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Archive for the ‘Elizabeth Taylor: SCREEN GODDESS, ACTING GODDESS’ Category

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?

05 Feb

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? – directed by Mike Nichols. Drama. 132 minutes Black And White 1966.
★★★★★
The Story: A college history professor and his wife host two newcomers to the faculty and engage everyone in a battle royal for marital survival.
~
Elizabeth Taylor was untrained as an actress but as a child took to it like a duck to water. By the time of this film she was the most experienced film actress of her generation but had long moved out of that rare category and her true forte of a romantic actress into the dramatic category. It is a great loss to movies, for Taylor from a fifteen-year-old up through Giant had a capacity for film acting never seen again on screen – sad, fun, loving, kind, tender – as perfectly strong as perfectly beautiful and at home in being such.

I had lunch with her during Butterfield 8. By that time, she had three children, was in her fourth marriage, and she and I were both still only in our mid 20s. She was a young woman with a big nut and had to work responsibly to meet it. The film roles available were not up to her; they were simply what was available. Over our tuna salad I suggested Nicole Diver in Tender Is The Night as one more Fitzgerald heroine perfect for her. “Eddie and I want it,” she said, “but David owns it and he wants Jennifer to do it, and she’s too old.” Getting good parts was not simple.

As an instinctual actress her very instinctual not-so-private life may have dictated the sort of films she wanted to do or would be believable in or be offered. Perhaps marriage to Mike Todd had coarsened her. She was no longer the romantic girl of The Last Time I Saw Paris. So, while she could write her own ticket, what actual destinations were available?

People came to Elizabeth Taylor’s films to mark the progress of her beauty, inner and outer. No one ever, off screen or on, got more attention. On screen she was gorgeous. Off screen, so beautiful, I could see she was actually un-photogenic. But by Butterfield 8, everyone knew everything that could be known about her. The inner beauty had largely disappeared. So, and with all of that, plum roles did not come along every year. But one did in 1966 when she played Martha. If she had to campaign to get Giant, and she did, she certainly had to campaign to get Martha, and to get Burton hired. It was the perfect film for Bette Davis who was the right age. Taylor twenty years too young, 31, but, stronger than dirt, got it.

I saw the original Broadway production of Virginia Woolf. Uta Hagen, also highly experienced, had a raw coarse texture as an actress. She was very good and right for the role. Arthur Hill was completely believable as her scholarly, refined, and more powerless husband. I recall George Grizzard’s Nick as a tennis coach, but he actually teaches biology, and I don’t recall Melinda Dillon at all, which is probably right, since the character tends to paste herself against the wall to get out of the way of the melee.

Taylor is miscast. She doesn’t look 50, but, more importantly, she does not have the instrument, the technique, the training to play it. Instead she plays Martha as though she had an “idea” of what Martha’s character was. But Martha is not a character; she is a figure in an allegory. Besides, since she is not within Taylor’s aesthetic realm, Taylor can’t really play her instinctually. Instead, she flings herself about in the role at fishwife pitch and gets all the swearwords wrong. Elizabeth Taylor was built for survival; it is her virtue and her vice; the same is true of Martha. Taylor drew on her own strength for survival, but Martha drew only on her own weakness. Martha is weakness miming strength. Either here or elsewhere, Elizabeth Taylor was never that.

But in certain ways Taylor is well cast. Martha is fundamentally Taylor’s specialty, a trophy-wife role. Also, Elizabeth Taylor had a rowdy, cackling sense of humor that worked well for the part. And her performance certainly has its moments. What I remember when I first saw it was a crying scene at the end in which she wept for her soul. Seeing it on VHS now, there is no such scene. Instead, Taylor has a finale on the window seat, and in her eyes is nothing left, which, considering Taylor’s eyes, is even more astonishing.

Still, she is fundamentally miscast. “Elizabeth Taylor is too beautiful a woman for any of that to have ever happened to her,” my wife said to me. “A woman that beautiful has other strategies at her disposal.”

But ya gotta hand it to Elizabeth Taylor. Yes, she does not play the beauty queen; she flings herself into the role like a bucket of slops tossed out a window. And she won an Oscar for it. And I have no criticism of the fact of that.

George Segal is best in the stupidity and naiveté of the guest. George Grizzard, of course, exuded intelligence and class – which gave the play, in the reduction of his character to a klutz, a secondary strong dramatic undercurrent. You don’t get any of that with Segal, but it doesn’t matter. Segal is a klutz to start with. What you get is Segal’s big heart in conflict with the unethical seduction of his ambition, both playing against the want of seduction in his wife.

Sandy Dennis, in her looney, abstracted, tricksey way, works perfectly for the mentally and intestinally fragile wife, Honey, and deserved the Oscar she got.

Richard Burton, it is said, was miscast. I’m not so sure. Yes, he is miscast in the sense that, unlike Arthur Hill, obviously Burton always has power to spare, and you don’t need that to play George, but it doesn’t stand in Burton’s way. It sometimes comes out when Burton employs orotundity to carry passages – always a mistake. But we must remember, at the end of the play George always has one power left, to demolish the frayed bridge of the marriage. He will declare the inviolable secret of a certain love between them to be
false and he will kill it. Burton with his hold on his power or Hill with his want of power – no matter – George will smash the delusion. Hill quietly pulls the switch. Burton quietly pulls the switch.

