Vol. LXV, No. 13
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Elizabeth Taylor died in Los Angeles last Wednesday. The news and the immense photograph accompanying it (“A Lustrous Pinnacle of Hollywood Glamour”) dwarfed the front page of the New York Times. The primary headline includes no mention of death and rightly so. A 79-year-old woman in a wheelchair died, not the diva who can still be seen on DVD, Turner Classic Movies, or YouTube playing Angela Vickers or Gloria Wandrous or Maggie the Cat or Cleopatra. The woman who actually, physically played those roles may be gone, but the star is still with us.
Elizabeth Taylor’s debut in American culture was memorably recorded by James Agee’s review of National Velvet in The Nation (December 23, 1944), which begins with token diffidence (“Frankly, I doubt I am qualified to arrive at any sensible assessment on Miss Elizabeth Taylor”) and ends in vintage Agee-style understated overstatement (“She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful”). Agee goes on to give his account of “the particular things she can turn on: which are most conspicuously a mock-pastoral kind of simplicity, and two or three speeds of semi-hysterical emotion, such as ecstasy, an odd sort of pre-specific erotic sentience, and the anguish of overstrained hope, imagination, and faith.” Then, as always, Agee comes nicely down to earth: “I think she and the picture are wonderful, and I hardly know or care whether she can act or not.”
Agee’s words resonate; you can hear an echo of his “rapturous” in the Times headline’s “lustrous.” It’s too bad he wasn’t writing reviews seven years later when A Place in the Sun came out (he was busy working on screenplays, having just received an Oscar nomination for The African Queen). The qualities he saw in the star of National Velvet have either been mastered or transcended. In just about everything she made after George Stevens’s masterwork she does plenty of capital “A” acting, sometimes brilliantly, sometimes outlandishly. In her scenes with Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun, she’s passed beyond acting. So has Clift, though he’s coming from a wholly different direction (not to mention being 12 years older and busily bisexual). These two beings fall madly in love before your eyes. You can say his muse is infatuated with her muse, or simply aroused by sheer sexual rapture, her “erotic sentience” in full flower (though she claims in a 1983 interview that she’d had her first real-life kiss only weeks before). Whatever happened on or off the set, and however much can be credited to George Stevens, her scenes with Clift are extraordinary.
Surprised by Beauty
In Agee’s Nation review of Jane Eyre (February 12, 1944), his kindest words are for the “highly romantic screen rhetoric” of the “first twenty minutes devoted to Jane’s schooling and her first meeting with Rochester.” The movie stars Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles, whose cinematographic shadow was all over the set-ups and lighting of those early scenes. Welles’s Rochester, in Agee’s inimitable words, treats “himself to road-operatic sculpturings of body, cloak, and diction, his eyes glistening in the Rembrandt gloom, at every chance, like side-orders of jelly.”
Curiously enough, Agee makes no mention of the young actress playing Helen, Jane’s only friend at the school where she is mistreated and defamed from the moment she arrives. In a scene that begins with a long shot you can almost imagine taking place in Citizen Kane’s Xanadu, Jane (Peggy Ann Garner) has been deprived of dinner and made to stand on a dunce’s stool, a solitary little figure amid the wheel-shaped shadowplay of Wellesian chiaroscuro. When another figure appears and starts descending a flight of stairs deep in the shadowy background, the moment feels ominous until the other girl, still barely visible in the gloom, tells Jane that she’s brought her something to eat. When the camera finally moves closer, the face we see is Jane’s as she vents about her mistreatment and the sadist who runs the school (“I hate him”). Then, finally, there she is in one luminous heart-stopping shot, medium close, telling Jane “it’s wrong to hate.” The shock isn’t simply because the face revealed is so familiar and so lovely, but because there was no mention of Elizabeth Taylor in the credits.
It’s like an apparition for which you struggle to find some rational explanation before accepting the improbable reality. Yes, it really is her.
Perhaps one reason Agee failed to note this striking emergence of the beauty he celebrated later that year in National Velvet is that, however lovely she may be in Jane Eyre, Elizabeth isn’t as touching or convincing as she might have been as the saintly, sickly child who appears blissfully unaware of the risk she takes when she befriends the abused pariah. Even when she’s dying, she looks plumper, happier, and healthier than Jane. The death scene is tastefully done — Jane, shivering in the cold and in tears, climbing into bed with her still warm and living friend — but would be even better if young Elizabeth had been advised not to overplay the gentle-voicefrom-the-beyond aspect as she asks “Are you warm now, Jane?” and tells her “Good night.”
One of the pleasures of YouTube is the way it allows you to splice the pieces together on your personal movieola. You can watch 12-year-old Elizabeth in Jane Eyre and then, almost as fluidly as one of George Stevens’s lingering dissolves in A Place in the Sun, you can bring in 28-year-old Liz as Gloria sharing her moment of ugly truth with Eddie Fisher in Butterfield 8. Meanwhile, in the real-life subplot, Debbie Reynolds has been abandoned and Richard Burton’s waiting in the wings to break Eddie’s heart as Gloria Wandrous is doing when she describes how an older man, her fantasy father (“I just wanted to sit in his lap”), raped her (“and I loved every awful moment of it!”). That speech, along with the sympathy engendered by her near-death from pneumonia, helped bring Taylor the first of two Oscars. You can also see the many faces of the fiery Elizabeth in a cleverly edited tribute anthology of scenes from the same film accompanied with great verve by the Swedish singer Carola’s rendition of “Gloria” (not the Van Morrison song). Or, if you want to see her second Oscar-winner, you can have all but instant access to Liz six years farther on as bellicose Martha spitting out Edward Albee’s great dialogue as she goes head to head with the love of her life, Richard Burton, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
If I had to single out one scene, I’d suggest a YouTube search for the initial encounter between Angela and George in A Place in the Sun. Here’s Liz at 17 entering her first full grown moment of fame with all the ease and insouciance and attitude of a young Elvis. And it’s not like she’s playing to a nonentity. Bending over the family pool table, already looking like Prewitt in From Here to Eternity, Montgomery Clift is the hip cool outsider who has just made a tricky bank shot, which Angela admires with a hushed “wow!” No doubt it’s hindsight, but that softly gasped “Wow!” feels like the fifties precursor of a multitude of head trips in the hip, oh-wow sixties. Then watch the way the white-gowned princess saunters around the pool table (“Do I make you nervous?”), a superstar being born right before your eyes. Meanwhile Clift is deep in his own beat mood, forget his poor-relative role in the larger drama based on Dreiser’s American Tragedy, this is the neurotic hipster incarnate four years before James Dean.
One more recommendation: give the old YouTube movieola another crank and you’re witnessing one of the greatest love scenes this side of Frank Borzage. First the sudden rush as Angela hustles George off the dance floor crowd of rich young things, then the words of love, his “I can only tell you how much I love you,” her eyes, such eyes, the closer-still close-up of the kiss. Oh what a kiss. Has there ever been such a kiss? When she moves in on him, and the camera with her, she whispering, “Tell mama, tell mama all” — throw away the adjectives. Nothing can be said. Who gave her those words to say? Where did they come from? But there you have it, isolated, magnified, writ large, the essence of the Hollywood sublime. That’s what it’s all about. Elizabeth Taylor going “Wow” or breathing “Tell mama” in her lover’s ear is worth a thousand Black Swans.
TCM will do a 24-hour tribute to Elizabeth Taylor on April 10. For now, the DVD of A Place in the Sun comes with special features like interviews with Elizabeth Taylor (circa 1983) and Warren Beatty, who is still talking about that kiss, which happens moments after the declaration of love taking place in the above image.
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