The Books: “Elizabeth” (J. Randy Taraborrelli)

0446532541.jpgDaily Book Excerpt: Entertainment Biography/Memoir:

Elizabeth, by J. Randy Taraborrelli

When I was a kid, I saw National Velvet multiple times – probably at my cousins’ house. That’s where I remember watching most of the old movies that I remember from childhood. All the Shirley Temple movies, Frankenstein, the Buster Keaton movies, The Secret Garden (starring my main man Dean Stockwell), and other classics. Channel 56 out of Boston always ran such movies in the afternoon (at least that’s how I remember it), and so we’d be hanging out in their den downstairs, and watch these old movies. I guess when you only have a couple of channels to choose from, and not a constant bombardment of kids’ shows on one network devoted to children, you watch whatever happens to be on. So that’s how I was exposed to those movies.

You know how some of the things you saw as a kid stay in brain with far more vividness than a show you watched last week? I remember Secret Garden perfectly – it’s almost like the whole movie has stayed encapsulated in my brain, preserved. Same with National Velvet. I have always loved the ‘sports movie’ formula – even as a little kid. The underdog, the training montage, the triumph over adversity … and National Velvet works on all of those levels. The wonderful and haunting Black Stallion came out when I was 10 or 11 years old, and I remember my mother driving me and my brother to see it in East Greenwich. Could that be real? I don’t know – I just remember it. We did not go see the movie in our hometown. We had to TRAVEL. And of course you know that for Rhode Islanders, any drive longer than 5 minutes requires you to pack a lunch and some reading material for the long long drive. It was a big deal. I loved Black Stallion (I still do!) and I remember my mom telling me that the old guy playing the trainer was also the young guy in National Velvet. Obviously, Rooney was chosen, in part, as a tribute to that old horse-race movie … and I remember being gobsmacked that that was the same person!

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When I saw National Velvet, I had no sense of who Elizabeth Taylor was in the grand scheme of things.

Elizabeth Taylor was a child star. She had a dominating mother, and Elizabeth’s career basically supported the whole family. She was a workhorse. Similar to what Dean Stockwell experienced (they were in the same studio school), except that when Stockwell said to his mother, at age 16, “I don’t want to do this anymore, I don’t want to renew my contract,” she was like, “Sure, no problem, do what you have to do.” Taylor was not granted such leniency, although she may have never said what she wanted in no uncertain terms like Stockwell did. Taylor did what she was told to do (and her extended adolescence probably has a lot to do with how dominated she was as a kid, how hard she had to work). She was a precocious beauty – even her baby pictures look like little glam shots, and she’s just sitting there in her diapers and a white dress. But the face. The face is startling. Lots of cute babies don’t grow up to be gorgeous adults. But Taylor wasn’t just “cute”. She was startlingly beautiful, black hair, white skin, violet eyes, and eyelashes a foot long.

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Taraborrelli has written a lot of celebrity biographies. He is not a good writer, but he writes bestsellers. With someone like Taylor, her personal life often takes the focus. I’m interested in it because it makes her interesting – but as always I’m more interested in the acting side of things. Who was she as an actress? Yes, she obviously had great beauty at a very early age (always a good thing if you’re in show business), and she also had a natural gift. If you see her in National Velvet now, her acting would fit in into any children’s movie today. It’s fresh, spontaneous, endearing, and kids relate to her. She’s wonderful. In general, I don’t like child actors, but when one comes along who seems fresh and real, it can be remarkable. Taylor had that.

Taraborrelli skips over the acting stuff and everything in the book has to do with her personal life. I yawned my way through it, eager for any anecdote that showed her as an actress, someone who knew what she was doing, or who struggled – whatever the case may be. And there are some anecdotes like that, but they are few and far between. The focus is on her many marriages, basically, and by the end of the book, the focus switches to her great and tireless charity work. Books like this sell like hotcakes, but they aren’t really my cup of tea. I like things a bit more serious. I suppose it’s hard, sometimes, to be serious about Elizabeth Taylor – although I believe she will get her due someday. She played some great roles. She burned up the screen.