With it gone, what do each of them have to live for with one another? What do husbands and wives have to live for? Without their old fabrications?

We do not know.

They do not know. That’s the risk George takes, and in that lies the greatness of the play.

In the Burton version, we see him place his hand on Taylor’s shoulder to reassure her of the future. But there is no known future and maybe no future and who knows whether reassurance is a requirement to endure it?

The difference between the play and the film versions is that on Broadway the play is thrust forward and takes precedence over the performances. In the movie, the stars take over. To such a degree that Mike Nichols seems not to have coached Taylor away from her gaucheries and not to have forbidden that godawful wig. But no matter. Either way, the play prevails by swallowing its own imperfections as it goes.

The material itself would seem to be about alcoholic excess. But it isn’t. For in this case, there is no truth in wine. The play has the power not of alcohol but of vitriol whose extremes push the four to the bourne of their self-delusion and over its cliff.

The thing that keeps you going is the thing that is killing you? Yes? You agree? But still, are you really willing to sever and surrender the most cherished and most ingrained operational prevarications of your relationships with yourself and others?

52 years since I first saw Whose Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? and didn’t understand it either time. Was it too startling to understand or I too young? But now that I understand the the poison it prescribes for a cure and the ritual of decapitation it demands for survival, would I actually risk outliving my own suicide? Would I surrender even one of the superannuated life-strategies I once found vital?

 

Butterfield 8

24 Mar

Butterfield 8 – directed by Daniel Mann. Romantic Melodrama. A promiscuous model falls for a married man and sacrifices her all. 109 minutes Color 1960.
★★★
Unutterable junk.

The script is so bad that everyone tends to overact to fill in the blanks. An example is the barroom scene where Elizabeth Taylor stabs her heel into the toe of Laurence Harvey’s shoe. Her delivery is unnecessarily nasty; a woman that beautiful never has to be nasty; as an actress she is in error, as she tended more and more to be as time went by.

Our Liz was a person who never lost. For Elizabeth Taylor, losing was a factual impossibility. She doesn’t have to lift a fist, only her little finger. The question is, What is she winning? And even, as here, when the repartee is flimsy and the moral motive phony, all she needs to do is keep it small. She has moments in the movie, but they are all quiet moments. Her failures as an actor come when, as when she reveals her thirteen year-old molestation to her pal, Eddie Fisher, she emotes. This was not what her instrument was designed by God ever to do well. Elizabeth Taylor is one of the greatest of all film actresses when the emotion and the body are contained. Here, however, she embarks on a career as a dramatic actress. Here she turns in the direction of Martha and The Shrew. She never really recovered. She won an undeserved Oscar, and she knew it.

Nor did she recover as a human. Everyone who saw the film at the time – and everyone did (on a $2.5 million cost the film earned $7.5 million)  — realized they were watching a woman of 28 on her fourth marriage, each one of them notorious, the mother of three young children, playing out the role of the femme fatale everyone took her to be in real life and came to this movie to see if it was so. The film confirmed it. They did not know that a woman in her position has to marry her lovers.

Taylor didn’t want to make the movie, because her character originally was made out to be a call girl, which in the present version she is not quite.

She also found Laurence Harvey to be a vain jackass and the director Daniel Mann a jerk. But she never held an animosity long, although Harvey is completely miscast opposite her and would no more be a graduate of Yale than would one of The Three Stooges. A New Englander? No. He retains his English accent, his lizard visage, and his icy eye. All this adds up to a minus.

The  cast is a mishmash; you never believe a single one of them; they agree stylistically in nothing. And since the script is atrocious, none of them can find a basis in reality for what is before your unbelieving eyes. Big Broadway actresses Betty Field and Mildred Dunnock are hauled in to play their one note apiece. And even the great Mildred Dunnock, as Taylor’s willfully dumb mother, plays at a pitch slightly above the needed, in a part that is ill-conceived and vacant.

I watched a days shooting and had lunch with Mildred Dunnock, Sidney Guilaroff the famed hairdresser, and Elizabeth Taylor at the Gold Medal Studios in the Bronx as Butterfield 8 was made. Taylor was real, gutsy, curious, savvy, and bright. She was not vain about her looks. She also was clearly unphotogenic. Sitting across from her at the cafeteria table, you have never seen anything so beautiful in your life. And that is what the public came to see. They had grown up with it. Velvet had become Helen of Troy. The face that launched a thousand ships and burned the topless towers of Ilium now had to be observed as it enacted the next chapter of its strong and fervent destiny.

 

 

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

22 Mar

Cat On A Hot Tin Roof – directed by Richard Brooks. Melodrama. The scion of a huge Southern estate is to die, and everyone is out for the take. 108 minutes Color 1958.
★★★
This rattles along like an old flivver, threatening to fall apart any minute. Individual scenes are well played, such as the long ones between Brick and Big Daddy, but the whole lacks a coherence of style and approach directorially and narratively.

