Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Shadow of Her Smile: Elizabeth Taylor

Every movie lover has some sort of relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, one of the screen's all-time greatest lovers. Her career spans the lifetime of the “between the wars” generation, born in the 1920s and 30s. They grew up with her, matching her age for age as she went from the girl in Lassie Come Home to National Velvet, to the fiancĂ©e in Father of the Bride. Once she hit A Place in the Sun she was a young woman, and her natural, ultra sexiness was about to explode in technicolor and bewitch several generations.

I never saw her girl pictures (I didn't have a dog or horse phase myself). The first film I saw was Cleopatra on the ABC 4:30 Movie in grade school. The spectacle was the thing then, but I do remember that love scene with Richard Burton amid drapery. Hot is hot, and when you see the real thing—especially at a time before everything was so sexualized—-it is truly memorable.

I think Butterfield 8 was on the 4:30 movie too! That was over my head, and I have only the vaguest memory of it. Giant was the first film I was old enough to appreciate. I loved her with Rock Hudson, I loved the story of this young woman falling in love and then struggling to fit into her husband’s world.

But my favorite Elizabeth Taylor film is The Sandpiper (1965). The independent, single mother Laura Reynolds living in a beach house with her son was a great role for her, if a little ahead of its time for such a situation being sanctioned. She was convincing and exotic. And the plot point that Richard Burton, the prim headmaster of the Episcopal boarding school, just couldn’t stop himself from showing up at her door was beautifully erotic. Wouldn’t that be the best of all worlds: your own space, and a man who is driven to distraction by you? (Hmm.)

It was directed by Vincente Minnelli, written by Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson, from an original story by Martin Ransohoff, and it embodies, quite literally, the cultural shift that was happening in the midsixties, a.k.a. the sexual revolution.

The New York Times's Bosley Crowther was having none of it:

"THAT shabby old Hollywood custom of pretending to a great piety while flirting around with material that is actually suggestive and cheap has seldom been more adroitly practiced than in Martin Ransohoff's "The Sandpiper," which opened at the Music Hall yesterday.

"Built up to give the impression that it is taking a disapproving view of an adulterous affair between a free-thinking woman and an Episcopal clergyman, it is really a slick and sympathetic sanction of the practice of free love-—or, at least, of an illicit union that is supposedly justified by naturalness. And because it has Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the leading roles, the indelicacy of its implications is just that much more intrusive and cheap.

"Actually, the most distasteful aspect of this picture, which was made from a script by Dalton Trumbo and Michael Wilson, based on a story by Mr. Ransohoff, is that it uses the formidable Miss Taylor to rationalize values and views that are immature, specious, meretricious and often ridiculous.


"A viewer who is not careful may be deceived by the tricky blend of piety and physical allurements that Miss Taylor presents. But don't let it fool you. It's the same old Hollywood stuff."

Crowther's assessment in many ways is accurate, and he does like the Big Sur scenery and that "Vincente Minnelli captured the style and charm of an artist's beach house and the clatter and splash of an artist's friends." Taylor's own life unfolded during the 20th century as the world of Bachelor Mother (where a presumably unmarried woman abandons her child) gave way for the Erin Brockoviches, both in life and in film. Elizabeth Taylor was an important part of that cultural shift, even as she apparently didn't believe in cohabitation outside of marriage herself.

Besides Sandpipier, of course her Maggie the Cat was superb, and I stumbled on Raintree County at 1:00 in the morning a few years ago and was compelled to watch all three hours of it 'til the end (and still get up for work). I ran across The V.I.P.s recently and loved the insane glamor of it all.

Her Equally Compelling Reality

My mother is a year younger than Taylor, and has followed her career my whole life. She’s the one who told me all the little tidbits about the star through the years: about ET’s extreme health problems she suffered her entire life; she grew up in the studio system and didn’t have much of a childhood; that the truest love of her life was Mike Todd, and her life would have been very different if he hadn’t died in the plane crash; that when she and Burton really wanted to hurt each other, he would harp on her double chins, and she would razz on his bad skin.

These doses of everyday reality that required a steely reserve off screen certainly enriched her onscreen performances. But it was her understanding of MAN/WOMEN that lit-up her acting. And it’s why she and Richard Burton were a couple for the ages. Two souls with a shared exhausting appetite, a real life Scarlett and Rhett who let too much of their own fears get in the way of their love.

“The Shadow of Your Smile” is the Academy Award-winning song from The Sandpiper. The words have a nice resonance today. Sung here in mashup of Johnny Mathis and Barbra Streisand, with some nice photos from the film.

The shadow of your smile
When you are gone
Will color all my dreams
And light the dawn
Look into my eyes, my love, and see
All the lovely things you are to me
A wistful little star
Was far too high
A tear drop kissed your lips and so did I
Now when I remember spring
All the joy that love can bring
I will be remembering
The shadow of your smile


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