Like I said earlier, Elizabeth Taylor’s personal life was always more notorious than her acting, despite her great fame. It took center stage. She was a tabloid queen. She married multiple times. She was widowed as a young woman. She stole Debbie Reynolds’ husband Eddie Fisher right out from under Reynolds’ nose. (Taylor and Reynolds are friends now. They did a TV movie together in 2001 called These Old Broads, and Reynolds has said that all they would do, between takes, was sit and dish on Eddie Fisher, laughing about him. Ouch!! Old broads indeed.) Taylor married and divorced Richard Burton twice. He was the love of her life. She was condemned personally by the Vatican for her shenanigans during filming Cleopatra in Rome. Her life was tabloid fodder. She nearly died during the filming of Cleopatra and only an emergency tracheotomy saved her life. She had children. She was best friends and soulmates with Montgomery Clift, and it broke her heart to see what happened to him over his life. They had nicknames for each other, and she always felt that if Clift hadn’t been gay, the two of them would have married. There was an affinity there.

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Elizabeth Taylor saved Montgomery Clift’s life on the night of his horrifying car accident. He was choking on his own teeth, which he had swallowed, and she reached down his throat and pulled them out.

This does not surprise me. Yes, she was gorgeous, pampered, spoiled, and willful. But she was also loyal, earthy, fearless, with a huge heart. It’s not either/or.

And now she is the grande dame of charity work, beloved by many.

Just recently (I can’t remember where) I read a story about Taylor, who rarely leaves her home now. She is wheelchair bound. But on occasion, she will have her driver take her down to a local gay bar near her house – where they love her (of course) – and her pictures are on the wall, and she knows everyone – and she’ll wheel her way into the joint and have an apple martini, as the gay boys hover around her, adoring her. I love that image.

She was one of those people who burned really bright while it was “her turn”, and yet never really flamed out. The years showed on her in a more unforgiving way than on other actresses, perhaps just as a contrast to her spectacular and original beauty as a young woman. Her weight was ridiculed, her hair was ridiculed, she was lampooned for getting fat … the jokes about her over the years have been very cruel. And unfair.

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She does seem to have a very good sense of humor about herself. I remember so well when she was on General Hospital for a bit. I remember watching one of those Bloopers shows, and there was a series of clips from General Hospital, of her big serious melodramatic entrance – and how she could barely get through it without busting up laughing. She’d make it halfway across the room and then start howling (have you heard her really laugh? It’s voracious, loud, spontaneous … it’s a great laugh. The laugh of a woman who loves sex and food and friendship, a generous laugh). Or she’d make it through 1 or 2 lines and you could FEEL her losing it, struggling to sit on the laughter – and at one point, she broke out of character and said, “I’m sorry, can we start again? I never knew how to act” and the whole place erupted into laughter. I like her for not taking herself too seriously.

She campaigned hard to play Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, and one of the great alternative-history fantasies I have is imagining Richard Burton as Henry Higgins and Liz as Eliza Doolittle. It certainly wouldn’t have been the play that Shaw wrote originally – but I think it would have been amazing to watch!! Taylor felt intimidated by Burton’s smarts. She always thought he wanted her to be better-read, more well-versed in the cultural touchstones that he knew so well. The man had entire Shakespeare plays lodged in his head at all times. I just think that that dynamic would have been so interesting in the Henry Higgins/Liza Doolittle roles.

Taraborrelli obviously loves Elizabeth Taylor, but I think he loves her too much. He protects her, in his writing, and his fanboy tendencies come out in his asides. Obviously if you are going to write a biography of someone, you have to have some interest in that person – you have to want to spend time with that person, and want to illuminate their character and their journey for the masses. But it’s a fine line. The best biographies do not “weigh in” on their subject. Good or bad. Peter Manso’s giant tome on Brando is basically a smear book, and Taraborrelli’s book on Taylor is pro-Taylor propaganda. These books obviously sell, they just don’t interest ME all that much.

