Monday, March 28, 2011

My good friend and pop culture expert Scott Duhamel will be sharing some of his insight and prose on a regular basis. Here is his first contribution:

RIP Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2011
By Scott Duhamel
La Liz. Arguably the first of the imperial-celebrities and the last of the great movie stars. An iconic screen beauty, a living, fire-breathing personification of American womanhood, glamor, and  (yup) personal drama, she grew upright in front of the peepers of the masses, going from child actress to dowager spokesperson, all the while hip-hopping through eight marriages  (two to Richard Burton, with whom she also made eleven movies), befriending and mentoring the self-named King of Pop, Michael Jackson , getting nominated for five Oscars and actually winning twice (for 1960’s BUtterfield 8 and 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), single-handedly raising the national consciousness about AIDS, becoming an everlasting gay icon (and standing up in public for closeted stars Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson), and ,for a while, becoming the highest paid actress in the Hollywood Dream Factory while being denounced by the Vatican, all the while her black-haired beauty and infinitely deep violet eyes searing an indelible image that will forever remain in big screen perpetuity.
Born in London, the daughter of a St. Louis art dealer and his actress wife, she wound up in Los Angeles at the age of 7 as her parents left England to escape the war, and  then, at 11-years-old, grabbed a role as Roddy McDowall’s pre-teen honey in Lassie Come Home in 1943. It was National Velvet in 1944 that put her on the star-watching maps, and a central role in Father of the Bride (’50) that kept her there. Initially Taylor was a luminously pretty face and highly radiant presence, but working with strong directors and making good choices solidified her as something much more than another prefab confection, and screen goers (particularly woman), heaved, and sighed  and hurt along with her as she executed more complex roles in strong pictures like A Place in the Sun ( ‘51 ), Giant (’56) (in which, tellingly, she was actually a year younger than her newcomer co-star and blazing constellation, James Dean), Raintree County (’57), Suddenly Last Summer (’59), the aforementioned BUtterfield 8 (’60),  Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (’61),  and finally her ultimate role as the harridan-like wife and  hard-fading beauty of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (’66).
   While Taylor , however historically and physically inauthentic, will always remain the living, breathing, eye-batting incarnate of Cleopatra; somehow her failed 1963 opus of the same name turned her career (and life) into something broader and more wide-ranging than cinematic stardom, as she began a new phase of perpetual public scrutiny, with hash-throwers, cosmetologists, and garage mechanics dishing the collective dirt on her romances, hairstyles, public drunkenness, diamond obsession, and seemingly dozen of visits to hospitals and doctors for a never-ending variety of ailments. Through it all, she managed to be simultaneously glamorous and thoroughly down-to-earth, consistently feisty and almost preternaturally sultry, unabashedly voluptuous and forever rash, a radiant diva with down-home urges and next-door neighbor actions, a public sinner and unknowing embodiment of feminine independence.
Her screen career may have actually topped off as the 1970’s arrived, but good work still remains here and there with films like Reflections of a Golden Eye (’67),  Secret Ceremony (’68), and A Little Night Music (’78), yet she never suffered anything close to a career burn-out, making TV movies and commercials, advocating for charities, and continually making a splash when she deemed it worthy to step out into the public eye. Elisabeth Taylor (she personally disliked “Liz”),  began her career as an emergent screen goddess  with every view of the camera rendering her more emblematic , yet she wound up being a more than respectable actress, arguably ranking in the nether regions with the likes of Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis. It’s doubtful whether will ever see the likes of her kind of outsized vocational orbit today, although one can certainly recognize elements of her success surfacing in the movie oeuvres of Julia Roberts and Angelina Jolie, while such contempo growing-up-in-public female celebs like Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, or even Madonna couldn’t collectively cause the commotion that the  notorious single bat of a long eye-lash flickering past the deeply emerald eyes of Taylor’s could accomplish—it was a cinematic knock-out punch delivered with guile and ease.