Sunday, March 27, 2011

“Boom” and bust: the flamboyant flops of Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor’s death was greeted by the media as the certain passing of old Hollywood, which isn’t really true, as there is still a small group of “A-listers” from the Golden Age who are among us — Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine, Kirk Douglas, and the indomitable Micky Rooney among others. Taylor, though, was a star whose private life had been endlessly probed by the media since the mid-1950s, and so the American public felt a greater familiarity with “Liz” (as she hated to be called) rather than, say, Olivia or Joan.

Taylor also “acted up” in her private life to a degree that Americans love. The very public dumping of spouses and gathering of new ones; the wearing of turbans, auspicious jewelry, and dresses that were either uniquely revealing or simply tacky; the appearances in a series of major studio prestige releases based on famous novels and plays, followed by decades of making odd decisions about what to act in (see below). Movie buffs often speculate about what James Dean and Marilyn Monroe would’ve been like had they lived to a ripe old age — the likelihood is that they might’ve been Brando and Taylor, both exuding star presence and overpowering personalities as they acted more and more eccentric with age.

Some of Taylor’s obits spoke rightly of her incredible presence on camera as a young woman and her iconic roles in the Fifties; other tributes interestingly tried to paint her as one of Hollywood’s finest actresses, which is where I have to offer up a public exploration of the darker moments in her screen career. She was indeed an incomparably beautiful child and teen, and had a sexy and commanding presence in her best-remembered films of the Fifties. But come the Sixties, her private life seemed to get the best of her, and she began to look much older than her years. By the early Seventies when I was a kid, Elizabeth was already an older-looking lady who wore, again, giant jewels and turbans in public, and looked very little like the visibly sexy chick in the slip from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof — and she was only in her 40s at the time.

It was most certainly the l’amour fou she shared with Richard Burton that deeply affected her looks and her public behavior, and most likely created her eccentric, misguided, and sometimes downright awful choices of film projects to appear in (god knows the incomparably talented Burton would make six terrible movies for every great one after the mid-Sixties….). I’m not certain if her bouts with alcoholism truly began with her relationship with Burton, but it seems to follow. Her career certainly reached its acme with him — that being the indisputably finest performance she ever gave, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — but after that peak, it was mostly valleys, with many odd ones at that.

It could’ve been possible that Taylor and Burton could have made more great films after Virginia Woolf — perhaps they could’ve made inspired choices that would’ve put them in the Pantheon of artistic film couples, along with John Cassavetes and Gena Rowlands. Instead, they picked dreary projects that somehow pointed up the despair and romantic longing that seems to have plagued their relationship even when they were happy together. In his introduction to Leonard Maltin’s The Great Movie Comedy Teams, the great character comic Billy Gilbert repeated an anecdote from the Sixties in which Burton told Taylor they should stop working together for a while.
He said, “We don’t want to become another Laurel and Hardy.” Whereupon Miss Taylor said, “Why? What’s so bad about Laurel and Hardy?” And I say, “What indeed?”

I’m with Elizabeth (and Billy) on that one, but yes, as a couple, they could’ve easily chosen better projects for both their solo performances and their “team-up” movies. There are a few exceptions: the film adaptation of Under Milk Wood (1972) has its small cult, and Hammersmith Is Out (1972) looks strangely inspired from the clips that are online. Perhaps this is the result of it having been directed by the multi-talented Peter Ustinov, or the fact that both Taylor and Burton were quite accomplished hams by the early Seventies, which certainly aids one in the playing of absurdist comedy. Taylor actually looks younger and more attractive in one clip found online (again, she was only 40 at the time), so perhaps a move to comedy might’ve been in order:

In the same year as those two “Liz and Dick” movies, Elizabeth appeared in X, Y and Zee, a film that has a cult following among the kinds of fans who, like a poster on YT, admit that they enjoyed her best when she was at her most obnoxious — and speaking of that, you MUST watch this piece of demented Michael Jackson-Elizabeth Taylor home-video footage loved by the same poster!