One of the great dampeners on the piece is the art direction, which smells freshly painted and pretty in pastels; it sabotages the play’s underlying forces. It does, however, provide a light background for the filming of Elizabeth Taylor by the great William Daniels. Daniels filmed most of Garbo’s films from the silent era on, and you might say his skill at doing this made her the goddess we know her to be. His camera was in love with a beautiful woman. You can just see the stage light up a certain way as it waits to film Elizabeth Taylor. It’s lovely to behold, but, of course, what does it have to do with this material?

Taylor plays a woman whose husband will have nothing to do with her. Now, Elizabeth Taylor made four films of Tennessee Williams’ plays, but as an actress she is not really at home in this milieu; her Southern accent is put-on; she hasn’t studied it to a particularity. She is now early in that stage of her work when she was taking on heavy dramatic roles; such parts were not really suited to her instinct or her gifts. She had been mightily impressed by Montgomery Clift’s acting when she was 18, but she had never troubled to study with Stella Adler or anyone else. Her roles tended to parallel her life as a heavy in her personal life. Cat is an early chapter of her downward spiral as an artist.

You also might question her casting in a role which Barbara Bel Geddes played on Broadway in the Elia Kazan production. By which I mean, isn’t Taylor too beautiful to play Maggie? Too beautiful to have vulnerability as a woman? As a human? —  yes — but as a woman?

It’s true that she does have a number of gentle moments, when our hearts go out to her. But this version, of the many versions of this play, stumbles from its casting. Madeleine Sherwood plays it just as she played it on the Broadway stage and at just the same pitch, which over-carries in a film. Jack Carson quietens her somewhat, and is excellent as Gooper, touching, real, and funny. Burl Ives is much better in the film than he was in the Broadway production, where Kazan simply stationed him stage center and let him hold forth. He brings the required ruralness to the part. Paul Newman is beautiful, reserved, and fine, but he has nothing inherent in him of the South. (Put a hot-blood like Tommy Lee Jones in the part and you’ve got something.) But the Australian actress Judith Anderson has no business at all as Big Mama. Her essential energy is off; indeed she fades out into Mrs Danvers from time to time. She loosens the movie from its moorings. And Big Mama is the play’s moorings, because she is the only one who cares a rap about anyone.

What would have grounded the piece would have been to have Mildred Dunnock who played Big Mama on the stage do it here. She was from the South, she had specificity of the accent, she was coarse, and vulgar. She would have given the production a foundation in the region and the style and the heart which it lacks.

I feel about the film what I felt about the original stage productions and all productions since. The play is cold. It has no heart. There is no one in it and nothing about it to care about at all.

 

The Sandpiper

07 Jan

The Sandpiper – directed by Vincent Minnelli. Romantic Melodrama. A free spirited single mother living in Big Sur, California, must surrender her young son to a private school and its headmaster, an Episcopal ministr, to whom she, before long, surrenders herself as well. 117 minutes Color 1965.
★★★
Shoddy in concept and in execution, this was the first film Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor made together after their marriage. It mimics their resounding affair. She draws him away from another woman, played with lackluster efficiency, as best she may, considering the script, by Eva Saint. In The VIPs, he was drawn from his marriage to Taylor to another woman. In Cleopatra she drew him away from his wife. Their work in film tended to create their personal lives, but in that sense, life did not imitate art; art killed life;and life art. Everyone said she drew him away from his proper work as a great classical actor. Wrong. He was a classical actor but he never was, and he knew he never would be, a great one. No, their film lives intermingled in the huge public imagination about them and made their souls change. People who can write their own ticket, tend to go nowhere. This film is an example of their arrival at that locale.

Essentially, she is the better film actor, and therefore the better actor. But her acting was instinctual with her, and as she grew older, her instincts failed her as she failed her life. Here she seems barely competent at times – but nobody else does either, except Burton. The pomp of Richard Burton’s voice carries him through the role on one level, and his shamefaced eyes carry him through it on another level. There is no third level to the part available. All levels are unfair to the word superficiality.

Vincent Minnelli, a stickler for detail, had, of course, fifteen years before, directed Elizabeth Taylor in Father Of The Bride and Father’s Little Dividend, in which she shone. But here the execution looks slapdash and hurried and under-rehearsed. The ghastly thing about it is that it was written by the producer, so, of course, nothing would be changed. One supposes that Elizabeth Taylor accepted it, yes, of course for the money, but also probably because she was 33, and had to make hay while the sun shone upon her youth and beauty. She was no dope. But here her scenes which should be touching and yearning and caring, are not properly held in mood and framing by the cinemaphotographer. Everything looks phony and worked up. Even the party at Nepenthe looks forced – with the sort of “earth-dancing” that never went on there. This is shocking, for Minnelli had a great sense of his extras; he gave them tasks and characters; you can see that so clearly in The Bandwagon – but not here. Taylor is an actress who needs a velvet setting like a gorgeous ruby. Like Garbo, she’s a trophy actress who, because of her remarkable looks, needs protection. Minnelli gives her none. Instead he plays to her weaknesses, which are to allow her to force emotion out, rather than in, and to fail to curb her physicalization of them which is the result of that forcing. Taylor’s acting instrument can only be played by her when it is contained. She is not a virtuoso actor. She is a concert grand, but you must not play Liszt on her, Elizabeth. You are that rare thing, a romantic actress, but you were not meant for all romances. As voyeurs to their romance, we all went to The Sandpiper with our wives in those days and wondered at our marriages as we did so. For, looking at Taylor and Burton in it, we asked ourselves, Are they missing something?

