sees ‘beauty’ in everything; especially in SHIT” — the audiences hooted their approval. In some ways, I find it a less stunt-like, more genuine portrayal than “Virginia Woolf’s” Martha, as good as that is. (Her second Oscar).
"Come back here! Come back here, you! I haven't dismissed you yet!" Taylor rages in "X, Y and Zee."
The Quad line-up also includes the downright weirdest movie of Taylor’s career, 1974’s “The Driver’s Seat” in which she plays a woman going mad. Filmed in Rome during her first breakup with Richard Burton, the film is shocking in some ways (Taylor certainly reveals a lot of herself, physically) and she offers an eerily intense performance. The movie is drenched in that early '70’s slo-mo atmosphere with strange tinkly piano music to accompany and accentuate Taylor’s descent. It is one of ET’s least-known and least-seen films. Kudos to the Quad for including it!
ET gets a leg up on her escalating insanity in "The Driver's Seat."
I was disappointed that they did not offer the wacky black comedy “Hammersmith is Out” the nifty thriller “Night Watch,” the unfairly maligned “A Little Night Music” or the hugely entertaining Agatha Christie entry, “The Mirror Crack’d.” (Which also contains an epic comic turn by Kim Novak.) Eh, another time. Also excluded is 1957’s endless epic of the Civil War, “Raintree County” for which Taylor’s amusingly overheated, panting performance somehow garnered her a first Oscar nomination, as well as director George Cukor’s woeful “The Bluebird” — no real loss on the latter movie, other than Taylor’s beauty and few sly, seductive minutes courtesy of Ava Gardner.

For the full schedule for “Essential Liz” visit

ELIZABETH Taylor died in March of 2011. Since then there have been a few photo books. Her friend Firooz Zahedi’s has been the best.

Elizabeth herself would have been the first to agree that at age 79 and bedeviled by ill-health, that she had outlived her “legend” in some ways. She was not to be an iconic Marilyn kind of star. (Monroe’s greatest career move was early death.)

Photograph by Firooz Zahedi.
Her wonderfully stubborn refusal to “do a Dietrich” — withdraw from the eyes of the world — also worked against her being feted, post-death. She did herself up, put on her bling, and got out there — often in a wheelchair, usually to continue the AIDS battle. She told us by her very presence to “get over it” — everybody grows old, nobody is beautiful forever. This was courageous but sometimes painful to see, as well. (In Cannes, in the early 2000s I was shocked when a paparazzi turned to me and said, after watching her unsteady progress down the red carpet, “I don’t want to see her like this! Why couldn’t she be like Garbo?!”)

Elizabeth worked onstage, in movies and TV until 2001. (There was a final appearance — for AIDS — performing “Love Letters” with James Earl Jones in 2007.) Her public life as an activist, businesswoman and general phenomenon never ended.

Why is nobody — to my knowledge — working on a major biography on the star of stars? The amount of work and the various interactions Elizabeth had between 1976 and her death would be enough to fill a three-volume biography! You don’t have to dig back to MGM’s golden age, or the peak of Elizabeth big screen career, to put together a fascinating book.

Here is a partial list of names — still active and vital — who either worked with Elizabeth or had significant contact with her at various events. In no particular order — Whoopi Goldberg ... Rosie O’ Donnell ... John Goodman ... Lesley Anne Down ... Diana Rigg ... C. Thomas Howell ... Julie Andrews ... Joseph Bottoms ... Chad Lowe ... Robert Wagner ... Jane Alexander ... George Hamilton ... Tom Skerritt ... Austin Pendleton ... Dennis Christopher ... Valentino ... Mia Fonssagrives ... Mia Farrow ... Michael Caine ... Sally Hay ... Nicole Kidman ... Shirley Bassey ... Donny Osmond ... Barbara Walters ... Joan Collins ... James Earl Jones ... Sally Morrison ... Sophia Loren ... Tony Geary ... Kim Novak ... Mark Harmon ... Valerie Perrine ... Franco Zeffirelli ... Angela Lansbury ... Beau Bridges ... Carol Burnett ... Len Cariou ... Hal Prince ... Stephen Sondheim ... Ursula Andress ... Magic Johnson ... kd lang ... Cindy Crawford ... Elton John ... Bob Dylan ... Liza Minnelli ... Robert DeNiro ... Cicely Tyson ... George Segal ... Sharon Osborne ... Henry Kissinger ... Harrison Ford ... Bill Clinton ... Shirley MacLaine ... Jimmy Carter ... Mikhail Baryshnikov ... James Brolin ... Barbra Streisand.

Photograph by Firooz Zahedi.
Get it? And so many more. Along with all the surviving casts and crews of her two stage plays and many TV movies — the directors, cameramen, costume designers, etc.

Let’s not forget the people she met during her strenuous campaigning in Virginia for John Warner, winning him his Senate seat. Or those she encountered in Washington as the bored senator’s wife. Listen, Elizabeth’s spring and summer of 1976, juggling three suitors and making almost daily grand appearances in Manhattan or Washington D.C. is a book in itself! (In the midst of this frenzy of activity she was still very much carrying the torch for Richard Burton.)

There are a million people with a million ET tales to tell if somebody gets on board right now to record them.

Elizabeth died holding most of her secrets. She told only a little, and judiciously. When Liz Smith interviewed her during the filming of “The Bluebird” in 1975, Taylor took her fist and thumped it on her fabled bosom and declared, “I have so much to say, but I won’t. It’s all in here!”

And I will brag on myself that it was I who suggested to Barbara Walters that she ask Elizabeth exactly what she meant when the star made a hurried remark to Oprah Winfrey that she and Michael Jackson shared “abusive” childhoods. (Oprah didn’t follow-up!) Barbara asked, and Elizabeth told — her father used to beat her! She forgave him, she said.
So, it’s up to others to try to connect the dots. Elizabeth was more complex than she wanted to appear. She didn’t beg for sympathy or wish to be seen as neurotic or needy. Of course, she was both — eight marriages and many addictions attest to that! But she was not a brooder. No tiresome Monroe or Judy-like torments for ET. Taylor shook off depression by living big.

Hers was the great movie star life! She began in childhood beauty, became Hollywood royalty, and never really faded from public consciousness, though the last few years were kind of an anxious, morbid death watch.

Elizabeth deserves due attention. Not all of it will be sympathetic. That’s life. And she’d be the first to say so.

I think William J. Mann, who wrote the excellent “How to be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood,” could do a full biography of La Liz proud. Get on it, William!
Contact Denis here.