- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 7, 2002

The belated selection of Elizabeth Taylor as a Kennedy Center Honoree seems to commemorate a saga as much as an acting career. Despite being recruited for quixotic revivals of "The Little Foxes" and "Private

Lives" after she had reached middle age, Miss Taylor is remembered pre-eminently as a movie personality and sometime divinity, beginning with juvenile roles at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer during World War II and culminating with her reign as the feminine half of an unrivaled show-business royal couple of the 1960s. It has been at least 30 years since she left an indelible acting impression on the screen.

Miss Taylor's masculine counterpart was, of course, the late Richard Burton. Their alliance began with co-starring roles in the costliest and most ponderous spectacle of the period, the Joseph Mankiewicz production of "Cleopatra," released in 1963. Re-enacting the romance of Mark Antony and the legendary Queen of the Nile encouraged an on-the-job passion that provided vast vicarious amusement and gossip value to the celebrity-conscious segments of the press and public for years afterward.

In the immediate aftermath of the "Cleopatra" romance, Miss Taylor shed her fourth husband, crooner Eddie Fisher, and Mr. Burton shed his first wife, Sybil. The new partners wed in 1964 and sustained a globe-trotting, volcanic, world-historical matrimonial tie for a decade. They divorced in 1974 after recurrent separations and reconciliations. A remarriage in 1975 culminated in a second, enduring divorce a year later.

The expendable Eddie Fisher connection reflected earlier upheavals and scandals in the Taylor chronicle. He had been the best man at her 1957 wedding to third husband Mike Todd, a Broadway showman and neophyte movie producer, born Avram Goldenbogen. Mr. Todd was lucky enough to collect the Academy Award for best movie on his first try, "Around the World in 80 Days," released in 1956. It coincided with a prestige credit for Miss Taylor in the George Stevens movie version of Edna Ferber's "Giant," in which the young actress, then 23, portrayed a Texas rancher's wife over the course of 30 years.

Mr. Todd died in a plane crash in 1958, leaving Miss Taylor a young widow with an infant daughter. (She had two sons by her second marriage, to British actor Michael Wilding, presumed to be a comforting father figure after the failure of her fleeting first marriage to hotel heir Nicky Hilton.) A whirlwind cycle of sympathy, hostility and reawakened sympathy enthralled the press for the next two years. Miss Taylor squandered the sentiment inspired by her widowhood when she became romantically involved with Mr. Fisher, married to actress Debbie Reynolds, also groomed for stardom at the Metro studio during the early 1950s, while Elizabeth Taylor was a prized but often wasted asset.

The sudden reversal of image from bereft widow to shameless home-wrecker may have cost Miss Taylor a good chance to win the 1958 Academy Award for her performance as Maggie the Cat in Richard Brooks' movie version of Tennessee Williams' play "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Accusations of having wronged Miss Reynolds (she and Mr. Fisher had been overrated as a perfect couple by impressionable fans) lingered until Miss Taylor became ill in London from a mysterious malady that eventually worsened into a near-fatal case of pneumonia. An emergency tracheotomy was required to preserve her life.

Sympathy returned so decisively that Miss Taylor went from long shot to overnight prohibitive favorite in the 1960 Academy Award finals. She won for playing a call girl in the movie version of John O'Hara's novel "Butterfield 8." Miss Taylor had made no secret that she despised the role and the picture; indeed, she regarded the whole project as a vindictive gesture on the part of MGM because the film concluded her second long-term contract with the studio.

Frail and humble, Miss Taylor attended the Oscar ceremony with Mr. Fisher. She accepted the accolade that would have made more sense, then and forever, in the hands of Deborah Kerr for "The Sundowners" or Shirley MacLaine for "The Apartment."

A deserved second Oscar, for the 1966 movie version of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," found Miss Taylor a no-show at the ceremony, although the film led all contenders, with 13 nominations, including one for her consort, Mr. Burton. Destined to be an Oscar bridesmaid throughout his career, he was outpolled in the 1966 finals by Paul Scofield in "A Man for All Seasons." Miss Taylor was reported to be righteously indignant on behalf of her mate, although he seems to have taken it in stride.

Miss Taylor managed to alienate many of Sybil Burton's friends during the "Cleopatra" scandal, but the consensus among fans and kibitzers in the United States seemed to be that the Taylor-Burton match was irresistibly entertaining and stimulating. Who knew what was in store? Maybe it was what Miss Taylor, whose life had been a recurrent marital soap-opera since 1950, needed and deserved as she was turning 30.

During "Cleopatra," she had broken the million-dollar salary barrier, and the production went on so long that her cumulative payoff probably exceeded $2 million. Her performance as the Queen of the Nile left plenty to be desired, but she was making business news and lifestyle news with considerable impact.