Louis Bayard reviewed the book for The Washington Post and he writes:

The only way a movie-star bio can attain lasting value (and virtually none of them do) is to document the actor’s intersection with some lasting work of art, as Lee Server accomplished in his take on Robert Mitchum. For Taraborrelli, self-appointed chronicler of the Kennedy women and Princess Grace, the movies are just coffee breaks in the full-time disinterring of ancient gossip: Nicky-Mikey-Eddie-Dickie. We learn that Taylor’s most lauded performance, in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” was fueled by alcoholic marital rages with Richard Burton, but we learn next to nothing about her best work, which, in my opinion, came 15 years earlier, before Burton ever infected her with the desire to be an ektress.

Check her out sometime as the wealthy love interest in “A Place in the Sun,” George Stevens’s film transcription of the Theodore Dreiser classic An American Tragedy. You’ll find a pitch-perfect study of an entitled young woman undone by desire. Her love scenes with Montgomery Clift are almost painful in their eroticism, and a biographer who was curious about such things might wonder why Taylor could generate more on-screen heat with a gay man than she ever did with Burton. There’s something to be said here about artifice yielding truth and truth yielding artifice and the drowning of a small talent in the shoals of high culture and the pitfalls of having double eyelashes. There is, yes, a book to be written about Elizabeth Taylor and the cultural phenomenon she represented. It’s just not the book that J. Randy Taraborrelli has written. Or had any intention of writing.

I believe that what he says is true. There is a book to be written about Taylor. Not just the tabloid stuff, because, come on, that’s been done to death. We all know all of that. But what she represented … and what her journey says about the Hollywood studio system, and also the roles that she got … Taraborrelli only focuses on the biographical. He knows no other way. When he writes about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, where Taylor gives a fearless and INSANELY GOOD performance as Martha, he is out of his element: all he can talk about is the backstage stuff, that’s all that interests him and when it comes time to talk about the movie itself, he falls back on, “Film critics generally agree it is her best work …” He can’t just say it himself, he doesn’t have the confidence (or the interest). Whatever, it might be her best work, but let’s get back to the divorces and marriages and divorces!!

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I did find a really nice anecdote in the book – an event I had not been aware of (staged readings she did in New York with Burton) … and so that’s the excerpt I chose.

EXCERPT FROM Elizabeth, by J. Randy Taraborrelli

In the summer of 1964, Elizabeth Taylor found herself working in a very different venue for her, the theater. Philip Barton had asked if she would participate with Richard in a literary evening at the Lunt-Fontaine to raise funds for his American Musical and Dramatic Academy of New York. The program, titled “World Enough and Time”, involved the Burtons reading excerpts from the works of D.H. Lawrence, Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edwin Markham, and, oddly but maybe also appropriately, John Lennon of the Beatles. Elizabeth rehearsed for two weeks; she had a tough time with it. Some of the Burtons’ friends felt that there was an ulterior motive to Elizabeth’s work on the stage at this time. She was always very aware of the kind of education she had at MGM, and it never bothered her much … until she was with Burton. She then found herself in some ways feeling intellectually inferior. “I never mind being wrong with Richard because I learn from him and he never treats me like an idiot,” she would later write. “He makes me feel an intellectual equal of his, which, of course, I am not.”

“He was Higgins and she was Eliza,” said Richard’s good friend Joe Sirola. “In other words, here’s a woman not terribly educated, not a great actress, didn’t know the classics, any of that. And here she meets a guy, this theater star, who understood all the classics, could recite them back to you, this great actor. I always sensed that she didn’t feel she was his match, intellectually. And the poetry and all of that was sort of trying to compensate, at least that’s how I viewed it at the time.”

