From Velvet to Helena: A Life of Launching Herself Into the Imaginary

When I was 14 years old, I happened to catch an afternoon showing of National Velvet on a local New England channel. I was the same age as the spunky gleaming-eyed girl in the movie, and it had all of the elements that transported me as a youngster: horses, plucky girls in underdog situations (not to mention a little cross-dressing), and British accents. I didn’t watch the movie. I lived it. She was so fierce, so single-minded in her love of horses, and so resourceful in her pursuit of what she wanted. I already had it in my mind that I wanted to be an actress. There were actors in my family. It didn’t seem like a pipe-dream. It seemed like a valid job. But I knew how dedicated I would have to be. I perceived things as metaphors even back then, metaphors that would help give me strength and fortitude. Velvet Brown, dedicating her life to the greatness of “The Pie”, became a powerful metaphor. I took the book out of the library and was thrilled to find that it was just as gripping as the film, and yet deeper, more resonant. I walked around AS Velvet Brown for a good week and a half.

At the very same time (or, at least, the times are totally conflated in my mind, it was definitely the same year), General Hospital (which was, in the lingo of soap fans, “my show”) introduced a new character Helena Cassidine, the widow of Mikkos Cassidine (even now I feel shivers at the name). She stalked smilelessly through scenes, she was spectacular to look at, and added a great level of suspense to that already suspenseful time on “my show”.

I had already had my James Dean/Marlon Brando revelation by this point, having seen East of Eden and Streetcar Named Desire (on that same local New England channel by the way), and had already begun my personal course of research into the actors of the 1950s, the Actors Studio, and all that that entailed. I was already referring to Elia Kazan as “Gadg” in my mind, I already knew about Brando’s pet raccoon and James Dean’s bongos. I knew about Lee Strasberg and his break with Stella Adler. But it was slow-going in those pre-cable days, and pre-VCR days, to get caught up as quickly as one would like. And so I had no idea who Elizabeth Taylor was. I had heard the name, of course, but I hadn’t seen Place in the Sun, Butterfield 8, Cat on a Hot Tim Roof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Suddenly Last Summer, or any of the other roles that made her world-famous. My introduction to her was a double-whammy, two moments that spanned her life as an actress: National Velvet and General Hospital. Like I said, I always knew that acting was a valid JOB that one could have. There was very little mystique in it for me, even as a young person. I saw successful people all around me. But realizing that the young rosy-cheeked girl in National Velvet (from the past) was the same person as the glamorous glittering-begowned woman on General Hospital (happening RIGHT THEN) gave me a sudden sense of the scope that was actually present, the scope of this person’s career.

I was 14, what did I know about building a career? I squinted at the television screen watching her on General Hospital, trying to SEE her career. Who the hell WAS this woman?

It was the ultimate metaphor. A powerful reminder for me as a young girl. First of all, it showed me in no uncertain terms that acting is not the sole provenance of the youthful, although it can certainly seem that the opposite is true where every comment, every tabloid, every trashy mag makes it a point of pointing and laughing at the flaws in our female stars (and yes, they do it to male stars, too, but not with even a smidgeon of the same glee and contempt), and how “disappointing” it is to see them grow old. Seeing that girl who was my age now a middle-aged woman was a powerful lesson, one I never forgot. “Okay, so she kept going, she’s a star, she has a new job now, and it’s on General Hospital.” If you play your cards right, you can actually have a very LONG career, and here she was, right in front of me showing me that.

Like I said, I wasn’t interested in acting for the “flavors of the week”. I never was. I was interested in it because it excited me to see people, grownups, “make believe” in this way. And the side-by-side comparison of Elizabeth Taylor as a young girl and Elizabeth Taylor as a grown woman reminded me what it was all about.

