Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011)

I feel obligated to note the recent death of Elizabeth Taylor. Although I was never a huge fan of Miss Taylor’s, she appeared in a number of important films, some of which have become classics. I seem to recall Taylor as a ubiquitous presence in the mid-twentieth century American culture that I grew up in, yet when I recently looked at her filmography, I was dismayed to realize that I’ve actually only seen a few of her films. It perhaps says something about Taylor that she seemed such a presence to me despite the fact that I rarely actually saw her in anything.

When I was in high school, I had a 300-pound English teacher who had a twisted sense of humor. One day he had the class watch Suddenly, Last Summer, which was the closest that Tennessee Williams ever came to writing a Grade B horror movie. I don’t remember much about Taylor’s performance, although I vividly recall the scene in which she flounders around in the surf wearing a skin-tight bathing suit. As you can imagine, this made quite an impression on the hormonal teenager I was in those days. (I must say though, what made a greater impression on me was Katherine Hepburn’s profoundly creepy performance as Violet Venable. The moment in which she suddenly turns to Montgomery Clift and exultantly semi-shouts “We saw the face of God!” almost made me fall out of my chair.)

Taylor was never a favorite with critics, though she managed to win two Academy Awards. One of them was for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woof? I saw this film several years ago, and I must say that I was not that impressed by it. Ernest Lehman’s screenplay pads out Edward Albee’s play, merely making obvious what Albee wisely only hinted at. Again, I don’t remember much about Taylor’s performance, except that she wore a not quite convincing wig, and she yelled a lot. I did, however, like the performance of Richard Burton, who inexplicably failed to win an Oscar. His portrayal of a cynical, jaded college professor was cruelly accurate. (I can say that having known many cynical, jaded college professors in the course of my life.)

Interestingly, Taylor unintentionally had a profound impact on Los Angeles, one of the great cities of the world. (Snicker all you want, you New York snobs.) Taylor starred in the 1963 film, Cleopatra, which, although a huge box office success, cost so much money that 20th Century Fox could only fend off bankruptcy by selling off part of its backlot. (Taylor was paid $7 million – which went a lot farther in those days compared to now – and had 65 costume changes.) Century City was then built in its place. I once had a job working in an office building there. I remember the area as a striking example of bad urban design. It mainly consists of non-descript buildings surrounded by vast, empty lawns. The latter are criss-crossed by cement sidewalks that lead to bleak, charmless concrete plazas. Even in the middle of the day, when there are hundreds of office workers going to lunch, the place seems empty and impersonal. What’s more, there’s no place to park your car, except for a few expensive parking garages. (The company I worked for refused to reimburse me for parking.) I’m told that this place was deliberately meant to be a “city within a city”. The result is that it has no connection to the surrounding urban landscape. You’re in the second largest city in the U.S., yet you might as well be in an office park in Lower Bumfuck, New Jersey.

But I digress.

As too often happens with hugely successful celebrities, Taylor became something of a joke in her later years. Her messy personal life increasingly overshadowed her career. The fact that she put on weight in middle age (something that most people tend to do) was, for some reason, considered hilarious. I remember a Saturday Night Live sketch about an ‘interview” with Taylor (actually John Belushi in a wig and a dress). The “joke” was that Belushi/Taylor was ravenously stuffing his/her face the whole time. The “satire” in this sketch struck me as hypocritical, considering that Belushi was no stranger to carbohydrates himself. Our society seems take a perverse pleasure in seeing the inevitable decline of its once popular idols.

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