Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Not Just Another Pretty Face

Yesterday, actress and silver screen legend Elizabeth Taylor passed away at the age of 79.

According to Wikipedia, Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in 1932 in Hampstead, a wealthy district of North West London, the second child of Francis Lenn Taylor and Sara Viola Warmbrodt, who were Americans residing in England. Taylor's older brother, Howard, was born in 1929.

Her parents were originally from Arkansas City, Kansas. Her father was an art dealer and her mother a former actress whose stage name was "Sara Sothern." Sothern retired from the stage when she and Francis Taylor married in 1926 in New York City. Taylor's two first names are in honor of her paternal grandmother, Elizabeth Mary (Rosemond) Taylor.

A dual citizen of the United Kingdom and the United States, she was born a British subject through her birth on British soil and an American citizen through her parents. She reportedly sought, in 1965, to renounce her United States citizenship in an attempt to shield much of her European income from U.S. taxes. According to news reports at the time, officials denied her request when she failed to complete the renunciation oath, refusing to say that she renounced “all allegiance to the United States of America.”

At the age of three, Taylor began taking ballet lessons with Vaccani. Shortly before the beginning of World War II, her parents decided to return to the United States to avoid hostilities. Her mother took the children first, arriving in New York in April 1939, while her father remained in London to wrap up matters in the art business, arriving in November. They settled in Los Angeles, California, where Sara's family, the Warmbrodts, were then living.

Through Hedda Hopper, the Taylors were introduced to Andrea Berens, a wealthy English socialite and also fiancée of Cheever Cowden, chairman and major stockholder of Universal Pictures in Hollywood. Berens insisted that Sara bring Elizabeth to see Cowden who, she was adamant, would be dazzled by Elizabeth's breathtaking dark beauty. The girl was born with a mutation that caused double rows of eyelashes, which enhanced her appearance on camera, the famous “Elizabeth Taylor eyes.”

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer soon took interest in the British youngster as well but she failed to secure a contract with them after an informal audition with producer John Considine had shown that she couldn't sing. However, on Sept. 18, 1941, Universal Pictures signed Elizabeth to a six-month renewable contract at $100 a week.

Taylor appeared in her first motion picture at the age of nine in There's One Born Every Minute, her only film for Universal Pictures. Less than six months after she signed with Universal, her contract was reviewed by Edward Muhl, the studio's production chief. Muhl met with Taylor's agent, Myron Selznick (brother of David), and Cheever Cowden. Muhl challenged Selznick's and Cowden's constant support of Taylor:

“She can't sing, she can't dance, she can't perform,” he thundered. “What's more, her mother has to be one of the most unbearable women it has been my displeasure to meet.” Universal cancelled Taylor's contract just short of her tenth birthday in February 1942. Nevertheless, and in spite of her stage mother, on Oct. 15, 1942, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer signed Taylor to $100 a week for up to three months to appear as “Priscilla” in the film Lassie Come Home.

After “Lassie,” Taylor’s first assignment under her new contract at MGM was a loan-out to 20th Century Fox for the character of Helen Burns in a film version of the Charlotte Bronte novel Jane Eyre (1944). During this period she also returned to England to appear in another Roddy McDowall picture for MGM, The White Cliffs of Dover (1944). But it was Taylor's persistence in campaigning for the role of Velvet Brown in MGM's National Velvet that skyrocketed Taylor to stardom at the tender age of 12.

Then Taylor grew up. The incredibly beautiful girl became a stunningly beautiful young woman. When released in 1949, Conspirator bombed at the box office, but Taylor's portrayal of 21-year-old debutante Melinda Grayton (keeping in mind that Taylor was only 16 at the time of filming) who unknowingly marries a communist spy (played by 38-year-old Robert Taylor), was praised by critics for her first adult lead in a film, even though the public didn't seem ready to accept her in adult roles.