 

Giant

24 Sep

Giant –­ produced and directed by George Stevens. An upper class girl from Maryland moves to her Texas husband’s huge ranch and confronts his way of thinking. 3 hours and 21 minutes Color 1956.
★★★★
Two elements destroy the picture. The first is that Rock Hudson as Jordan Benedict is miscast. He has no heterosexual energy coming off of him and the role needs it. Internally Hudson is limp, both in his craft and as a male temperament. Although externally he has presence and looks, if you like them, and he is well directed scene by scene, which carries him through the picture, and although he does as good a job as he can, there is nothing sexual coming off of him towards Elizabeth Taylor who plays his mate, and insofar as the picture is the story of this relationship, the picture fails. Hudson in real life had a sense of humor but as an actor, seems to have none, which is why Tony Randall was brought into his comedies. This means that he is never able to see his character as funny, peculiar, ridiculous, to be taken with a grain of salt at certain times, the sort of humorous self-knowledge that Cagney brought to a character. Hudson’s Benedict has no point-of-view, only a bias. All this means that the part remains a role and never becomes a character. And it also means that the relationship must be created by Taylor alone, who, of course, has considerable humor, a mischief, a sense of fun, a knowing flirtatiousness, a firmness of mind and principle, generosity, will, kindness, grace, a confident bad temper, and tact. Although the most beautiful woman in the world, as she does in other films, she also goes after her man and lands him. She loves animals and feels strongly for the underdog. She has both the allure of sexual gusto and motherliness to offer. She has all this naturally, which is to say she has everything to make her part work, and she is simply perfectly endowed for the role. And she has one other gift, for she is that rare thing, a true Romantic Actress. (Think of young Vivien Leigh as another.) She is so good in the part, she forces you simply by loyalty to her vantage point on him to believe in the marriage itself. But in fact because of Hudson it is hollow. And, at any rate, it is not her story that is being told, but his. He is one whose challenge it is to change both in his marriage and in his life. Much as we admire the Taylor character throughout, our focus must be on that. The change involves Hudson’s character eventually coming to accept three stranger Mexican-Americans as human beings. Until that becomes evident, we are treated to what may be the best performance Elizabeth Taylor ever gave on film – by which I mean the performance most ideally, fully, and completely suited to her instrument as a mature actress – just watch her carefully in the doorway scene at the marriage of her sister. Of course, the difficulty with watching Elizabeth Taylor as an actress is that her beauty is a spotlight so blinding that it hypnotizes us out of realizing what a marvelous actress she is. In both halves of the movie, it is clear at every moment that the picture is unthinkable without her. For if you think of Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly who were both considered ahead of her for the role, you can see that they could never have played the second half of the film, because they would not know how to allow Leslie be older. Maturity was never their line. It is also easy to overlook Elizabeth Taylor’s talent because she is physically so composed. She is not an eccentric actress, she is a concentric one, so much so that when she gestures she appears to gesticulate. In her stillness of composure and her certainty of her effects, it is also easy to overlook her talent when placed against actors trained by the Method into physical volatility, such as Carroll Baker and James Dean, who are always moving, stewing, twitching, fingering a prop. In this way Taylor herself is marginalized. They are wonderful actors. Baker, who was older than Taylor who played her mother, is unerring as a defiant, saucy teen-ager. But in the second half, one senses one is being presented with the structure of a false front and that we have gone around the back of the facade of Riata itself and are looking at the bare framework of a put-up-job. The script becomes too spare and obvious, defying Stevens’ renown for letting the audience rise to the occasion and do its own work. Mercedes McCambridge with her voice like an automobile accident plays Hudson’s jealous sister, and dies early, but generally everyone but Hudson is marginalized. All the Mexican-Americans are wallpapered. Other actors emerge from adjoining rooms, say a few lines, and return. Chill Wills is missing a scene between himself and Jane Withers, who creates a wonderful arc from a shy plump girl with a crush on Hudson to a loud Texan matron taking over a ballroom by shaking her white fox fur stole. She is also never given a scene. The wife of Dennis Hopper is sadly miscast and sets one’s teeth on edge by being allowed to play a Goodness Madonna, and Sal Mineo appears without our opportunity to understand him as a character at all, and the same is certainly true of Alexander Scourby who plays his Mexican-American grandfather. All these remain unexamined, unexamined not in terms of exposition (which they do not need) but in dramatic scenes sufficient to give them and the story life. Yes, in the second half, it becomes grievously apparent that there is a problem with the script, when even the character of Jett Rink is marginalized, given insufficient screen time. In the first half, Jett Rink, played to a fair-thee-well by James Dean, gives you a picture of the character work he might have done had he lived. For he ruthlessly creates a piece of prison-trash – mean-spirited, resentful, disloyal, cowardly, vicious, and