Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Tempest of a Lady: Elizabeth Taylor

I've never seen "National Velvet," that paragon of little girls' slumber party entertainment. I've never seen "Cleopatra" or "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," either - I think, soon, I will. The truth is that Elizabeth Taylor was so much a larger-than-life figure that for me, who grew up in her twilight years, she was already ubiquitous.

Though her Shakespearean contributions most famously included "The Taming of the Shrew," Elizabeth Taylor was her own personal Tempest. She redefined femininity in the twentieth century. She redefined a lot of things: what it mean to be a lady, what it meant to be married, what it meant to be fashionable, what it meant to support a cause. She was a Leading Lady in life.

Taylor's gentle youthfulness in films like the first one I saw her in - "Little Women" - lent charm to early photos that captured a beauty unsullied by heartache and tragedy. One journalist speculated that if her beloved husband had not been killed in a plane crash, she might never have had that infamous series of marriages.

She brought all this to bear in roles as raw as Virginia Woolf - a truly brilliant performance.

A woman who could easily have succumbed to bitterness - and photos from several years suggest she walked that line - Taylor instead turned her furies to humanitarian work. Whatever she did, she was a fierce storm, no matter how unexpected the direction - as when she was godmother to Michael Jackson's children.

Part of Elizabeth Taylor's glamour consisted of the way she deconstructed what it meant to be a lady, in a time when many actresses, like her friend Debbie Reynolds, portrayed a staunchly iconic image.

From a young age, I admired Elizabeth Taylor - partly because I liked sharing her name. Partly because she embodied old Hollywood beauty and glamour. Partly because she was a novelty to a rural, small-town girl (eight husbands??). I was probably the youngest fan of her "White Diamonds" perfume in existence.

It's hard to find a modern actress with which to compare Taylor. So many drown in self-doubt or over-expose. But her besetting fault was also her gift: Invictus-like, she lived with confidence, chips fall where they may. Taylor was never a size zero actress fretting on talk shows about her Pilates workouts. She knew how to maintain her mystique. Perhaps Kate Winslet's passionate emotion captures a glimmer of Taylor; perhaps Angelina Jolie's darker shades reflect the pain that informed Taylor's performances, as well as her humanitarian efforts.

But Elizabeth Taylor will remain untouchable as an on- and off-screen tempest. Remember why her career is so storied by tuning in to Turner Classic Movies on April 10, which will run a 24-hour memorial tribute, including some of Taylor's most famous films.

1 comment:

vanilla said...

Nicely done tribute, Elizabeth.