In the following years, I would see her in Place in the Sun. Mike Nichols calls that a “perfect movie” and has said that he watches it in preparation for every film he ever sets down to do, because of its perfect structure. She has never been more beautiful than she was in that white gown in the billiard room, and her erotic attachment to Montgomery Clift, with its maternal overtones, is still deeply disturbing. She had been a child actor. This was a new challenge for her. Would she be up for it? Could she go toe-to-toe with these “real actors”? It caused her much anxiety. And Montgomery Clift recognized that drive in her, and supported her in it. He didn’t treat her like a pretty little starlet. He treated her as a contender. Which she was.

Her raging maniacal performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is still a revelation, and still frightening to watch, no matter how many times I have seen it. It’s also hilarious. She really got the humor in that part, the dark-as-pitch humor. People call young actresses brave when they dare to appear onscreen without makeup, or without their clothes on. But nothing could prepare you for the bravery of Taylor’s performance in that claustrophobic environment of alcoholism and shattered dreams. I saw Kathleen Turner do the part on Broadway and she was superb. It is, to date, one of the best live performances I have ever seen. It can’t have been easy to go up against the ghost of Elizabeth Taylor.

The hothouse Southern sex-nightmare of Suddenly Last Summer is often overlooked, due to the sensationalistic plot (cannibalism, male prostitution, lobotomies – you know, Tennessee was pulling out all the stops), but the sensationalism is part of the fevered-dream that IS that story, and all participants in that film – Katharine Hepburn (descending in her open elevator like some horrifying deus ex machina), Montgomery Clift (pained and interior), and Elizabeth Taylor – frantic and beautiful and filled to the brim with the truth that NOBODY wants to hear – play it to the hilt. One cannot play Suddenly Last Summer subtly, or with “nuance”. One cannot try to move that play into a grimy kitchen-sink environment. It must be played amongst palm fronds and tropic heat, the blinding white sun of the foreign beach towns, with a cold clinical mental ward hovering over every moment. Elizabeth Taylor must, literally, fight for her right to understand what had happened. She must fight for her voice, for her willingness to look at that which is ugly, and violent, and speak it for what it is. The stakes could not be higher. If she speaks, she will be lobotomized, so that she will never be able to tell the sordid story of Sebastian again. But she must … she must speak. Her crackup, backed up against the rocks in the beach town as the catastrophic events reach a climax, is a lesson in “how to do it”. She writhes and flails and screams, then subsides, and then the horror breaks over her again, and she screams again, and it is just, just, what Tennessee Williams wrote.

There is a very difficult scene in National Velvet between Taylor and Rooney, that plays out in one long take. They sit on the steps of the caravan they have driven to the Grand National. This is before she has made the decision to ride the horse herself. His character is coming to terms with his own fears, and she is trying to bolster him up. Both of them play this scene beautifully, and it shows their talent as actors. Long takes aren’t for amateurs. Both characters go on a journey during this scene, they start out one way, and end another way. He has to break down in tears. She has to change tack a couple of times. She has to support him, talk him down, hug him. Of course when I first saw it as a kid, I didn’t think to myself, “Wow, this is one take”, but now that’s all I can see. All I can see is two young people, one far younger than the other, sitting on the steps of a fake caravan, and launching themselves into the imaginary. With total faith and total belief. They do not rely on cutaways or closeups to tell their story. They know the story. They know what they are doing. All they have to do is start the lines, and the event will unfold.

Paul Newman, in his heartfelt tribute to Taylor on TCM, called her a “functioning voluptuary”, a term that I love, in all its unexpected truth. Her persona as a grown woman was voluptuous, but underneath all of that was a highly functioning human being, which was in evidence from the very beginning in that scene in National Velvet, and up until the very end.

There are so many more roles, so many more performances, not to mention her bizarrely beautiful swan song of Psychotic (or whatever other title you want to call it), but I’ve got National Velvet on the brain today. She made a huge impression on me (already, granted, an impressionable young girl), but that impression remains. I saw it recently. She vibrates with life.

And so, for the last time, Elizabeth Taylor has launched herself into the imaginary. I will miss knowing that she is out there.