whining. But Dean’s performance, in the second half of the film, as he knew, does not stand up. A bum in vicuna, a dull, sly, nasty drunk, consumed with self-pity in a ceaseless tirade against those who have more than he has and whom he claims have wronged him and wrested him of his rights, he is just the same as he was when he was 20. So he is also best in his pre-intermission scenes, particularly because the make-up is bad after that, when the three stars simply add radiator paint to their hair to be fifty. Actually as the younger Jett, he seems older than the older one, but what Dean needed was not to repeat his physicalization of the younger Jett, which he does, but to give the character polish, take away the slouch, the slyness, the shy little boy, the weasel. After all, we know this is a man bent on self-improvement, on losing his Texas accent, on night-school. Dean needed to give Tycoon Rink a suavity with no loopholes but one, his continued envy of the Benedict family. Anyhow, Dean didn’t think of it and maybe couldn’t have played it if he had thought of it. So his babyish playing of the scene between him and Carroll Baker doesn’t quite come alive on his part, for he plays it as a toddler tugging a female’s skirts to be cute. So, as with the others, the Dean character is set aside as well. For after the intermission, the film’s aesthetic collapses into polemic. This means that each character now Stands For Something, that Something being A Predictable Outcome. The dialogue exchanges become formulaic to that end. They lack personal flavor, and the comedy with which the second half begins doesn’t play, well directed filmicly as it is, because, although Taylor can remain in the moment with these scenes and make her character fully funny, Hudson does not have the talent to give the character the intelligence that would have made him attractive to us or the humor that would have made him see Jordan Benedict as maybe dumb or even silly in such scenes. Nothing really works richly, even though pretty much everything is convincingly played. The idea that Jordan Junior, played by Dennis Hopper, would have sought out Jett Rink in the middle of a banquet to sock him in the kisser for a racial insult to his wife is preposterous. He wouldn’t have done it there. He wouldn’t have done it at all, because he had never met Jett Rink and would have known him only in terms of his father’s prejudice against him. He also would have known not to let his wife go to the hotel beauty parlor to begin with, since by this time, he and she would have expected this prejudice to exist in public places in Texas. This leads to a fistfight in a wine cellar between Rink, who is flaccidly drunk, and Hudson, who is too flaccid inside himself to hit Rink, who in any case is too small for his weight class. The whole thing ends up with a theatrical gesticulation of some wine shelves being knocked over. Fistfights and failed comedy and polemic is the deterioration of the second half of Giant. Everything is sidelined for a preachment. And, yet, for a three-and-a-half hour film to come out at the end to be a polemic against prejudice is meritorious and had a great effect at the time, for sure. That it should be a prejudice against Mexican-Americans gave it, at the time, a force greater because more general than a specific prejudice against Jews or Negros. But I don’t think it is honest. For what Stevens felt in Dachau in 1945 when he saw and filmed the corpses was not “prejudice.” What he felt was horror. But the horror of prejudice we are never given in Giant. We see only a man, Benedict, being prejudiced. We never see prejudice from the vantage point of those who are victims of it. We never see inside a single Mexican-American. We never see the bodies pile up in their souls as they are dismissed and marginalized. For, of course, Stevens himself has marginalized them in his film. Even the fight in the café is not about the three old helpless Mexican people. It is only and always about Benedict, and even Taylor’s coda about him being her hero, and that it being all he ever really wanted to be, has nothing to do with prejudice. Taylor is so marvelous doing the scene that you cannot but go for it, but the final image of the black calf and the white sheep and the dark toddler and the gringo toddler in the floor crib is so crude as to be self-cancelling. Yes, you believe Taylor’s maturity in marriage, and her evenhandedness. It’s in the tone of her voice because it’s in her nature. But in Giant we are told to concern ourselves not where tolerance is, but where it is not, and its theme peters out in the over-broad gesture of it script, becomes lost in spaciousness, breadth of land, spectacle of vulgar riches, and the length of the film itself. Apart from Carroll Baker, no one but Taylor seems absolutely right for their roles – and the film is not about her. She is essentially a leading woman here, in a Myrna Loy part. Dimitri Tiomkin’s score lumbers along as the film lumbers along. William Mellor filmed it beautifully. But it is as empty as the ‘50s. It seems that Stevens has abandoned depth of character and dramatic situation for vastness of morality play on the one hand and for the minutiae of preparation before and the minutiae of editing afterwards on the other. There is not enough filling in the sandwich. It is as though actors and drama were now mere tools of his vision. But actors are not tools. Indeed, they are not even movie stars, even when they are Elizabeth Taylor. No. Inside a movie they are characters, or they’d better be and they’d better be kept so. The film was enormously popular, the top grossing film in the history of Warner Brothers. The public loved it and still does. The ‘50s were a spendthrift age, an age of tasteless excess. Giant is the fins on its Cadillac. But Stevens did direct it. So it also is a Cadillac.

