“It’s Not Just Who But When…”
This statement was made by an acquaintance of mine some years ago when the question was prompted, “Who would you like to meet more than anyone else?” And from that very moment I fully and completely realized how important timing is when it comes to the reality of a person. Often the ideal timing is that ideal cusp where the fame is new and surprising to the person themselves. Where they are overcome with both the humility of that responsibility and possibly even embarrassed by it. It is certainly when they are most thankful. And certainly ever since that initial conversation I’ve always reiterated when it comes to any such list, “It’s not just who but when…”
Now as a wrinkle, this ongoing series of portraits will only specifically deal with the women of the last 75 years of so who I consider to be the Most Beautiful and Alluring in the world. I’m well aware that the internet can quickly descend into a game OMG SHE’S HOT, LET’S OGLE HER! (though ogle is probably not used that often) and we find ourselves skirting into objectifying and ultimately even exploitative territory. Please know that that is anything but the goal here. The goal is reflect on moments in time, go over some film and television history, talk about the nature of image, and engage the subject of sexuality in media forms. And yes, most of it will be in adoring circumstances so don’t expect much of sterile criticism, but that is definitely the world of thought it will be coming from.
This ongoing series will attempt to go chronologically.
Once upon a time Elizabeth Taylor was just smoking.
I realize that comment is about as blunt as it gets, but let’s just acknowledge that she was the kind of attractive that can make people feel uncomfortable. So with that, the first half of this article is largely concerned with the aesthetical value of Ms. Taylor, but I promise that this article will delve into the things that made Taylor a legend and not just some pretty person.
So now then. By looking at the picture of above, you realize that we have unquestionably left the sensibility of the 40’s, with the glamor ringlet hair-doos and vaseline-caked camera lenses, and are now in a completely different era all together. Elizabeth Taylor’s look was so distinct that it was actually ahead of its time: the thick slanted eyebrows countering years of impossibly thin arch-shaped ones (for comparison see Stanwyck, Barbara), the uber-dark mascara, the shaping at the far corners of her eyes. It was so divergent. You know what? We can even go further than that: she wasn’t just ahead of the curve, she invented the curve. Think about the “mod” look of the 60’s and tell me that it doesn’t stem from Taylor’s look (see Twiggy). Taylor’s one of those honest-to-god trendsetters.(1) Even more astounding is that Taylor was at this pinnacle of everyone’s collective “wow” for about 15 straight years.
So the question at hand… when would you like to meet Elizabeth Taylor?
But first a quick tangent: One thing I’ve noticed in doing this “it’s not just who but when” series is that people can really look different in different periods of their lives (and I’ve already picked everyone I’m going to write about in the series so I have a big sample size here). Some stars have aged beautifully. Some not. Some shock you with their youthful, luminous glow at age 20 that you never knew they had, while others barely look like their ultimately famous personas years we come to know later. And so far, many of the upstanding women I have covered have been in that latter category.
Taylor is different. Up until a certain point in her career she just seemed so… ageless. She first got her start as a child star, where her presence is somewhat jarring in retrospect, because she just looks like a Tiny-Elizabeth-Taylor. It’s bizarre. Check out THERE’S ONE BORN EVERY MINUTE (1942) and be thoroughly weirded out. It is less jarring with her “awkward years”(2) in NATIONAL VELVET (1944) and CYNTHIA(1947), where certain features seemed out of whack with the mini and adult versions of Taylor. She got closer to her period of distinction with her role as Amy in LITTLE WOMEN(1942), except she has this scary platinum blonde hair. I mean, yikes. Then her breakthrough role came in the original FATHER OF THE BRIDE(1950). It marked her transition from teenager to “young woman”(3) and from that point on she was the “it” girl until about 1966. Picking a moment to meet Taylor in that long period is a daunting task.
And sadly, my answer depends on hair. Yes. Hair.
You see Taylor spent much of that period with a hairstyle I that particular hairstyle that many of us younger folks recognize. You know what I’m talking about. This one:
She had Grandma hair.
