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March 23, 2011

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Matthias Galvin

RIP

Asher

Frankly, it's kind of startling to look back on how few good films she was in. She played a peripheral role in one very good Minnelli, along with two of his most minor titles, FATHER'S LITTLE DIVIDEND and THE SANDPIPER, did a minor Losey (by comparison, probably about the 20th best movie Mitchum did), a couple Mankiewicz films of debatable merit, and two decent - I suppose - George Stevens films. Even Lana Turner, probably a lesser actress, has IMITATION OF LIFE, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, a Cukor vehicle, and PEYTON PLACE to her name, which I'd much sooner see again than GIANT, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, or even SUDDENLY LAST SUMMMER. I can't think of many 50s actresses who somehow managed to avoid being cast in one great film or another.

Nort

Asher...Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

bill

Are you saying A PLACE IN THE SUN was only "decent"? Better not let Vikar hear you say that.

Jimmy

God, she was beautiful...

Elizabeth Taylor, may your sweet soul forever rest in peace.

Thomas

Such a weird connection to her. Saddened for sure.

Mr. Peel

After seeing bill's comment it's nice to know that I'm not the only person who thought of Zeroville today.

Brian Dauth

SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER and CLEOPATRA are films of debatable merit? Even in its truncated state, CLEOPATRA shines as a great epitaph for Classical Hollywood as well as the refusal of a woman to follow the script(s) for her written by men (a perennial Mankiewicz theme).

SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER is maybe the finest Tennessee Williams adaptation, transforming Tennessee's self-hating torment over his homosexuality (he was in analysis at the time of writing the play in a misguided attempt to cure his queerness) into a story of class antagonisms (always present in Williams, but not often brought to the surface).

Harry K.

I think I must put in for Reflections in a Golden Eye, a dirtier movie I have not found.

On Virginia Woolf, I saw it again just this weekend, made a large spaghetti dinner with meat sauce, and sat down to watch it with a group of friends I hadn't seen for months. Afterwards we sat on the porch and talked for a while. I'm not trying to ascribe some greater meaning to the event or relate it somehow tangentially to the film or her acting in it beyond standing as a testament to the quality of both those things, but I think it was an alright way to unknowingly send off the woman with those striking violet eyes.

Kent Jones

Frankly, it's kind of startling to see someone counting the number of "great movies" Elizabeth Taylor was in while her body is still cooling. What difference does it make that none of her films will be turning up on any 10-Best of All Time lists?

I have a vivid memory of seeing JANE EYRE for the first time and being startled by her beauty at the age of… what, 10? "Rapturously beautiful" was Agee's description, beautiful enough to stop time for an instant. Stevens recognized it when he shot those close-ups, and when he returns to them at the end. And of course, Godard recognized it in HISTOIRE(S).

She's just as beautiful in IVANHOE, and in a really small, enjoyable Donen comedy called LOVE IS BETTER THAN EVER.

LondonLee

I'd have killed Shelley Winters for her too.

Partisan

"What difference does it make that none of her films will be turning up on any 10-Best of All Time lists?" An interesting question. Perhaps she could talk it over with Spencer Tracy.

Another interesting question: does "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf" stand up better than "A Man for All Seasons?" I would suggest that Taylor's performance stands out better than other Best Actress winners of the era.

jbryant

Brian: I'd say SUDDENLY, LAST SUMMER and CLEOPATRA are films of debatable merit, to the extent that their merits are often, you know, debated. But I'm definitely with you on CLEOPATRA -- I avoided it for years because of its reputation (and length), but loved every second of it when I finally took the plunge a couple of years ago. It's been too long since I've seen SUDDENLY, so I'll have to take another look soon.

Kent: While I wouldn't show up at La Liz's funeral and opine about her comparative lack of "great films," I do think it's fairly normal when an actor dies to peruse their list of credits and make an overall assessment of what their artistic legacy appears to be, at that moment in time, at least.

Tom Carson

Jeez, Mr. Jones. She was 79, had mostly been retired for two decades, and her movies are the only way most of us knew her. It's not exactly like somebody barging in to say "Man, that son of a bitch really effed up the Bay of Pigs, didn't he?" midway through JFK's funeral.

And besides, that Taylor could be a "great" star -- which she unquestionably was -- while making relatively few "great" movies is one of those Hollywood paradoxes that says a lot about stardom, fandom and her. Why not talk about it?

LM

Beautiful Holy Mary/Elizabeth/the spirit of women image, in the above picture sequence. Thanks for this.