 

A Place In The Sun

13 Sep

A Place In The Sun – produced and directed by George Stevens. Romantic Tragedy. A young man aspires to love and success and is waylaid. 122 minutes Black and White 1951.

★★★★★

Seeing Elizabeth Taylor aged 17, as Angela Vickers sail into a mansion, you know she belongs there and you want to belong there with her. For Angela Vickers takes it all for granted. Like Daisy in The Great Gatsby, she has money in her voice. She has the silver chinks. She has everything and she gives everything, so the film naturally and inevitably slants towards her. Shelly Winters as the working class trull is given the opposite: neither sex appeal nor charm nor sympathy. She is brought into performance from beginning to end like the melted ice cream she serves and seems to be enduring morning sickness from the start. A self-pitying, sulky, nauseous look distorts her visage, a quart bottle of platitudes ready to pour. Washed around by his mother, Anne Revere and the two young women with whom he becomes involved, Montgomery Clift as George Eastman is a piece of driftwood shoved by every eddy. His body is flaccid and stooped. His face stares at us and reveals nothing but the hurt he might feel for a passing dog. His beauty registers as great but uneventful. One can read anything into his beautiful eyes, or nothing. For he cannot seem to summon any temperament. But the story is his, and so one reads, not George, but what happens to him. He stands there while it happens, not a character but a circumstance. His entire story, that is, points to Angela Vickers, as the only visible point of life, and the picture aims at what she promises to us all by her very existence on earth. Eastman is a character fostered by a magnate uncle who recognizes his resourcefulness; nepotism aside, George clearly could have succeeded in business on his own merits. And finding work he can do well and rise by is enhanced by his relations to Angela Vickers who has the sureness of her effect on men to go out for what she wants, as she does from their first big scene. We see her willfulness and her will,. We would call her spoiled, but she isn’t because she’s so kind, so happy to be alive, so generous, so gravely honest, so bright, and above all so loving. All the fun in life is lodged with her, all the beauty, all the romance. And never before or since on the screen have these qualities been so resplendently visible. Our hearts go out not to Clift or Winters, but to this wonderful girl, and to her baffled sadness and the life-long love that like a melody sings through it right to the end and beyond. Taylor’s performance throughout is gloriously right, natural, spontaneous, and her final scene is one of the greatest pieces of acting ever filmed, the finest piece of acting she ever did, and the most lyrical. Indeed, the whole film plays like something sung. It brings into being a beauty wider than either of the two beautiful faces of its leads or their romance. Did he kill her? Is he guilty. The priests says yes, of course. But the film says that the question is irrelevant. For it says that his love was a life experience so great that death is not in competition with it at all. Guilt, death, they are not even the same frame. Life has an inherent celebration in it, despite everything. Revealing this to us makes A Place In The Sun the most deeply life-loving film ever made. And the most beautiful.

 

Reflections In A Golden Eye

14 Jun

When it first came out I hastened to it and saw it shown with Huston’s famous color correction for it meant for us to see the film as through a golden eye. This version was immediately withdrawn and regular Technicolor imposed. It still failed. Why is the eye gold to begin with? Because Anacleto, the fairy houseboy of Julie Harris, theatricalizes a peacock’s eye through a drawing made to correct everything grotesque – meaning we, the audience, are meant to be witnessing the story as grotesque and, through a golden eye, forgive it…I guess. Because that is not what happened to me. What happened to me was that I saw Brian Keith be the only sympathetic character in the piece, and Marlon Brando deliver one of the greatest acting scenes in all motion pictures. This is still true of that scene. At the time I also felt Huston was more interested in the equestrian scenes than in the story itself. I feel this is less true now, because what I did not consider at the time was that this material is not suited to Huston’s temperament and so the film lacks body. Everyone in the film is unfaithful. A highly puritanical, non, drinking, non smoking virgin enlisted man/stable boy, played in his screen debut by that wonderful actor Robert Forster, exercises the horses bareback and bare-ass in the woods where he also sunbathes nude. But he also creeps into the house of the Major played by Brando to ogle his wife as she sleeps, hardly an act of fidelity to the pure. Julie Harris is unfaithful to her husband by favoring her houseboy. Marlon Brando is unfaithful to his wife by lusting for Forster. His wife is unfaithful to him. Brian Keith is unfaithful to Julie Harris. But what the film may really be about is the human lens through which people see and do not see one another. I don’t know. I would say the film is thrown by the playing of Elizabeth Taylor, an untrained actress but one of great experience and one who is sensational in roles suitable to her natural instinct. Here she serves up Martha’s leftovers. She is shrill and technically broad, and a woman that beautiful does not have to be either of those things to get her way. The result is that it is a performance without repose. She throws the fact that her horse is a stallion in Brando’s face to cut him, just as she takes a riding crop to his face in a party after he has abused that horse. It does not convince. Gathering that her part is that of a bitch, Taylor lays it on thick. The result is over-painted. Elizabeth Taylor got what she wanted in life without gesticulating for it, and with her, lifting a finger would have constituted a gesticulation. Of course, the difficulty for Elizabeth Taylor would have been that in real life she didn’t know anybody. Unlike Patricia Neal, who would have been perfect in this part, who had a big Southern family, Elizabeth Taylor was jailed by her fame and so never met the sort of woman she had to play here. Her performance is not based on anything. Neither is her accent. Her performance is thus amateur. It would have been more interesting if she had played it against type, recognizing she did hot understand her husband, Brando, but still tried to. Julie Harris, on the other hand, is a treat. Watch her focus. Her ability to sustain attention is infallible, and Huston has the goodness to show it to us. The same is true of Brando, whose performance is somewhat garbled by his Southern accent, but even that seems justified by the primness that he cannot help but seek refuge in. It is a remarkable characterization. And he has this scene. Don’t expect a great movie, but expect great moments. It’s worth watching for them.

