In this week's issue of Nomad Editions' Wide Screen, a tribute to Elizabeth Taylor, featuring an obituary by the ineffable Self-Styled Siren, a best-of-on-DVD consideration from Tony Dayoub, Vadim Rizov's look at the best and worst of Taylor tributes, a couple of lovely photo portfolios assembled by our crack picture editor Laurie Kratochvil, and a piece by myself on the Taylor filmo perceived through a sort-of auteurist prism. Below is a portion of the article; to read it in its entirety, do consider a free trial subscription to the publication which you may learn about more here.
“LeRoy has converted his innate vulgarity into a personal style,” Andrew Sarris noted, before adding, “His Little Caesar is feeble next to Hawks’s Scarface, and his Little Women far littler than Cukor’s, but you can’t have everything.” And indeed, for emotional power (or convincing Hollywood schmaltz), LeRoy’s 1949 version of the Louisa May Alcott classic, starring Taylor as Amy, Meet Me in St. Louis’s adorable moppet Margaret O’Brien as Beth, and June Allyson as Jo (and Peter Lawford as Laurie, yeesh) is no match for the 1933 film featuring Katharine Hepburn as Jo, Joan Bennett as Amy, and Jean Parker as Beth. (Poor forgotten Douglass Montgomery played Laurie.) Still, it is pretty snappy in the manner that the director of such pre-code speed rides as Three on a Match, I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, and Heat Lightning was something of a past master at. Taylor had been slated to play the lead in LeRoy’s stab at a Biblical epic, Quo Vadis, but production hassles scotched that; she did an uncredited extra bit as an arena slave.
The American-born Losey left the United States in the 1950s (HUAC, again) and continued his career in Europe; by the time he teamed up with Taylor and Burton, he was well-regarded not just for his Hollywood and post-Hollywood noirs (The Prowler and Time Without Pity among them) but for two films, Accident and The Servant, made in collaboration with the esteemed playwright Harold Pinter. Still, viable marketplace work seemed to elude him, so he jumped at the chance to work with the then-married international superstars. But again with Tennessee Williams! In this case, 1968’s Boom! a version of one of Williams’s oddest works, The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, in which a much married reclusive woman of wealth is visited by a shambling, poetic Angel of Death. Guess who plays whom. As I wrote of this film, and Taylor’s performance, elsewhere, prior to her passing: “problematic for Taylor was the fact that she seemed to forget more and more about acting as the years went on. Look at her in A Place in the Sun, or in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and then look at her here. She shows a narrow range in both of the former films, but at least she’s working that range; she’s paying attention and working with precision. Here she’s all over the place, the result of Losey’s inability, or is it refusal, to direct her.” Boom! is still, in some circles, considered a candidate for Worst Film Ever made… although of course John Waters considers it a classic of its kind.
Despite the critical drubbing, Losey and Taylor were actually eager to work together again, and they teamed up almost immediately thereafter for Secret Ceremony, a very peculiar film in which Hollywood iconography goes way against the grain of art-film theme and treatment. Again, in another context I wrote this about the film: “The first 20 minutes are kind of remarkable. They’re almost entirely dialogue-free, and depict a little cat-and-mouse game between Taylor’s character Leonora (who we later find out is a prostitute) and the rather gaga girl Cenci (Mia Farrow, unnervingly Paltrow-esque avant le lettre)… [W]hat we’re watching isn’t about plausibility. It’s cinematic theater of the absurd with horror flourishes, and it’s mesmerizing... The problem, finally, is with the figures. Even 40 years after the fact, the strongest thing that registers here is that two Hollywood legends are acting really, really weird. By the time Taylor and Farrow wind up play-fighting over a rubber ducky in an oversize bathtub, all bets are off as far as this piece working in any way that Losey and company might have intended.” Secret Ceremony had sufficient strengths to suggest that a third Taylor-Losey collaboration — perhaps on a less affected piece of contemporary material, — might have borne more artistically satisfying fruit. But it was not to be. Losey did, however, re-team with Burton in 1972 for the underseen and underrated The Assasination of Trotsky.
Joseph L. Mankiewicz
The great writer and director’s masterpiece All About Eve shows he was thoroughly at home with ambition, betrayal and self-destruction when it was set in the world of reasonably functional (in a day-to-day sense) individuals. He was on much less certain footing in dealing with the deranged modern baroque realms concocted by Tennessee Williams. Hence, 1959’s Suddenly, Last Summer, adapted by Gore Vidal from a Williams play, is oft-regarded as a piece of high camp, despite its scrupulously serious treatment, and notwithstanding the, thespic efforts of Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and a particularly damaged-seeming Montgomery Clift. Its near-hysteria is for some ameliorated by the sight of Taylor at her most ravishing in a white one-piece swimsuit.
Mankiewicz and Taylor got on sufficiently well during the making of the picture, and that factored into Mankiewicz’s ill-fated assignment to replace Rouben Mamoulian on the set of the lavish Cleopatra, the troubled production that birthed the Taylor-Burton romance. Again, it seems that a historical epic set in the ancient world is a less-than-congenial setting for Mankiewicz’s particular talents, but he proved very dedicated to the film, or the idea of the film, and concocted a six-hour version that he wanted to have released in two parts. An attempt to reconstruct that version is underway; in the meantime, the extant four-hour cut is, while certainly on the stiff side, hardly the disaster it was proclaimed to be at the time of the picture’s box-office flop, which some have cited as the beginning of the end for the entity that once was 20th Century Fox.
Oddly enough, while many cinephiles might tend to rank the three collaborations between Taylor and the great cinematic stylist Vincente Minnelli as minor Minnelli works, seen from a particular angle — the Taylor one — this teaming might be viewed as unusually fruitful, producing two of the most enjoyable and congenial films of her career, and one of the more unusual and overtly thoughtful as well. In 1950’s Father of the Bride, Taylor was still an ingénue (all of 18), co-starring as the daughter of Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, about to marry amiable boy-next-door type Don Taylor (no relation). A fascinating look at the alcohol-fueled American middle class of the post-war era, it’s a snappy, knowing comedy to which Minnelli brings more than a soupçon of his decorative taste. His sure hand with the Comedy of Anxiety, in this particular case economic anxiety, is also felt. But it’s felt even more strongly in the film’s 1951 sequel, Father’s Little Dividend, admittedly in a scene in which Taylor doesn’t participate, and which is not as comedic as all that; it’s a sequence late in the picture in which Tracy’s character “loses” his new grandchild. Almost as nightmarish and angst-ridden as the Halloween scene in Meet Me in St. Louis, it’s a mini-masterpiece of Minnelli edginess. Similarly, Minnelli’s 1965 The Sandpiper , starring Taylor as a free spirit and single mom and Burton as the minister and educator who falls for her — and framed by the majestic vistas of Big Sur country — is best considered not as a Taylor-Burton vehicle but in the continuum of Minnelli dramas about the anxiousness of nonconformity such as Tea and Sympathy, Home from the Hill, The Cobweb, and so on. In this light, the picture works beautifully and stands out as one of Minnelli’s stronger ’60s efforts.