Magazine | May 2, 2011, Issue

The Late Liz, Upstaged

She Married the Men She Slept With, She Slept with the Men She Married, and All of Her Children Had Surnames . . . 

As epitaphs for Elizabeth Taylor go, this captures the instinctive couth she always held onto and displayed in every earth-moving scandal. She might have been around the track but she never posed for a mug shot, never lived with anybody, never got beaten up by a one-night stand, and never became a “single mom.” Compared with today’s morally bedraggled movie stars she was practically a saint.

What she was not, for me, was “special.” Like everyone, I was struck by her beauty, but I never had a crush on her as I did on Jean Simmons, nor did she inspire the filial longing that came over me when I watched Alice Faye. I enjoyed most of her movies but, unlike her many eulogists who claimed they couldn’t even look at anyone else while she was on-screen, I could. Three movies in particular come to mind:

In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, I couldn’t take my eyes off Judith Anderson as Big Mama. An Australian-born Shakespearean actress equally at home in the classical repertoire of Euripides, Anderson also terrified the entire English-speaking world with her portrayal of Mrs. Danvers, the malignant housekeeper in Rebecca, yet her Big Mama perfectly captured the perpetual hysteria of the Southern woman who believes everything will be all right as long as she keeps on talking — captured it, moreover, in a flawless Southern accent, something Taylor never quite managed.

In Beau Brummell, with Stewart Granger in the title role, she played a generic Regency beauty to give the story a female lead because Brummell didn’t have a lady love (and may not have wanted one). He paints his bedroom violet to match her eyes, but my eyes were on Peter Ustinov as the Prince Regent, later George IV, especially in the scene in which he is nearly choked to death by his insane father, George III, played by Robert Morley. Ustinov was a dead ringer for the monstrously self-indulgent “Prinny,” who did have a historically factual lady love: Maria Fitzherbert, reduced in importance here but played by the superb actress Rosemary Harris. With Ustinov, Morley, and Harris to watch it was hard to remember that Liz Taylor was even in the movie.

A Place in the Sun seems to have been Chris Matthews’s favorite Taylor movie. He almost choked up over her effect on “young men’s dreams,” but to me, the high point was Shelley Winters in the rowboat urging Montgomery Clift to look on the bright side of marital entrapment. “It’ll be all right,” she assures him, and starts piling on the platitudes: “Money doesn’t buy happiness . . . count your blessings . . . it’s the little things in life that matter . . . we’ll have each other . . .” By the time she finally stops we don’t blame Montgomery Clift a bit. In fact, wrote one critic: “I wanted to drown her myself.” So did I.

#page#Butterfield 8 was a big disappointment because, as a true-crime buff, I knew too much about its inspiration: the never-solved Starr Faithfull case of 1931. Renamed “Gloria Wandrous” in the John O’Hara novel and the movie, Starr was a carnal prodigy whose promiscuity was set in motion by Andrew J. Peters, mayor of Boston during the 1919 police strike, who began molesting her when she was 11, paid hush money to her status-driven parents who flaunted it as family wealth, and rejected her when she was 17 because she was by then “too old” for him. Her favorite hobby was crashing bon voyage parties on the trans-Atlantic liners in hope of pulling off a stowaway with the help of some willing male passenger. She was last seen alive being dragged down the gangplank and put ashore. Her body was found on a Long Island beach during a slow summer news week, and when bored reporters learned that the Faithfulls were neighbors of New York mayor and ladies’ man Jimmy Walker, they pounced.

I hated to see all this reduced to a high-priced call girl who steals a mink coat and dies in a car wreck. To see the movie that might have been, read Sandra Scoppettone’s novel Some Unknown Person. Its confrontational scene between the pedophilic Mayor Peters and Massachusetts governor Calvin Coolidge at the height of the police strike makes a persuasive argument that Starr Faithfull put Coolidge in the White House.

Many of Taylor’s friends spoke fondly of her bawdy streak. The equally beautiful Vivien Leigh was said to be foul-mouthed in private but it never came through on the screen; in Waterloo Bridge, her portrayal of a streetwalker suggests a perfect lady playing charades; she was incapable of sauntering. Taylor, on the other hand, could walk the walk and talk the talk that went with it. She could have starred in a remake of 1947’s Forever Amber, whose fictional title character was based largely on Nell Gwyn, mistress of Charles II. One day as she left the palace, Nell’s carriage was attacked by a furious anti-Catholic mob who thought she was the king’s other mistress, Barbara Castlemaine. Unperturbed, Nell stuck her head out the window and shouted, “Calm yourselves, I’m the Protestant whore!” That’s a Liz Taylor line if ever there was one.

But did she have a sense of humor? One of the overviews of her life contained the story of the day she met Richard Burton, whose first words to her were “Has anybody ever told you that you’re a very pretty girl?”

Taylor’s interpretation: “Here’s the great lover, the great wit, the great intellectual of Wales, and he comes out with a line like that!” She didn’t get it. The dual citizenship that should have given her a British sense of dry, poker-faced understatement had let her down. Burton must have felt like Eleanor Gehrig when she advised Lou on how to handle his quest for 2,000 consecutive games. “Stopping at 1,999 would be more interesting,” she said, but her dimpled Iron Man had no idea what she meant.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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