THR Chief Film Critic Todd McCarthy Remembers Elizabeth Taylor
Hulton Archive/Getty Images
He recalls his unforgettable encounter with the screen legend: "She literally took my breath away."
She literally took my breath away.
By the late 1970s, Elizabeth Taylor was no longer one of the first Hollywood stars young men about town fantasized about or dreamed of meeting. Nor was she making movies that mattered or that anyone really saw. Wasn't she now a Washington, D.C., housewife married to a senator? So what happened at Chasen's one night as I rushed in to join some people was nothing I could ever have anticipated or imagined.
For as I opened the front door of old Hollywood's most venerable restaurant and briskly stepped into the foyer, what should abruptly stop me in my tracks but a pair of eyes unlike any I've ever beheld, before or since; deep violet eyes of a sort withheld from ordinary mortals that were suddenly looking up at mine from mere inches away.
Moving with some haste, I had almost collided with Elizabeth Taylor as she stood alone directly in front of John Decker's immortal portrait of W.C. Fields as Queen Victoria. Caught off-guard and a bit embarrassed over the close call, I got out a quick apology but breathlessly could say no more as I broke into a smile that I believe suggested my immediate recognition of the delightful absurdity of the moment. She was serene and unperturbed and offered what I perceived or imagined to be a quietly witty smile of her own, as if to both suggest no harm done and a little acknowledgment that throwing guys off balance was something not unknown to her.
Screen memories of her then flooded back, especially of being 15 or 16 and watching A Place in the Sun for the first time on network television alone on a sweltering summer night and falling in love with Elizabeth Taylor right along with Montgomery Clift and completely understanding why he would kill Shelley Winters to be with her. As unthinkable as it now seems to watch such a film larded with commercials, the interruptions actually emphasized the romantic agony and suspense for me that evening and Taylor remains forever in the romantic/erotic pantheon on the basis of that film alone, made before she was 20.
With a new version of Jane Eyre about to open, it's worth remembering that Elizabeth Taylor first achieved real notice playing the little girl who dies in the most famous Hollywood rendition of the story, in 1943. Although MGM can properly be said to have groomed her to become a star and did so effectively, it seems unfortunate in retrospect that she was signed to that studio during her peak years; aside from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, most of her films at her home studio were stuffy and unmemorable; she did her best work when liberated on loan-outs for A Place in the Sun, Giant and Suddenly, Last Summer.
It's hard to believe she was only 33 when she "let herself go," as was said, to play Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and won her second Oscar for it, the first having come for 1960's Butterfield 8, a sympathy award (for her near-fatal bout with pneumonia) if there ever was one. I've often wondered: Why did Elizabeth Taylor get sick so often, especially during her prime? She reportedly underwent between 30 and 40 surgeries during her lifetime, dozens too many for anyone.
Despite her British pedigree and the class applied at the MGM finishing school, there was also a brassy, unrefined quality about her acting and person that well served Virginia Woolf and The Taming of the Shrew, among others, but, when suppressed, could make her unremarkable, even dull in other roles. Ironically, this was perhaps nowhere more the case than in most of her films with Richard Burton, such as the deadly The V.I.P.s, The Sandpiper, The Comedians and Boom! to name only the ones I've actually suffered though. One difference between yesterday and today's stars is that smartest ones now have learned to use their industry power shrewdly to better control their own fates; too often, it seems, Taylor and Burton's choices were made based on tax considerations, what countries their dogs could enter and so on. Too much of this sort of thing, too many films made for the wrong reasons, and your time begins to flee.
Ironically, just as Taylor has passed away, Angelina Jolie, the only major female Hollywood star whose beauty and dramatic personal life rival those of her predecessor, is preparing to play Taylor's most famous role, Cleopatra. Despite the behind-the-scenes ignition of Taylor and Burton's romance during production (one or two of Taylor's marriages didn't last as long that shoot), the mutual passion wasn't much evident onscreen. From what we know, Taylor's beauty far surpassed that of the real Queen of Egypt, but in her performance the desired bewitching quality was missing, as it was not in a fleeting moment at Chasen's.