It’s also true that Elizabeth was often afraid of boring Richard. She and a tutor of the children’s were walking on a beach in Puerto Vallarta once, and she was talking about her marriage to Richard and how much she loved him. She said, “But I’m afraid I’m going to lose him. I think I bore him. I don’t think I’m smart enough.” It was a stunning admission.

“It had to be tough on her,” says Sirola. “I mean, to the world she was this great star. Privately, she had these insecurities about her value to Richard.”

On the big night, she walked onto the stage swathed in pleated white silk, with emerald-and-diamond earrings and a delicate spray of white buds in her hair. It was a star-studded audience that included Carol Channing, Lauren Bacall, Montgomery Clift, and Beatrice Lilly. Elizabeth had barely started when she flubbed her lines. “Oh, I’ll have to begin again,” she said apologetically. “I screwed it all up.” Richard quipped, “This is funnier than Hamlet” – which probably did little to assist her. Still, from then on, the audience was with Elizabeth as the underdog in the production. Her reviews the next day were generally positive.

Also at this time, Elizabeth was writing the second of her four books, Elizabeth Taylor: An Informal Memoir. (The first had been the children’s book Nibbles and Me). “Even our fights are fun – nothing placidly bovine about us,” she wrote of Burton. “Richard loses his temper with true enjoyment. It’s beautiful to watch. Our fights are delightful screaming matches, and Richard is rather like a small atom bomb going off – sparks fly, walls shake, floors vibrate.” When writing about the possibility of his cheating on her, she noted, “I would love him enough to love the hurt he might give me and be patient. I have learned that pride is very bad, the kind of pride that makes you say, ‘I won’t tolerate that.'”

At the end of the year, the Burtons filmed another movie together, their third, The Sandpiper. Elizabeth hadn’t been in front of a camera in two years, having decided to devote her time to her husband and his career. Also, she would later explain, she could not obtain insurance from a studio due to her many health issues. “I didn’t think I could get a job,” she said, “so I grabbed The Sandpiper and let them pay their million dollars.” She also noted that she never thought the film would be “an artistic masterpiece”. Work of art or not, once Elizabeth was back in front of the cameras on a soundstage, she couldn’t have been happier. The movie began in Big Sur, and ended in Paris. All of Elizabeth’s children were there with her, including Maria (who had undergone a remarkable rehabilitation by this time, and who also had her own governess and nurse).

After a day of filming, Elizabeth and Richard would customarily have drinks together at the bar of the Lancaster Hotel. One evening, as the Burtons relaxed, three people rushed into the bar, two women and a man. The man began taking photographs and, before Elizabeth and Richard knew what was happening, rushed off. One of the women then began speaking in German, her words tumbling out quickly as she frantically motioned toward her friend. Suddenly, it hit Elizabeth: The woman’s friend was Maria’s birth mother. “Is this [she said the woman’s name]?” Elizabeth asked. “Yes, this is her,” admitted her friend. “I’m going to interpret for her.” Elizabeth and Richard then realized that Maria’s mother had been brought to them for a tabloid photo opportunity. Taylor was enraged. “You’re no friend of hers,” she screamed at the woman. “You’re a journalist. And I’m going to kill you if you don’t get out of here, now!”

“No. I am a friend of hers,” the woman protested.

“Leave!” Richard bellowed. The woman ran from the room, leaving Maria’s distressed natural mother with the Burtons. Elizabeth took her by the arm and urged her to sit.

Luckily, the Burtons’ trusted attorney and good friend, Aaron Frosch – who spoke German – happened to be coming by the hotel to meet with them. Slowly the story unfolded. Apparently the editor of a gossip magazine in France had contacted Maria’s natural mother in Germany and told her that the Taylors wanted to have a face-to-face meeting with her. She believed them, and that’s why she was in France. Actually, it was all a ruse so that the publication could obtain photographs of Maria’s poor natural mother in the same room with her rich adopted mother for a sensational story.

