'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' found Taylor struggling for attention from her on-screen husband, Paul Newman.

Elizabeth Taylor Tribute Maps Unusual Star Path

Dennis Harvey May 26, 2011

The first and last time I attended the now-defunct Taos Film Festival, it gave a tribute to Elizabeth Taylor (who lived in the area), allowing me to spend an hour sitting about ten feet from one of the most famous movie stars ever. Arriving by wheelchair with a little dog on her lap, she was petite and attractive, though infirmity had taken its own toll on her figure. She was also funny, candid, unpretentious, occasionally ribald, passionately serious about her causes (especially AIDS research and education), and a little dotty—occasionally she'd drift off on some strange tangent and have to be gently roped back in by her interviewer.

Retired and generally reclusive in recent years due to illness, she was nonetheless far from forgotten, as the outpouring of tributes after her death last month demonstrated. (In an era where media interest largely focuses on such trivial of-the-moment celebrities as Lindsay Lohan and the Jersey Shore cast, that much attention for a star whose visibility peaked decades ago is unusual.) Elizabeth Taylor's passing rang the death knell for a particular kind of Hollywood glamour that can be imitated but never truly replicated now. She was every inch a movie star, onscreen and off; her acting (though it could be admirable) was always secondary to a larger-than-life image and a life lived very large.

The Castro Theatre is honoring her with a six-day retrospective starting today that includes several of her most famous—and a few of her most eccentric—vehicles. It offers many opportunities to admire the appeal and abilities of a woman who for years was widely considered the most beautiful in the world.

Born in 1932 London but evacuating with her parents just before the start of WWII, her looks soon had studios clamoring to sign her, and at MGM she had big hits starring opposite hairier mammals: In two Lassie films and 1944's horsey National Velvet. That latter plays the Castro May 30 along with the movie that assured her transition from juvenile to adult roles, 1950's smash comedy Father of the Bride. (She was the bride and Spencer Tracy her anxious father.) The following year she got her big break as a dramatic ingenue in George Stevens' A Place in the Sun (May 28), as the young socialite who bedazzles fast-rising pauper Montgomery Clift to the point where he murders the factory girl (Shelley Winters) he's impregnated to be with her.

No one questioned that Taylor was lovely and pleasant, but few thought her an acting heavyweight until a series of films later that decade began stretching her range. Several are in the Castro series: Raintree County, a critically dissed but popular movie in which her belle of the Old South slowly goes mad (attracting Taylor's first Oscar nomination); Stevens' Giant, as the refined East Coast bride shocked by her rough ’n’ tumble new Texas environs, then caught between rancher husband Rock Hudson and oil-enriched scamp James Dean; Cat on a Hot Tin Hoof, in which her hungry wife Maggie “the Cat” struggles vainly to arouse the interest—and other parts—of defeated, possibly gay husband Paul Newman; and another Tennessee Williams adaptation, Suddenly, Last Summer, where she's another desperate belle—auntie Katherine Hepburn wants kindly doc Clift to lobotomize her—harboring a terrible secret.

Taylor was cornering the market in rich, neurotic Southern femininity onscreen; offscreen her fame was only enhanced by a never-ending series of marriages. There were eight in total, to a hotel heir (Conrad Hilton Jr.), an actor (Michael Wilding), a producer (Mike Todd, whose private plane “Lucky Liz” crashed a year into their wedlock), a singer (Eddie Fisher, Todd's best friend), another actor (Richard Burton—twice), a politician (John Warner), and a construction worker (Larry Fortensky).

The five-year union with Fisher started with a tabloid firestorm, as Taylor had allegedly “stolen” him from fellow movie star Debbie Reynolds. But it was in her long, perpetually on-and-off relationship with Burton—commenced when they were both married to others—that she became a paparazzi magnet then unparalleled. The Burtons drank, fought, swapped extravangant presents, globe-trotted, loved, and fought some more with vigorous abandon and a surplus of publicity.

They also worked together, starting on 1963's trouble-plagued, astronomically expensive Cleopatra, then on a decade-long string of vehicles whose gradually slipping box-office success did nothing to lessen their dual celebrity luster. The high point—perhaps the zenith of her acting career—was 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, in which the robust Burton and beauteous still-young Taylor did a surprising bang-up job as Edward Albee's middle-aged drab college prof and furiously foul-mouthed wife. This couple goes at one another in a boozy all-nighter, occasionally directing venom at the younger couple who've come over for a nite-cap (George Segal, Sandy Dennis). Taylor won her second Oscar for this—the first was a sympathy award for 1960 sudser Butterfield 8, because she'd nearly died during a recent health crisis.

Virginia Woolf? ends the Castro series on June 1, double-billed with one of the several movies that made Taylor and Burton seem like glamorous dinosaurs from an irrelevant earlier epoch by the early 1970s. Joseph Losey's Boom!—adapted from yet another Williams play, this one not received well on stage or screen—has her as a wealthy, bitchy recluse who lives on her own island and gets an unexpected visitor in a “penniless poet” (Burton) who might be the Angel of Death. Gorgeously shot by Douglas Slocombe, it's a bizarre slog that (echoing its title) was a major 1968 bomb.

Undaunted, Taylor launched right into another Losey film, also a flop, but this one a keeper: Secret Ceremony is another bizarre allegory, with the actress as a prostitute “adopted” by a strange child-woman (Mia Farrow at her weirdest), the two acting as substitutes for the child and mother each lost. Their fragile balance is threatened by the arrival of manly-man Robert Mitchum. The Castro programs it May 31 with X, Y & Zee, another baroque triangular hoedown. This one has Taylor in full sexpot-harpy mode as a woman scorned who exacts perverse revenge on the husband (Michael Caine) who's betrayed her and the woman (Susannah York) he's betrayed her for. You want to see La Liz in a lesbian love scene? Well, Irish novelist/playwright Edna O'Brien's arch yet purple script is happy to accommodate you.

Changes in popular taste made Taylor's old-school groomed starriness seem less relevant after the 1960s. Her (often poorly chosen) movies grew less popular, and she drifted into television work before basically retiring in 1990. But the death of close friend Rock Hudson in 1985 was one factor that made her the first, fiercest and most famous of Hollywood AIDS activists. (You may or may not recall that during the Reagan era, governmental indifference was such that our President didn't even say the word “AIDS” in public until he was nearly out of his second term, seven years after the epidemic was identified.) She had a considerable impact, and was unafraid to shame officials into reluctant action.

Elizabeth Taylor lived a melodramatic, overexposed, curious existence (heck, she was Michael Jackson's BFF) that both benefitted and doubtless unsettled her. But her legacy is one of great compassion as well as great beauty and celebrity. The movies captured much of her charm and some of her skill, but real life drew out a richer personality still.