Kent Jones

Tom and jbryant, when all's said and done I suppose it is indeed normal to assess someone's artistic legacy after her/his death. But weighing the collected works of Elizabeth Taylor on the Ultimate Greatness Scale has absolutely nothing to with her artistic legacy, and I don't think that the power of her presence onscreen has very much to do with either stardom or fandom. Marlon Brando was remarkable in a lot of otherwise ordinary movies (THE YOUNG LIONS comes to mind). Jay C. Flippen was kind of lousy in BEND OF THE RIVER and THE FAR COUNTRY and IT'S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER, and they're all very good. John Savage almost literally chews the scenery to pieces in THE THIN RED LINE but doesn't diminish its greatness, and Val Kilmer is amazingly focused and sharp in BATMAN FOREVER, which is almost as unwatchable as BATMAN AND ROBIN. It all depends on the actor, the material, the director, the circumstances. So, I'm not necessarily disagreeing with the above assessments. I just think they're irrelevant to discussions of Elizabeth Taylor.

It's her openness that I find so disarming and moving, in all her incarnations. Was she a great actress? She was a game, hard-working one, and the interesting thing is that she never seemed to be milking her own beauty - the director and the cameraman worked every variation they could (how many actresses could have held close-ups as massive as the ones in A PLACE IN THE SUN?), but she never wielded her looks like a weapon. As far as Ultimate Greatness goes, I haven't seen the Mankiewicz movies for a while so I'll have to take Brian's word for it. But I really do think that GIANT approaches greatness and sometimes achieves it. It's a movie of amazing ambition and scale, and it's a serious attempt to create a real epic of mid-century white American striving.

jbryant

Kent, I see your point; I'm just doubtful that Asher intended his observation about ET's filmography to be anything more than, well, an observation about her filmography, not the last word on her as an actress. I certainly agree with you that any meaningful discussion of her artistic legacy would have to focus on her performances, but I do think that what I termed "an overall assessment of what [her] artistic legacy appears to be" would also include consideration of the quality and reputation of the films themselves. I mean, surely part of her legacy will be that she retained the respect and admiration of many writers and fans despite appearing in a number of films not worthy of her talent (most assessments of Brando's career go down that road). I fear I may be getting into semantics now, so I'll stop. If Asher had only prefaced his remarks by saying "Taylor was a brilliant actress, BUT..." maybe that would've been that. :)

I too love GIANT, with only minor caveats. I was lucky enough to see it on the big screen a few years ago (after a few TV viewings), in the Cinerama Dome's pre-Arclight days when they would occasionally screen a classic.

Scott

As a tribute, I re-watched "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" last night. And while I feel the film has aged pretty badly with its trippy affectations, I think Elizabeth Taylor is genuinely great in it. Hers really is the definitive Martha, and I've never been able to watch another production of that play without Taylor's considerable shadow looming. It's a really intelligent, tactile piece of acting. There are so many great moments. For instance, near the beginning, when George and Martha come home, she takes a chicken drumstick out of the fridge (sprinkling salt on it!) and devours it while (inaccurately) describing a scene from "Beyond the Forest" -- and then puts it back! It's just a throwaway bit of business, but it really establishes that character's earthiness and vulgarity. It's hard to believe Taylor was only 34 at the time.

(And, in answer to Partisan, I think a lot Oscar-winning films from the sixties haven't aged terribly well, but many of the performances strike me as unimpeachably good, particularly the Best Actress winners. From that era, I don't have a bad word to say about Taylor, Julie Christie, Maggie Smith, Glenda Jackson or Patricia Neal.)

I'd also like to put in a word for "The Driver's Seat", a bizarre, off-putting little movie that I've heard referred to as her worst, but which, IMO, actually contains one of her most alarming, vigorous performances. I thought the film and Taylor's performance captured a lot of the novel's (which was, incidentally, Muriel Spark's favorite of all her own books) mordantly nihilistic spirit. It also has a cool Andy Warhol cameo!

RIP, Dame Elizabeth!

Tom Carson

"I don't think that the power of her presence onscreen has very much to do with either stardom or fandom." Kent, I respect you enormously, but we live on different planets and no doubt always will. I think that, no matter what Taylor does at her boldest -- lounging around in her Maggie the Cat slip or screeching drunkenly at George -- the audience is always conscious that *Elizabeth Taylor* is doing this. That isn't a distraction; it's a thrill.