X, Y and Zee finds Taylor once again playing a bitchy character, which seems sadly to have been the main lesson she took from Virginia Woolf — not to find well-written scripts with memorable characters and indelible situations, but to simply star in movies where the maximum amount of bitchiness was possible. In this film, a bickering couple (Liz and Michael Caine) torture each other until the husband takes a lover (the late Susannah York), and Taylor’s character wants to win him back, or still have a part in his new relationship…. There’s a grim suicide-attempt scene here, but this sequence is far more indicative of the “mood of the moment,” the opening credits in which Taylor and Caine play ping-pong in slow, psychedelic motion:

One of the film’s more ridiculous scenes — in which Liz is tied up by hubby Caine and then seduces him while still bound — can be found here, but a handy little montage of her over-the-top moments in the picture is here:

As the Seventies went on, Taylor’s movie choices became more and more misguided and bizarre. It was apparent that she did not want to age into playing the mother of younger actresses — nor, as she got older, would she surrender to working in “holy senior” pictures like On Golden Pond and The Whales of August. She instead took a series of leading parts in films that are either just forgettably bad or wildly kitschy. The films were all flops, and thus, by the time she made a cameo in William Reichert’s stylish and smart conspiracy-theory thriller Winter Kills (1979), she was unbilled. I remember at the time the film was released (and failed, and was re-released and failed, and then quickly became a cult hit) that it was rumored that the omission of Taylor’s name from the credits was not her decision, but because her name on a marquee by that point was “box office poison.”

As the Seventies gave way to the Eighties and Nineties, Taylor involved herself with very important charitable work, so she moved away from acting. However, when she came back to it, she mostly starred in TV movies and did cartoon voice work. Her very last screen appearance was a cameo in the totally useless and godawful Flintstones movie with John Goodman. Although her last TV-movie was These Old Broads (2001), where she appeared in a role tailored for her by scripter (and onetime step-daughter) Carrie Fisher, the last real Elizabeth Taylor film was the Nicolas Roeg remake of Sweet Bird of Youth (1989), which was faithful to its source, but was instantly forgettable.

Taylor was indeed an icon, and I’m glad that various news outlets paid her reverent tribute. TCM will of course be showing her best films for years to come, so I feel no compunction in celebrating her worst films in this blog post. What’s say we start with the leaden Harold Prince adaptation of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music (1977), which found Liz doing what countless older stars did in the Sixties and Seventies, to no one’s pleasure: starring in a musical when they couldn’t sing! Here is the film’s opening number, with her original vocal restored:

She also delivered the best-remembered song in the score, “Send in the Clowns.” The song is a perfect Sondheim creation, and Taylor’s version is close to being one of the most lifeless versions of it, ever:

Another big-budget Seventies film starring Elizabeth was The Blue Bird (1976), an adaptation of the well-loved fairly tale (previously made with Shirley Temple) that showed that the great George Cukor was indeed “out of his era” in the Seventies (I enjoyed his subsequent Rich and Famous, but my memories of that one are far more wrapped up with its two stars than with the plot or the film itself). This incredibly overdone children’s movie was a U.S.-Soviet Union coproduction that suffers from the weirdness that afflicted most kiddie musicals in the Seventies (and might’ve benefited at least from an Newley-Bricusse score). Taylor stars as both the mother of the two lead children (Patsy Kensit is the little girl) and their guardian angel. The other stars include Ava Gardner (another stunning-looking actress whose career took a massive dip in the Sixties and the Seventies), Jane Fonda, Cicely Tyson, and Robert Morley. Watching scenes from it, one has the feeling they made The Blue Bird because they simply didn’t want to make yet another version of Alice in Wonderland….

