The loss of Elizabeth Taylor March 23 seems to have sparked more media discussion about her humanitarian efforts, particularly with AIDS, than the Hollywood life she had separated herself from some years ago. Her last film appearance playing a role was in 2001 in These Old Broads when she joined other Hollywood legends –June Allyson, Shirley McClaine, Debbie Reynolds– in spoof-like imitations of themselves. Her film career seemed to truly come to a close after 1989 when she appeared in Tennesee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth, a second screen adaptation that had originally featured Geraldine Page in the “aging actress” role opposite Paul Newman, who had paired with Taylor in another Williams’ adaptation, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
It is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof that I feel is among the two films that stand out in my mind as Taylor standbys. I assert it not only showed off the woman’s acting bravada but highlighted her sex appeal to the max, ironically in the role of a woman unable to turn her husband on. Besides that supremely tight fitting skirt she wears at the film’s start, it is the image of Taylor removing and replacing her ice cream-soiled stockings that always sticks with me, perhaps because that garment is rarely featured prominently.
Despite her overwhelming beauty, Taylor could scream and put up a fight like the best of them. She did that in Cat but she really stretched her boundaries in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I was blown away by this picture with my first viewing of this hard-to-watch drama a few months ago. Not only was Taylor “brave” in gaining weight, sacrificing some of her looks, and playing an older part, but one feels she could rip the screen apart with her staggeringly sharp and painful jabs at Richard Burton, who played her husband and was her husband at the time and again later in her life.
Roles like Martha were rare for Taylor before 1966. She seemed to be cast primarily as the daughter of a wealthy family in films the plots of which revolved around romance and afforded the young beauty lavish wardrobes. A more complex version of that was Giant when she marries and converts to the life of a ranch owner’s wife. A more heartwarming take was Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend. It is probably safe to say Spencer Tracy made those pictures what they were, but Taylor was well cast.
Taylor took to the screen early in life, however, long before her shapely figure caught up with her beautiful face. I recall watching the National Velvet movies as a kid, but haven’t indulged in them lately. It is not often that child stars can actually last past their cute youth and make it in the grown up world of film. I almost separate Taylor into two actresses because the adorable, sweet roles of her childhood contrast so differently from the later work.
TCM’s schedule indicates a number of Taylor films are upcoming, however, it does not look as if those include the traditional programming change whenever a star dies. Here’s the list:
- Secret Ceremony (1968) 2 a.m. ET April 01
- Raintree County (1957) midnight ET April 04
- Little Women (1949) 2:45 p.m. ET April 06
- Giant (1956) 12:30 a.m. ET April 10
- Ivanhoe (1952) 4 a.m. ET April 10