Anyway, whenever she's onscreen, asking myself whether I'm watching Good Acting just gives me a headache. Sometimes the answer's yes, sometimes no, but either way it seems beside the point.

Kent Jones

I don't know about different planets, Tom, but different languages maybe. "…the audience is always conscious that *Elizabeth Taylor* is doing this. That isn't a distraction; it's a thrill." Sounds right to me, and I get what the audience brings to the party, such as it is. But while I understand what it has to do with how Elizabeth Taylor was received during the years when she was actually making movies, I don't know what it has to do with the actual work that Elizabeth Taylor did in those movies. Which is important, I think, because the number of audience members who are caught up in the greater thrill of watching *Elizabeth Taylor* do this or that is dwindling.

Me, I don't "ask myself whether I'm watching Good Acting" either. I don't "ask" myself anything. I just watch and think about it afterwards. And the question of acting is always important, though not in the way you imply: it's always woven into the fabric of any movie, good and bad, in mysterious and subtle ways. That's why I find so many discussions of acting in movies tedious: they remove the acting from the movie itself.

jbryant, I don't agree. Or, I agree if we're talking about actors of a certain generation. Nicholson, for instance, who has an authorial temperament and a real love of cinema per se, and - ANGER MANAGEMENT and THE BUCKET LIST aside - a deep involvement in the creation of many of the films he's made. And I guess that lousy movies more or less diminish actors and good/great movies tend to elevate them, and that any good or serious actor is going to be inclined to work with good and serious filmmakers. All I know is that Lana Turner's knack for appearing in good movies doesn't do much for her artistic legacy. As for Brando, his habit of appearing in ordinary movies reminds me of late Miles Davis and the not-so-interesting musicians with whom he surrounded himself.

Brian Dauth

Cinephile Advisory: never take Brian's word on anything Mankiewicz. I readily admit to a strong (and incurable) case of Mankiewicz partisanship. But I also realize that he has an idiosyncratic way of using cinema that does not have wide appeal. I will say, however (in my partisan way), that his method is rich and rewarding, if not intoxicating.

As for Elizabeth Taylor as an actress: I always enjoy watching her on screen (when I saw her on stage, I realized how much she needed the camera). Being of an auteurist bent, I can understand toting up the number of great films she is in, since for the majority of actors, I mostly watch their films when they are directed by someone I am interested in. Lana Turner has interest for me because of A LIFE OF HER OWN, THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, and IMITATION OF LIFE. But Taylor is a screen actress who always gives me pleasure no matter the quality of the film (Bette Davis and Cary Grant are in the same league for me). Is she a great actress? I have no idea. Some director’s made better use of her talents than others did (which is what can be said for most actors: great directors shape their movie to fit the talent they have been given to work with). But Taylor for me is among the few actors who do engaging things when placed in front of a camera. When such an actor is paired with a great director, the combination can be powerful.

VIRGINA WOOLF is my favorite of her performances since it feels to be a comfortable performance, full of joy and wit (Taylor also always seemed to respond to texts by queers). I like the film in general: Nichols does well by Albee’s brilliance, and 40 years removed, the movie both represents its time and stands at a piquant angle to it.

partisan

Scott: I haven't seen DARLING or WOMEN IN LOVE, though I've heard unenthusiastic things about both. I would agree that Smith gave the best female performance of 1969. Neal is good, but I think her performance is often described as more of a supporting performance. For what it's worth in my own pantheon of awards winners, I'd choose foreign film actresses for best actress from 1960 to 1966.

Obviously it helps to get good directors, and I must say I dislike both of Taylor's films with George Stevens. I just love "An American Tragedy" too much to respect A PLACE IN THE SUN, which asks us to regret that it's such a shame that Shelley Winters didn't fall down a flight of stairs and break her neck. As for GIANT the ending is exactly what's wrong with a gutless Hollywood tolerance. If we're supposed to be pleased with Hudson and Taylor's partially Hispanic grandchildren, why couldn't their mother and Hudson and Taylor's daughter in law have been a real character? Stevens only had more than three hours to give her a real role.

Kent Jones

Partisan, while I would never argue that it's perfect, I can't agree with you about GIANT. There are plenty of movies from the era that play both ends against the middle when it comes to quesions of race, and I really don't think that it's useful to reduce the film to its one element. On the other hand, while I think that A PLACE IN THE SUN has its own power, it's a far cry from the book, one of the greatest in American literature. I don't believe that everything needs to be made into a movie, but AMERICAN TRAGEDY is crying out for mini-series treatment.

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