The film is up in its entirety on YT, and here is the section that includes Taylor’s first appearance as the angel (singing yet again, but dubbed this time):

And the conclusion, with Liz in both her roles:

Now we move onto the fun stuff: There are two movies that are by far the most astoundingly campy endeavors that Taylor was involved in. The first has acquired a cult mostly because of recommendations from celebrity fans like John Waters; the second has yet to be fully rediscovered, but has its small cabal of appreciative kitsch-mongers, including myself. The first is Joseph Losey’s bizarrely overwrought (yet also strangely dour at times) film from a Tennessee Williams’ script, Boom (1968). The film stars Taylor, Burton, Noel Coward (as “the witch of Capri”), Joanna Shimkus, and the ever-fearsome tinyman Michael Dunn (“Miguelito Loveless,” to those who understand).

The film must be seen to be believed, but keep in mind that Williams was in his later, allegorical phase when this was written (he, like Burton, was also a massive talent drowning his genius in booze), and clearly the otherwise brilliant Losey decided to let the performers, sets, and insane costumes carry the piece (Taylor had previously starred in a far more suitably trippy Sixties film for Losey, called Secret Ceremony). Here is the overwrought trailer:

Elizabeth is mega-bitchy throughout the film, often with hilarious results:

I think the YT poster’s title for this clip, “Monkey off balcony!” does indeed say it all:

Coward’s “witch of Capri” talks about what Russ Meyer otherwise called “the Smell of Female”:

“La Liz” muses on memory and time. This notion later showed up in a George Carlin routine:

I found not one but three completely sincere music-videos paying tribute to this film (nothing kitschy or ironic intended). This is possibly the most serious of the three:

The other astoundingly bad-yet-unforgettable Elizabeth Taylor movie that deserves extended mention is the Italian English-language film The Driver’s Seat (1974). It is wildly artsy and overwrought, and she is unbelievably bad in it. From her appearance (wild hair, incredibly tacky psychedelic dress) to her bitchy delivery of the laughable dialogue (“When I diet, I diet. When I orgasm, I orgasm. I don’t believe in mixing the two cultures.”), she truly threw herself into the picture — to the extent of doing a sexy see-through bra scene and having two scenes in which men try to fuck her but she has to beat them off. You know you’re in odd territory when you’re seeing a goddess of “old Hollywood” trying to keep her head from being forced down into a young man’s lap so she doesn’t have to give him head. I’m not sure what Liz was thinking, but she gave us some happy memories in this wonderfully bad movie.

The poster who has uploaded the entire film onto YT doesn’t want bloggers to embed it. The poster has also put up a few dozen other films in their entirety, including some other Taylor flops (The Only Game in Town, Ash Wednesday, Night Watch), several Faye Dunaway titles, and at least two of my fave Seventies films (Who is Harry Kellerman….? and Play It As It Lays), as well as two Altman rarities (That Cold Day in the Park and HealtH). Oh, and Chu-chu and the Philly Flash, in case you were looking for it.

The Driver’s Seat can be found in its entirety here. Two other posters have thankfully excerpted some of the film’s finest moments, including Elizabeth’s opening tirade. How dare that woman show her a stainless dress!

All of the scenes she shares with Ian Bannen are collected here. Bannen is incredibly creepy and is one of the two men in the film who tries to get Liz to fuck him (but it’s only for his macrobiotic/one-orgasm-a-day diet).

In closing, I will point you toward a movie that is so bad it was never even released in America: Franco Zefferelli’s ridiculous Young Toscanini (1988), with C. Thomas Howell as Arturo Toscanini (you read that right). Elizabeth has a spotlighted supporting role as an opera diva who befriends the young Arturo — her opera scenes are of course dubbed by a real diva, and the film’s most memorable sight (besides Howell playing music while a rainstorm assails a tiny ship he’s on) is Elizabeth Taylor in blackface (chocolate face?) performing scenes from the opera (and lecturing the audience on equal rights, in the makeup). A colleague, Jerry Vermilye (author of The Films of Elizabeth Taylor) lent me a VHS copy of the film many years ago. The video was in Italian, but it was apparent even without subtitles or dubbing that Young Toscanini was yet another “interesting” (read: bizarre/wrongheaded) choice by the late, great Ms. Taylor….

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