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13 Responses to From Velvet to Helena: A Life of Launching Herself Into the Imaginary

  1. John Levy says:

    Wow Sheila…..I don’t expect I’ll see or read a more thoughtful and personal dedication to her today. You didn’t miss a beat in here….and I really love that you mention Helena Cassadine. I consider that to be one of the ‘coolest’ moves in any acting career. And I totally feel you on the caravan step scene. I look at a lot of scenes that way now. I’ve already experienced the imaginary side of a scene the dozens upon dozen times I see it through the years. But then, especially for anyone interested in the craft from any angle, you suddenly see the intense power coming from within the people in the scene. They go to a place most resist and allow themselves to be completely vulnerable to show us something. And in that scene in particular, for those two kids to go there….it’s a marvelous piece of creation we are lucky to have captured.

    Again, beautiful piece.

  2. sheila says:

    John – I’m so glad you know what I’m talking about in the caravan scene! Now, as an adult, understanding how films are made – I am just in love with the two of them for really knowing how to play that scene, beginning to end, with no cuts. I wonder how many takes it took to get it right. It’s a really important scene, too – his real emotional climax – and he can’t START at the climax. He has to start in a more casual way, her, too – and they work their way up to it. It unfolds in real time. Kudos to the both of them.

    She was someone who was remembered so much for her personal life, and I was sick of hearing about it. Yes, yes, marriages, yes, yes, illnesses, yes, yes, the Vatican … I don’t really care about any of that, except that it helped make her who she was.

    As an actress, she was one of the greats. I am really looking forward to re-watching some of this stuff as a tribute to her. it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a lot of them.

  3. Kent says:

    Sheila, I always love to read your take on actors because you write so well about such a difficult art to describe! In examining this one shot out of her entire career, you have captured one of the great open secrets of Elizabeth Taylor’s longevity. She was a PHENOMENAL natural AND technical actress. To this day I still watch her, Rooney and Garland and so many of those MGM kids and cannot believe how good they were. SO young, and SO gifted.

  4. sheila says:

    Thank you, Kent! I have a more in-depth National Velvet thing in the works, but I just had to mention that one long take and how extraordinary it is, especially with young actors. GIFTED.

    Dean Stockwell was a classmate of hers (talk about a gifted youngster) and he has some very funny memories of her in the Little Red Schoolhouse on the MGM lot. Basically that she was a little girl throwing her hat in the air all the time. They were CHILDREN. But BRILLIANT. (He, by the way, has the most extraordinary career of them all. I can’t think of anyone else who started at 7 and who is still going – like he is). But he was very kind to her in his reminiscences of her. She was just a little kid.

    They were treated like trained ponies. I know that’s why Stockwell “got out” (at the ripe old age of 16) – he couldn’t stand it – and I would love to hear some of Taylor’s thoughts on her own experience of being a child actor and then trying to segue into adult parts (as she did so successfully). That took some engineering. That took some doing. It’s hard to remember that her legendary status was not at ALL a “done deal”. There were many giant child stars who didn’t become Elizabeth Taylor.

    Lady had guts. Lady could act.

  5. maria m. says:

    great one, sheila. thanks.

  6. sheila says:

    Maria – thank you!!

  7. Kent says:

    Funny you should mention her transition to adulthood. The same great engineer who took Judy Garland into young womanhood onscreen in Meet Me In St. Louis, also brought Taylor into full bloom in Father Of The Bride – Vincente Minnelli.

  8. I’m in awe. To be able to produce a piece such as this so personal and yet still covering her career in the time you put it together today. Amazing. You should be very proud. To be able to produce something like this, basically on the fly. It must involve magic.

  9. Pingback: Links for the Day: Remembering Elizabeth Taylor | The House Next Door

  10. roo says:

    Movie Loft, on TV38?

    Just curious…

  11. litdreamer says:

    This is a great tribute. I have known of Taylor’s greatest roles for some time, but have never seen her films. There are so many worthy films to see, after all. But I shall soon remedy that situation, with your recommendations as a starting point.

  12. Pingback: Elizabeth Taylor, Rest in Peace | Vollok.com

  13. Pingback: Goodbye Goddess: Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2011 « CINEBEATS

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