 

These Old Broads

21 Sep

These Old Broads – Directed by Matthew Diamond. Show Biz Comedy. A singing trio of the 60s is urged to make a comeback. 89 minutes Color 2001.

* * * *

Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you The Sunshine Girls! They fight, they throw hissy fits at one another, they stalk out, they tear off one another’s wigs, and they make some very witty wisecracks. It holds one’s attention because it moves along licketty-split and because no pretense is made to turn it into The Bandwagon, and because the three stars are accomplished entertainers and know what they are about. Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins, and Debbie Reynolds are the ladies in question. They are well supported by Hinton Battle as the choreographer, Jonathan Silverman as the 40-year-old orphan, and by Nestor Carbonell as the slay-tongued producer. The performances of the last two with one another are worth the price of admission, just to see two actors play it for all its worth, even if the three stars weren’t doing the same, and even if Elizabeth Taylor were not really quite out front as a bullying Jewish agent. She describes herself as “big as a bungalow”. (The Jewels she wears, which are also big as bungalows, are being auctioned off at Christie’s now.) You will enjoy some very funny lines and the same pained nostalgia for those ladies in the days of their youth and glory as I felt too. Debbie Reynolds and Elizabeth Taylor even have a scene about a husband the Elizabeth Taylor character stole from the Debbie Reynolds character all those years ago. Boy! You will do no harm to life and limb to sit back and enjoy it.

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Malice In Wonderland

14 Jun

Malice in Wonderland —  Directed by Gus Trinkonis. Drama. The story of Hedda Hopper, Hollywood  actress and gossip columnist crushing all before her, including Louella Parsons, Color 1985

Too bad. Jane Alexander is quite fine, and she has the far better part. But then Our Liz had to take the part of the older woman because that’s what she was, for  Parsons took 20 years off her age, poor thing. The script is rotten and Richard Dysart is bafflingly bad. It’s fun to behold Elizabeth Taylor, quite beautiful at 52, in her own jewelry. But her performance is forced, partly because the director is a ninny and partly because the script is TV generic junk. But also because something went wrong with her as an actress when she was over 30. Or she chose parts of harridans and harpies, which her particular actor’s instrument was not designed to play with any finesse or fun. The greatest romantic actress of her era as a shrew? Nope. Of course it’s always interesting to see this great beauty as a beauty, just as it’s interesting to see the Grand Canyon from different angles. Both World Treasures.

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The Courage Of Lassie

09 Jun

 

The Courage Of Lassie – Directed by Fred A Wilcox. Family Film: Animal Drama. A collie is rescued by a young girl and finds an heroic destiny on the front lines of WW II. 92 minutes Color 1942.

* * * *

This picture opens with a long sequence in which, in woodland, only animals appear. It’s delightful. And odd. And one wonders how they did it. Anyhow, they don’t open pictures like that any more. It was made after National Velvet and it banks on that and on Lassie Come Home, although Lassie never shows up here at all – the dog’s name is Bill. That emerald Frank Morgan has a part and so does the nice old man Harry Davenport. Tom Drake is as always cute with his boy next-door-face and his odd Lower East Side accent (In a very few years he would be playing her husband and the father of her child). Elizabeth Taylor is an adolescent here and is not called upon to carry the picture – the dog does that just fine – but her character is the heart of it. It is interesting to see what she kept as an actress as she grew, what bad habits she retained, what ones let go, how she developed technically and what it was the public saw in her – something to do with kindness to dumb animals – Bill, Velvet, Montgomery Clift. There are times here when the emotion is forced and sentimentalized and emotionalized, but the story carries her into those temptations, and she is, after all, very young, untrained, and with only a few films behind her. She mercifully lacked Margaret O’Brien’s horrendous self-possession. But then as now she knows what she stands for. That was perhaps the strength the public saw in her from the start. The pictures is beautifully produced with wonderful outdoor photography and a pleasure to spend time in front of, by oneself or with one’s youngsters. The story is unusual in that it is an early revelation of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, and it is well told – with a rich slather of 1945 MGM ethics. We who lived through that time knew it was not like that, and we didn’t even want it to be. You won’t waste your time; enjoy it for what it is!

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The Driver’s Seat

08 Jun

The Driver’s Seat – Directed by Giuseppe Patroni Griffi. Drama. A woman seeks a way out. 105 minutes 1974.

