Monday, April 04, 2011

The Queer Case of Elizabeth Taylor

She was perhaps the first Hollywood star I had heard of, when I was a cretinous kid in a remote town in remote Assam, where our only window to the world outside was the Assamese-language daily newspaper that would arrive every afternoon. And, we would devour eagerly the stories of her several marriages. I mean, how many people are there who married and divorced the same person twice over (It’s sad that Richard Burton died early. There could have been another marriage.). And, we would gawk at the accompanying black and white picture — those luscious lips and those large eye (so large!) and those long eyebrows accentuating the plump face — the eternal Cleopatra.

David Thomson in his book ‘The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,’ (re-published in 2010) writes about Elizabeth Taylor: “It is years now since Elizabeth Taylor made a proper movie. Yet we know she’s there, still: her face blooms for perfume promotions, and she’s always likely to be standing up for AIDS victims or Michael Jackson. Are we meant to think she has the same sincerity for all three? Or is she resting? That would be sad — for at one time, she seemed uncommonly engaged, in movies and scandal alike. (For the full entry, visit Salon.)

Really. Elizabeth Taylor was a star for being a star. I had known her, and her husbands, and her works as an AIDS activist, and her friendship with Michael Jackson when he was really going through a difficult phase, much before I had seen any of her films. The first Elizabeth Taylor film I saw was Cat on the Hot Tin Roof (1958). The second Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) Those days I was a Tennessee Williams fanatic, and for me Taylor personified Williams’ Maggie the Cat, her oozing sexuality and frustration with her ‘obviously gay’ husband (and I would become a fan of Paul Newman).

I wasn’t supposed to write this post. After she died, the internet was inundated with things Elizabeth Taylor, and without knowing it, I jumped on the bandwagon, and did a retrospective of Elizabeth Taylor movies. And, I was surprised to find that unlike other movie stars of her time, Taylor’s filmography is really scanty, and among them too there are only a handful of films that does justice to her image and persona.

I think Reflections in a Golden Eye (1966), was her last good film, and that was a long time ago. After she did a handful of pictures, the last film worth mentioning being These Old Broads (2001), a TV movie where she shared the screen with Debbie Reynolds, whose husband Eddie Fisher Taylor had stolen.

Elizabeth Taylor as Catherine Holly in Suddenly, Last Summer

The one image of Elizabeth Taylor that is struck in my mind is the image from Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), where towards the end Catherine explains how her cousin Sebastian used her to procure men for him, and how she was forced to wear the revealing bikini at the beach to attract the guys. Taylor in the bikini, crouching on the sand — that’s the picture.

As I was thinking of her movie career, I was intrigued by the fact how close she was to gay men and their cause, both on and off the screen. She was the first celebrity to help generate funds for AIDS research, and that too at a time when people won’t normally associate themselves to the gay disease. Apparently, Taylor was inspired to do her work after losing her friend and co-star Rock Hudson to the virus. It is said that she managed to generate more funds from her charity works than she earned from her films.

Two of her most enduring friendships were with gay men, both her co-stars, Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudosn. She shared the screen with Clift in her first bona fide hit as an adult heroine (She was still a teenager in National Velvet (1944)) in A Place in the Sun (1951). They were together in Raintree County (1957) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). With Hudson, she did Giant (1956). (I am not discussing her friendship with Michael Jackson, lest you get the idea that the King of Pop was gay.) Be what it may, Elizabeth Taylor was a friend in need.

Three of her films deals with homosexuality, implicitly or otherwise — Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly, Last Summer, and Reflections in a Golden Eye.

In Cat on A Hot Tin Roof, the cause of Brick’s apparent depression and alcoholism is more than his handicap. He is haunted by the memory of his dead friend and thus cannot accept the advances of his caring and sexually volatile wife, Maggie. The film, unlike the play, does not spell out whether Brick is gay, but Tennessee Williams’ dialogues provide ample hints. Under these circumstances, there were possibilities to turn the character of Maggie into a shrew. But how Taylor plays the role, with wide-eyed innocence, and with a sense of despair that at the end she earns our sympathy.

If Maggie is a victim, then Chatherine in Suddently, Last Summer, another sanitised, Hollywood version of Tennessee Williams’ explosive play, is more so, first at the hands of her rich, ‘perverted’ cousin and later at the hands of her mother, who wants to have her lobotomised lest he spills the beans on her dead son’s secret. The film is more about the repercussions of what Sebastian did, then what Sebastian actually was.

In Reflections in a Golden Eye, Taylor plays an army officer’s wife whose husband, played by Marlon Brando with a tortured charm, battles his suppresses desire for a soldier, who in turn is enamoured by Leonora’s sleeping figure. Based on the Carson McCullers novel, the film was too arty and too serious for the Hollywood of the time, but remains one of the best films from Elizabeth Taylor’s oeuvre.

TAIL PIECE: Film critic Andrew O’Hehir writes in Salon: "No one as big as Elizabeth Taylor was can quite be forgotten, but the reasons why we remember her are not entirely clear. Taylor had two almost unrelated careers, one as a movie star and one as a tabloid celebrity. Indeed, she may be the only pop-culture figure who crossed the rainbow bridge from the carefully managed faux-glamour of old Hollywood to the relentless trash-spectacle of the 24/7 news cycle. (Brando? Almost.) But all the roles she played, both on-screen and in person, now belong to the past." Read: The short and strange career of Elizabeth Taylor, movie star

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