Yes, it was the style at the time (and she certainly knew how to rock it,) but the problem for today’s onlooker is that Taylor’s face had such a relate-able, modern aesthetic; she would simply look so much better with modern and/or longer hair. Perhaps it’s just generational and simply due to how our current era identifies someone as being in their 20’s. Granted this is astoundingly subjective and I’m behaving as if it’s not, but it is an interesting dynamic to consider when discussing the timelessness of “style.” Could there be people who are “style” outliers? Born out of a time that style fits their features best? Maybe it’s more black and white than that; certain people look great with long hair, certain people look great with short hair. So I insist there can be a rough consensus on the basis on facial structure and norms of symmetry. And even if there isn’t, screw it. I subjectively think Taylor looked stunning with longer hair. So there.
Her first cinematic appearance with longer hair would be in QUO VADIS(1951)… but since she was barely in that movie anyway so we must go to IVANHOE(1952). (1)
So there’s the long hair (props to getty images, a great overall resource for old movie pictures). You can’t see her so well, but you get a sense of how much it works with her profile and facial structure. And yes, I know those are probably extensions, but whatever! It’s what we got to go on. So what about pictures that show her more clearly?
Coincidentally, IVANHOE was the first film I saw her in… I think. It was elementary school and I had to do a book report on one one of those silly abridged novels and I picked Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe.” In traditional lazy fashion I watched the movie instead. (5) And boom, I was hooked on Liz. Then again, I had a surprising amount of crushes in elementary school and they tended to be out of left field (Alley Mills!?!). So as silly as this childhood crush seemed, it was really just par for the course.
Taylor dominated the next six years in terms of star power, including a starring role in the uber-popular film GIANT (1956). But while her work was always high profile, she was not necessarily known for her actual acting ability. Then came CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF(1958). I love all of Tennessee Williams’ work and I feel like this is one of the best adaptations. Between Paul Newman’s drunken seething and Taylor’s smoldering sultriness/angry fireworks, this film provides such a tangible mix of mood and energy. You can practically feel the oppressive and titular heat. And Burl Ives, ladies and gentleman! Burl Ives! If you haven’t seen it, put it on your list for sure. It marked Taylor’s arrival as a real talent and established a persona she could really sink her teeth into in the coming years (aside from the “attractive woman” she had been playing before).
Taylor was deservingly nominated for an Oscar in the role, but of course it went to the immortal performance of Susan Heyward’s I WANT TO LIVE!(1958)… Huh?!? That nonsense movie won her an Oscar?! See, this is a great example of why I can’t stand the Oscars. Little do people realize, they’ve always sucked. Mostly because the level of misappropriation is off the charts. Yes, I know “opinion” is a part of it, but the politics of choosing a winner truly is the rule of the thumb. Trust me, I know Oscar voters. They don’t watch a lot of the films. They pick to spread awards around and reward past performances, their friends, and whoever would be the better story over the more impacting and lasting performance almost every time. Case in point: everyone was so impressed with Taylor’s performance in CAT that it garnered her sufficient clout that she actually won the Oscar for her subsequent performance in the completely mediocre BUTTERFIELD 8(1960). Plus she was then sick in real life and everyone felt sympathetic for her [Facepalm]. Of course that undeserving reward had further consequences: Taylor receiving the nonsense Oscar is what prevented Shirley Maclaine from winning an Oscar for THE APARTMENT (1960). This horrible cycle has gone on and on for years. We’re giving out awards to people because we fucked up and didn’t give it to them for the performance they deserved it. This happens every year. It happens in every category (only like 30% of the movies on AFI’s list are best picture winners). It’s political, inane, and nonsensical. That’s why I hate watching the Oscars… Sorry about the tangent. End Rant.
Anycrap… Taylor’s pin-up heyday had one last Hurrah with THE SANDPIPER(1965), but her next film was a dramatic reversal of that image. A singular performance that took what she established in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and brought it to fruition. I’m speaking of course, of Martha.
WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?(1966) is probably on the list of my 50 favorite films. Some of the most ardent readers here might find that odd because I’ve hated pretty much every modern incantation of the “marriage sucks” mini-genre (Revolutionary Road, etc). You know the kind of movie I’m talking about: a married couple yells at each other and say bitchy things and it’s all about how the institution of marriage is corrupt, yada, yada, yada. It the kind of assessment that is so far off base from my personal disposition, but that’s they the whole when-the-film-was-made thing comes into play. The film works best as a counterpoint to the long tradition of sterile marriage comedies of the 40’s and 50’s.(6) It’s scathing really; the popular discourse is something that really, truly matters in this world and WOOLF had a sincere and lasting impact. It was the kind of sobering portrait that made a lot of couples really uncomfortable the night after watching. Particularly, a lot of intellectual, “progressive” couples. Plus, WOOLF isn’t really saying those inane negative things about marriage itself. In the best tradition of grim art, it’s meant to work as a mirror, albeit one with constructive intentions. It never caves to banal platitudes or trite moralism, but instead presents an distressing alternative to your own life. It is meant to give you a glimpse into the abyss, so that you can stay clear away. After all, most of us are not like George and Martha.
What also helps WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF is that it is, you know, a flawlessly constructed work. Richard Burton channels the empty vessel of nihilism, a man clinging to his last shreds longing, so completely that it’s frightening.(7) George Segal and Sandy Dennis simply nail the young couple, who ride the roller coaster of the evening, falling into various context after context, examining themselves. And then there’s Taylor. She imbues Martha with pure venom, her words are practically corrosive. More importantly, they’re often right. She’s is at once an acute characterization of all the points in the feminist movement, while still being a singular, faulty, and angry-as-hell human being. The movie depends on Martha having credibility and a (distanced) sense of sympathy, otherwise it’s an indictment of women at large. (8) As horrible as these people are, most of their anger comes from the fact that deep down they need each other. That reality cannot be conveyed in some cheesy way either or else the whole thing collapses in on itself. Luckily, it all comes together beautifully. The source material of Albee’s seminal play is the main reason for this; it’s a work that should stand the test of time, but the director of WOOLF understood exactly what to do with it. In fact, I can only think of a handful of directors whose first film is a total masterpiece and with WOOLF, Mike Nichols is one of them. (9)
There is a true lasting legacy of WOOLF upon Taylor’s career. It defined her late period roles and showed she was better than a pin-up, even better than a political choice for an academy award. She could deliver an iconic performance. Something that more than set the model for the litany of “unhappy marriage performances” that followed, but actually altered the discourse of feminism and liberalism. The word iconic was chosen carefully. Unlike most others, she is an Icon with every facet of her career.
So there. There’s over two-thousand-five-hundred words of my long, rambling thoughts on Elizabeth Taylor. I could actually say a lot more as I feel like I barely covered anything. Like most of the people in this series, she has a crazy personal life and a ton of marriages that a lot of people seem to care about. I just don’t. I care about the performances. I care about the legacy. I care about her effect on culture, aesthetics, and politics.
She’s the game changer.
Welcome to the 50’s.
1- You know… like J-Lo.(a)
(a) intentionally semi-dated reference. (i)
(i) I hate having to explain jokes in blog/extended-footnote from. This is more because of my selfish insecurity that people won’t get it, because, yes, I know most people get it… ugh. Moving on.
2 – Awkward for her standards, not our hellish ones.
3 – Remember, this was back when teenagers didn’t act like young women in films.
4 – Ivanhoe. I can’t think of it without thinking about the classic Simpsons line. [Bart is writing a book report and reads it back to himself]: “Ivanhoe is the story of a Russian Farmer and his tool.”
5 – My more studious nature didn’t kick in until middle school.
6 – Which is not to say the era was devoid of more adult themes. It’s just of societal darkness was crammed subtlely or uns-ubtlely into the Noir genre.
7 – I realize this could be interpreted like I’m advocating the idea that women tear down men until they are shells of their former selves, which is an opinion many take away from the film. I could not disagree more. Burton’s nihilism is strictly his own doing.
8 – Similar themed works by Updike and Yates, fail to understand that basic principal. They’re pretty much sexist pigs who think women are to blame.
9 – He actually upped things with his next film “The Graduate”… or as it’s more colloquially regarded “the best comedy of all time” and/or “one of the top 7 movies of all time”… If you want to get all qualitative or whatever.