* * *

Oi! Age 42, Elizabeth Taylor is a woman so beautiful one wants to track that beauty through the decades. But here we have a portentous treatment of the travels and trials of a woman who is seeking to…well, I will not disclose the end. It is a poor choice of material for her particular instrument as an actor, for Elizabeth Taylor is completely devoid of neurotic underpinnings and does not have the gift or skill to fabricate them. She has other gifts and skills. She is, for one, that rare thing A Romantic Actress. And she stood by her men. But she also could pick and choose the men, and she knew that a woman in her position had to marry her lovers.  But that’s as far as it went, for In this picture various men try to abuse her sexually, and the script asks us to believe that she would permit it for a single instant. The fact is that our Liz would have said, “Get a hold of yourself, buster,” and that would have been the end of that. Whatever Elizabeth Taylor may have been in her internal life, a victim was not among them. Here as elsewhere in the last half of her acting life she was ill suited to the roles she was called upon to play and wanted to play and chose to play. Mildred Dunnock, who made Butterfield 8 with her, once said to me of Elizabeth Taylor, “She’s knows what she is and she isn’t fooled by it.” True enough. She knew what she was, but she didn’t know what she wasn’t.

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Father’s Little Dividend

11 Apr

Father’s Little Dividend – Directed by Vincent Minnelli. Family Comedy. A young married couple gets pregnant and the to-be grandfather struggles with the responsibility. 81 minutes Black and White 1951

* * * * *

We grew up with this beautiful girl, now dead in old age. One saw her entire life on screen. When she appeared in children’s films, I was a child. And here is an example of the girl when she was still the girl next door whom one might fall in love with, a teenager, here playing a young married woman in a light comedy. Light comedy was a genre Elizabeth Taylor did not appear in after she, still a teenager, became a mother, but her touch is deft and masterful, and the result endearing and touching. She was a skilled actress from the start. The picture is a sequel to Father Of The Bride and might better have been called The Grandfather Of The Bride. Once again filmed by the talented John Alton who would concurrently do the ballet sequences for Minnelli in American In Paris. Joan Bennett not only has Taylor’s coloring (and in fact once played Taylor’s part in Little Women), but she is swift and easy and right on the money with Spencer Tracy whose picture this is and who commands it without seeming to. It’s hard to analyze Tracy’s talent. It seems to find its foundation in a certain immigrant toughness, here at ease with the lowly tasks of realistic middle-class comedy. Tracy always plays a character without neuroses. Hepburn called him an Irish potato, and it’s as good a likeness as any for the humor of a person who always plays the difficult, painful, sometimes undignified yet necessary position of someone useful. His comedy seems to arise out of a natural grudge, and the comic situation to develop around that grudge,  irony being the last resort of the situation his character itself has created. None of what I am saying here does justice to his gift. Like some great screen humorists, the comedy arises not from what he does, so much as from his doing what he is, and he is not so much funny in himself as he is someone around whom humor naturally arises. There ought to be a word to describe this skill. Comedian doesn’t do it. Humoran is awkward. But that’s what it is, and why this film and its prequel were such enormous hits and are still worth our time.

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The Last Time I Saw Paris

23 Mar

The Last Time I Saw Paris — Directed by Richard Brooks — Drama. A novelist returns to Paris on a mission and relives the beauty and sorrow of his marriage after World War II.  90 minutes Color 1954.

* * * * *

At this moment, Elizabeth Taylor was the most beautiful woman in the world. She is 22 perhaps, and she is like a ripe plum. Helen Rose, who dressed her, has put her only in primary colors, no prints, realizing that nothing must compete with our rapt attention to her face. I am 77 and grew up with this girl, and with the history of her face as she grew from a child in a Lassie movie, through a horse-loving teenager in National Velvet, through her first kiss, and her teenage marriage, and the birth of her children. What was that face becoming? For the most part, she never played a woman who had a job, and in adult roles she largely played leading women to men who were the focus of the story, as here, with Van Johnson. However, the focus of the story is not always the focus of the camera or the focus of our attention. Here the focus of the camera, whenever it can be, is on her, and besides one cannot one’s eyes off her. Look at the great black and white domino party scene where she is profile. Her profile is fabulous. That is to say, it is the profile of a face which writes the story of the culture of its time. This history has to do with our attention to The Visible Ideal in whatever form it may take. Since, in her face, that ideal exists, our gaze upon it includes the questions: is it immortal, how will it change, what will become of it? There is a spiritual force in such beauty; at least there is in the beholder of it. All culture is the arrival of spiritual force in the plastic forms of art, and this face possessed it, especially in the 1950s when culture in America was at a despicable low. In the place of that mediocrity was this face. But it is not the face alone that is riveting and important, for she is an actress playing a part, and such she must bring into her craft the fabric of her nature. She is that rare thing, a great romantic actress. So what we see is that she is so loving and in such pain about that love; that she is quietly witty and forgiving. Her equipment includes a Voice With Money In It, as Fitzgerald described Daisy in The Great Gatsby. Indeed all these qualities make her the perfect Fitzgerald heroine, and Fitzgerald wrote Babylon Revisited upon which this movie is based, and he also wrote a famous screenplay of it, on which this film may be based, for it certainly has beautiful dialogue, in scene after scene, all played exquisitely by Elizabeth Taylor. Van Johnson has a line in the sardonic and the vexed which does not really carry us into his heart. But Walter Pidgeon is enchanting as the bon viveur father, and Donna Reed is usefully stiff-necked as Taylor’s older, mean sister. This is an essential film for American cultural history. Her beauty and her talent in romantic roles cut through everything at that time. Do not miss it. It is the last romantic role Elizabeth Taylor played and the greatest.

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