“Elizabeth felt awful about it,” said Marie Bentkover. “She realized that these people’s lives were forever changed by having an association with her. Elizabeth and Richard bought the woman a plane ticket so that she could return to Germany.”

The next morning found the Burtons back on the set of The Sandpiper. Elizabeth had chosen Vincente Minnelli, who had guided her when she was still in her teens in two of her most successful early films, Father of the Bride and Father’s Little Dividend, to direct the film, in which Elizabeth portrays an artist who has a complicated affair with an Episcopal minister, played by Richard. Elizabeth had wanted Sammy Davis Jr., whom she had recently befriended in New York, to essay the role of the man she leaves for the Burton character, but producer Martin Ransohoff felt the idea was “too ahead of its time, though it surely would have caused quite a sensation having Taylor and Davis involved in a romance on the screen in the 1960s.” Future action star Charles Bronson ended up with the role.

When The Sandpiper was finally released in 1965, fans stormed Radio City Music Hall in New York for the premiere, to see Elizabeth on the screen for the first time in two years. The movie’s theme, “The Shadow of Your Smile” became a hit record for Tony Bennett and remains a popular standard even today. The film was a box-office smash, bringing in more than $10 million. If nothing else, it validated the commerciality of its stars because, in truth, the movie suffered from a weak story that an even weaker script could not overcome. Despite brisk ticket sales, the Burtons knew they had made what Elizabeth referred to as “a real turkey”. When she received one lone good review for her performance in it, she quipped, “How dare that writer! I’m suing for libel.”

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5 Responses to The Books: “Elizabeth” (J. Randy Taraborrelli)

  1. Josie says:

    She was so stunningly beautiful. I loved her in Cleopatra. And I loved her along side Richard Burton (also in Taming of the Shrew). I always thought of her and Vivian Leigh in the same category of beautiful.

    Oh, and I just saw Montgomery Clift in “From Here to Eternity” at the local library during Banned Books Week. So glad that she saved him!

  2. george says:

    Just as Josie, I found Taylor and Leigh incredibly beautiful, almost to the point of distraction.

    Have to agree with Louis Bayard’s noting Taylor’s acting pre and post Burton. In those earlier movies there always seemed to be something of her (her own character or personality) in the parts she played. The later movies (her roles) seem ponderous and … I don’t what! Then I saw “The Last Time I Saw Paris’ which I hadn’t seen in a decade or more. There’s one scene where Helen (Taylor) and her newly published writer/husband are looking for an apartment. Having come upon an empty apartment that she instantly takes a liking to, Helen, decked out in an open fur coat and high heels makes a mad dash across the room and slides on the polished floor in sheer joy. I remember immediately thinking – that’s just what Elizabeth Taylor would have done.

  3. red says:

    George – thanks for the comment!

    I think she’s remarkable in National Velvet – and I have a soft spot for Suddenly Last Summer, a tormented Southern gothic like no other!!

    By all accounts, Taylor was a loving (and temperamental) woman – who had no issue with, oh, burping, or farting, or whatever – she was not a “lady” and men obviously loved her for that and went nuts over her. She wasn’t ladylike, and if she loved you – she’d do anything for you (including reach down your throat and pull out the teeth that were blocking your airway).

    I haven’t seen The Last Time I saw Paris – I should see if it’s on Netflix! It sounds fun – I really like it when she was allowed to be “light” and fun – seems like a perfect fit!

  4. Nicola says:

    I have Bob Willoughby’s book Hollywood: A Journey through the Stars. He worked on the set of Raintree County with Elizabeth Taylor and co. and many times after that. In fact he joked somewhere in the book that he feels like he became her official wedding photographer. But one thing he said which really struck me was that of all the profiles he has seen printed of Elizabeth Taylor they never mention what a genuine friend she was. And how she always stood by her friends in their times of need. I loved that.

  5. mjm says:

    if you want a really good Liz bio, get Alexander Walker’s ’02 bio on her.

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