Last of the Great Hollywood Divas

Or should that rather be “divae”?

Anyway, Elizabeth Taylor died yesterday aged 79.

I first heard it on the radio, while driving home from school. The radio obituary made a really dumb error, too. They said that Liz Taylor had been married, twice even, to Tim Burton, when of course Liz Taylor’s two-time husband was actor Richard Burton, while director Tim Burton was never married to Elizabeth Taylor and is in fact young enough to be her son. And talking of marriages, why must a actress with a career as long and distinguished as Liz Taylor’s still be reduced to her many marriages? But then, maybe the many marriages were part of the diva image.

Regarding her career, I actually had to consider for a bit which of Elizabeth Taylor’s films is my favourite.

When I was young, I loved Father of the Bride, but I haven’t seen the original in ages and the remake makes me teeth itch with the fact that all female characters are spoiled and annoying. I’ve also seen many of Liz Taylor’s films from her time as a child star, i.e. Little Women (who had the brilliant idea to let brunette Liz play blonde Amy, even though her hairstyle is fabulous?*), the Lassie films (Oh my God, it’s Lassie! With a young Liz Taylor!) and National Velvet which I remember liking, even though I was not at all a horse person. My friend who is a horse person and had her own pony was in tears.

I also loved Ivanhoe as a young girl, though I was furious that Ivanhoe chose the blonde and dull Rowena over the much more beautiful Rebecca. However, when I tried to watch that Ivanhoe adaption lately, I couldn’t even make it to the end. Cleopatra is beautiful to look at, but rather dull. I remember absolutely nothing of Raintree Country except that it had beautiful clothes.

With Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? the source material was ruined for me by being forced to read the play at school. As for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, it was bleedingly obvious to me that Paul Newman’s character was gay (though the film never dares to say it), because you’d have to be gay to reject Liz. I have never liked Butterfield 8, which is one of those weird Hollywood films that appear to be about prostitution, but somehow cannot say the word, which confused my teenaged self to no end.

So in the end, I’d probably have to go with Giant because it has Liz Taylor, Rock Hudson, James Dean like he never got to be, old, and that whole epic feeling that made Dallas and Dynasty such hits in the 1980s. And given what we know/suspect about Rock Hudson’s and James Dean’s preferences, I would have loved to be a mouse on that set.

I also have a soft spot for The Sandpiper, not because it’s a good film, cause it’s not. But it makes the craggy California coastline we’ve seen in dozens of other films and TV shows look even more gorgeous than usual, it has Liz Taylor of all people playing a single mom proto-hippie artist and looking stunning, it has Richard Burton and Charles Bronson talking about drugs and sex, it has a look into the proto-hippie bars of the mid 1960s and Liz Taylor offering up some feminist ideas in dialogue. Oh yes, and it has Richard Burton, too, though I really don’t like him in this film. He’s just dull here and I can’t muster any sympathy for his doubting priest character. Never mind that the ending is dreadful. Richard Burton renounces his post as the headmaster of a religious school and leaves both Eva Marie Saint (normally gorgeous, but stuffed into dreadful twinsets here) and Liz Taylor behind in some self-inflicted penance. Still, there is a good film in here, a film was gorgeous scenery and California proto-hippies discussing drugs and feminism. Unfortunately, it’s drowned in the Hollywood moralistic sauce of a story about a doubting priest. If he’d at least been Catholic, then the whole thing would’ve had a bit more meat.

The thing about Liz Taylor is that as with many other great Hollywood stars, the films she was in weren’t actually that good. Partly that may be because the overblown melodrama style of Hollywood’s golden age never worked for me. Oh, such Hollywood melodramas are usually gorgeous to look at and loaded with talent, but the attitudes are so foreign and often plain incomprehensible to me that I can’t really connect with those films. And Liz Taylor made a lot of those Hollywood melodramas. However, she was so stunning and radiant that her presence managed to transcend even corny moralistic drama sauce like The Sandpiper.

*The ages of the actresses in that adaption were also completely off. June Allyson who played Jo was 32 at the time the film was made, i.e. much too old for the role. Janet Leigh who plays Meg was 22, Liz Taylor was 17 and Margaret O’Brien who plays the doomed Beth was 12. In the novel, the birth order is Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.

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5 Responses to Last of the Great Hollywood Divas

  1. Estara says:

    My favourite film of hers is Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – because of the films I saw she was so incredibly gorgeous in it and Paul Newman was lovely dream fodder, too. And the family was so incredibly dramatically dysfunctional. Considering what we learned about Tennessee Williams in that literature course I had to take in Münster, because all the more interesting ones where already filled to the brim, I would think your reading of the Paul Newman character spot-on.
    I hadn’t watched much soap opera before and was fascinated and disgusted both. But Liz Taylor was truly luminous (even in English, where her mousy voice mostly disillusioned me). I have to admit I have not watched any James Dean film – I never trusted the hype.

    • Cora says:

      I think I read somewhere that the gay angle is more obvious in the play, but had to be toned down for the film. Though it’s really obvious IMO, because what other reason would a man have for rejecting Liz Taylor?

      James Dean probably is overhyped due to his early death, since we don’t know how his career would have gone. Nonetheless, Giant is a very good film IMO, though I always found Rock Hudson and Liz Taylor a lot more interesting than James Dean. Though it’s eerie to see James Dean in old age make-up, considering he never got to grow old and was already dead by the time the film was released. Rebel without a cause/Denn sie wissen nicht was sie tun is another good James Dean film and also an interesting look into teen rebels of the 1950s (not so different from today’s teenagers). As a bonus, there’s a very young Dennis Hopper. I’ve never seen the third film he made.

      BTW, did you study in Münster? I almost got a job teaching at Uni Münster once.

  2. Estara says:

    I was born in Münster, although I pretty much was raised in Bavaria – and my dad had studied in Münster (and lots of my mum’s family still live there) – so I decided to start studying there and then going back to Bavaria (because Referendarstellen were guaranteed in Bavaria at the time). So I did two years of studying in Münster – and they were the most fun, although I probably didn’t use them as profitably for my education as I could have done, heh.

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