Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Movie Star

Elizabeth Taylor truly was the last movie star. Her star burned brightly for so long and her legacy remains not only the celluloid classics but the fiery brilliance of the star system that ended with her death. She reveled in her role as a “movie star.” And from a very young age she worked at the image she projected. She was raised in the Hollywood studio system and she lived her life as a star of the Hollywood screen.

Some of the movies that are mentioned in connection with Taylor are true classics. “National Velvet” was certainly an early foreshadowing of her great screen presence. It was not only her exceptional beauty but the quality of breathy eagerness and the energy and excitement in her voice when she spoke of the Piebald horse she rode that belies the notion that it was only her looks that led her to great heights.

Elizabeth Taylor had “it”, that indefinable something that makes up the batter equaling a movie star. When asked to name her greatest works, almost everyone mentions “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Place in the Sun.” These are very good movies, but in my opinion, probably not her best.

She was, as another critic pointed out, probably at her best in “National Velvet” as a young, untrained actress. Her later films that would definitely be on my “must see” list for any Elizabeth Taylor retrospective would include:

“Ivanhoe”: She plays a young Jewish girl who is enamored with the knight Ivanhoe, played by Robert Taylor. She is filmed all in white at one point and the camera truly falls in love with her presence. She is never lovelier as a young ingénue than in this film,

“Cleopatra”: This film was so controversial at the time. This early sixties film had cost over-runs and scandals and affairs attached to it that gave it an instant notoriety. It is a rather campy film in a Cecil B. DeMille-style kind of way. But ironically, the early scenes between Taylor and Rex Harrison have a kind of humor and chemistry that is lost in the later love scenes between her and Richard Burton

“The Taming of the Shrew”: This is, in my opinion, the best of the Taylor-Burton collaborations. Richard Burton’s stage presence and Shakespearean training lend itself to this production directed by Franco Zefferelli. The costumes and cinematography are unique to the era and there is a touch of humor that is somehow lacking in many of their other collaborations.

“Father of the Bride”: Elizabeth Taylor is showcased as the young bride playing alongside the great and incomparable Spencer Tracy. The pairing of the two was well played here and there is also a lightheartedness to this fifties film that waxes nostalgic and wears rather well in the modern era.

What were they Thinking?

Two thoughts on the Academy Awards show Sunday night. It’s wonderful to see “The King’s Speech” honored, and Colin Firth was a “shoo-in” for Best Actor. But when you’re looking back on any actors entire body of work, it’s always nice to find some of the ones that got away.

Some films are simply not distributed or didn’t make it big as box office hits, but are worthy of attention if you enjoy movies. For Colin Firth, he will always be associated with “Pride and Prejudice” as THE Definitive Mr. Darcy.

However, he has been in some other note-worthy films. “Valmont” was an early film, and he also appeared in “The English Patient”. His comic style and timing was exceptionally displayed in both “Bridget Jones” films with Renee Zellwegger. And, of course, he hammed it up with Meryl Streep and others in “Mamma Mia” last year.

But one of the memorable performances was his portrayal of a Father who was an inventor in the coming of age movie, “My Life So Far.” These roles can really showcase the nuances, subtlety and range that an actor like Firth projects.

Some other note-worthy performances that are often missed are Russell Crowe’s early film, ‘The Sum of Us”. Based on a stage play, Crowe portrays a gay man but it’s his relationship with his father, with whom he lives, and the interaction between the two men that makes this film special.

Another great British actor, Clive Owen, is in a seldom seen movie adaptation of the play, “Bent”. He gives an extraordinary performance as a gay man in a German Concentration Camp during WW II. The range and nuance that is seen in Owen’s performance is something that he isn’t always allowed to display when he plays a tough guy role.

The under-appreciated films that these actors have starred in prior to their big break out roles can sometimes give you a better idea of why they have been nominated and are considered some of the best actors working in film today.

The second thought is on the Awards show itself. Why in the world did they hire Anne Hathaway and James Franco to host? They were in way over their heads, it was obvious from the start, and it turned out badly. But this is just one in a long line of disastrous hosting gigs that Oscar has presented in recent years.

David Letterman comes to mind, and there was the year that Snow White and Rob Lowe went into the audience to sing to Tom Hanks and Paul Newman. Jon Stewart did not fare well, and several comics bombed badly (Richard Pryor played a frozen, nervous man that didn’t translate well).

For a town that prides itself on “creativity and innovation”, sadly, the true corporate nature of the movie industry rears its ugly head when all is said and done. They want a winner, someone who can host like Bob Hope or Billy Crystal, and these types of entertainers don’t grow on trees. There are a select few who can do it year after year and it’s always hard to keep the material fresh. Stand up comedy should be followed by short routines and usually there are other comics and popular entertainers inserted in the mix.

But this year, it’s almost like all thoughts of entertainment were banned from the broadcast. Where was Ben Stiller or Jim Carrey? Or Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber? Where was Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt? Or George Clooney & Julia Roberts?

Older famous pairings like Robert De Niro with (almost anybody) would have been nice. Warren Beatty was sitting in the audience just applauding! He could have been on stage with Jack Nicholson. Elizabeth Taylor is gravely ill, therefore they could have recognized her body of work as a past recipient. But no, this would have been way too much for the lame milquetoast production that was just downright boring.

Sometimes it’s better to take chances and to fail then to just be so bland and boring that no one really cares what happens. That is the case here. They need some creative minds to “re-think” the Oscar broadcast.

Originally at the Oscars they sat at tables and had a dinner show. They should seriously think about having food served like a CineBistro. It might be more interesting to watch celebrities eating. Or turn it into a reality show with introspectives and montages, mixed with celebrities and comics who know how to entertain a room while the camera is rolling-LIVE! I would suggest almost anything would top the stale, dull, by rote type of pabulum that seems to flow from the spicket each year at Academy Awards time.

This is not brain surgery but it does require common sense. That is something that has been in short supply in so many of our major industries lately. The corporate mentality strikes again!