Taylor's first picture under her new salary of $2,000 per week was The Big Hangover (1950), a box office flop that also failed to present Taylor with an opportunity to exhibit her newly realized sensuality. Her first box office success in an adult role came as Kay Banks in the romantic comedy Father of the Bride (1950), alongside Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett. The film spawned a sequel, Father's Little Dividend (1951), which Taylor's costar Spencer Tracy summarized with “boring… boring… boring.” Still, the film was received well at the box office

Taylor's next picture, A Place in the Sun, set the course for her career as a dramatic actress. The film became the pivotal performance of Taylor's career as critics acclaimed it as a classic, a reputation it sustained throughout the next 50 years of cinema history. The New York Times' A.H. Weiler wrote, "Elizabeth's delineation of the rich and beauteous Angela is the top effort of her career", and the Boxoffice reviewer unequivocally stated "Miss Taylor deserves an Academy Award". She later reflected: "If you were considered pretty, you might as well have been a waitress trying to act – you got no respect at all.”

In 1960, Taylor became the highest paid actress up to that time when she signed a one million dollar contract to play the title role in 20th Century Fox's lavish production of Cleopatra, which would eventually be released in 1963. During the filming, she began a romance with her future husband Richard Burton, who played Mark Antony in the film. The romance received much attention from the tabloid press, as both were married to other spouses at the time.

Taylor’s eight marriages and affairs with married men burnt up the gossip pages of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies. Her many betrothals (twice married to Richard Burton), were the stuff of late-night comedy jokes. Back problems she inherited after being thrown from a horse during the filming of National Velvet when she was young led to subsequent drug abuse, alcoholism, and weight gain. Gone was the slim, pretty young bride of Father of the Bride.

Her extraordinary appearance could not save her from the ravages of Hollywood pressure, the Sexual and Drug revolutions, addiction, and age. Succumbing to the temptations of the Sixties, her sweetness vanished over time, until all that was left was the shrewish wife in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

Once her film career ended, she tried to redeem that goodness and kindness that you could see in her eyes as a child actress by championing various, hopeless causes. Fans were appalled that she would shelter someone like Michael Jackson. I don’t think it had to do with Liberalism, in her case; I think it was simply maternal instinct. Say what you will about her morals (and they were certainly loose, to say the least), she never seemed to be a mean person.

We’re cautioned not to be beguiled by loveliness or the standards of Hollywood. Actors are thrown into a moral pool of confusion and contrariety when they take up that profession. It’s more a pity for them than anything else, wealthy as they are in material possessions and misguided in their politics. That’s not to condone their behavior. But we ask for it, apparently, and they give it to us.

The last Jane Eyre film before the current movie came out, showed that Jane and Mr. Rochester making out on a bed. A far cry from Charlotte Bronte’s noble heroine who eschews mortal happiness for a clear conscience. Who asked for such a salacious scene that never happened in the book? A young audience brought up to believe it’s okay, that’s who.

Elizabeth Taylor was a product of her times and also a participant in that wrong-headed revolution. Beauty is only a prop for a happy, fulfilled life. Neither she nor her contemporary, the highly-stylized Marilyn Monroe, found that happiness. Taylor was tougher underneath, though, than the emotionally fragile Monroe, who killed herself at 36.

Those who would thrust the Christian values upon Taylor that she clearly lacked should either remember or know that Taylor converted to Judaism when she married Eddie Fisher. That’s not to say that Judaism condones sin, but they don’t believe in Hell or the Devil, if I recall my Judaic theology correctly.

She couldn't sing or dance, but despite the husbands and the scandals, the drugs and the booze, the jewels and the wardrobes, she gave us what she had to give: one of the most beautiful faces in the world – and a lesson about how beauty can be corrupted, wasted, or lost (in her later years, she subjected her beautiful porcelain skin to tanning, ruining her looks and bringing on skin cancer).

We should not worship false gods or goddesses. But this was a lovely goddess and at least towards the end, she regained her sweetness.

RIP, Liz.


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