Richard Burton had been a promising Hollywood newcomer in the early 1950s, especially when he had played the lead in the biblical spectacle "The Robe," the big hit of 1953. He had lost stellar momentum over the course of the decade, but it was rejuvenated by the alliance with Miss Taylor.

For a while, it even looked as if the professional aspects of the partnership might prove both artistically and financially rewarding. It was understood that "Cleopatra" couldn't live up to its behind-the-scenes melodrama, and everyone knew the modern-dress quickie "The V.I.P.s" was not to be mistaken for an auspicious co-starring vehicle. That became especially clear when Rod Taylor and Maggie Smith emerged as the more appealing love match in secondary roles.

With Miss Taylor and Mr. Burton, however, it began to look as if the publicity circus could co-exist with some interesting projects. Mr. Burton might be free to do a "Night of the Iguana" or "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" without Miss Taylor, who might do a "Reflections in a Golden Eye" without him. Together they might cleverly exploit the modern, as in Mike Nichols' production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf," while also reaching back to the classics, as in Franco Zeffirelli's production of "The Taming of the Shrew."

At this late date, it's difficult to recall that both directors were making their first features. Curiously, Hollywood's first royal couple, Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, also had done a movie version of "Taming of the Shrew."

In fact, the Taylor-Burton screen partnership peaked with "Virginia Woolf." No triumphs followed in its wake, although "Shrew" was a defensible good try in farcical fits and starts. As time went by, the actors themselves seemed to exhaust each other as a full-time spectacle, tempestuous mates on and off the screen.

In retrospect, every aspect of Elizabeth Taylor's movie career has been longer on promise and notoriety than artistic fulfillment or endurance. In the early stages, MGM did little or nothing to follow through on the popularity of "National Velvet" during the winter of 1944-45. Miss Taylor was 12 when the movie was released, and many people have remarked on the absence of an "awkward phase" during her adolescence. She remained an astonishing beauty throughout her teens, but there is no string of memorable films to trace that process in a methodical and durably appealing way.

If anything, the studio did her better favors during loan-outs to director George Stevens, initially for "A Place in the Sun" opposite Montgomery Clift at Paramount in 1951. Miss Taylor and Mr. Clift were one of the most beautiful pictorial matches imaginable at that juncture. The actress was reunited with Mr. Stevens under Warner Bros. auspices for "Giant" five years later. She proved stirring in different ways while playing consort to Rock Hudson and impossible dream to James Dean, whose very best movie scenes are his lovelorn encounters with Miss Taylor's character in the early part of the movie.

"Giant" began a cycle of box-office hits that gave Miss Taylor enviable financial leverage (and consecutive Oscar nominations) by the turn of the decade: "Raintree County," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Suddenly, Last Summer," "Butterfield 8." However, looking back, it's amazing to reflect that she appeared with very few leading men. She made three movies with Mr. Clift in the 1950s and then a hit-and-miss octet with Mr. Burton during the 1960s. After watching "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," it seems absurd that Miss Taylor and Paul Newman were never reunited. Many fans at the time certainly took it for granted that they would be.

Miss Taylor never co-starred with Clark Gable, James Stewart, William Holden, Gregory Peck (they were the prospective leads in "Quo Vadis," but a postponement eventually rerouted the parts to Robert Taylor and Deborah Kerr), Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Cary Grant, Tony Curtis, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Steve McQueen, James Garner, Peter O'Toole, Jack Lemmon or George C. Scott, among others. She was never directed by William Wyler, Billy Wilder, Fred Zinnemann, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Donen or Stanley Kubrick. It's difficult to fathom when you reflect that Elizabeth Taylor was the pre-eminent beauty of the screen from about the time Ava Gardner's career began to fade in the late 1950s.

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Born in London on Feb. 27, 1932, Miss Taylor was the daughter of Americans who were frequent English residents. Her father, Francis, was an art dealer. Her mother, Sara, was a former actress who seems to have transferred her ambitions to her daughter after failing to get a cooperative response from her eldest child, a son named Howard.

Miss Taylor began with ballet lessons as a little girl and entered the Hollywood system soon after the family relocated to Los Angeles in 1939. She made her film debut in an obscure Universal feature, "There's One Born Every Minute," at age 10. Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer of the "Our Gang" comedies was her first "leading man."

MGM found her ideal for "Lassie Come Home," opposite Roddy McDowall and the collie. She returned in a sequel, "Courage of Lassie," in 1946, illustrating the studio's curious absence of properties calculated to exploit her appeal as Velvet Brown in a timely fashion.

James Agee's review of "National Velvet" in December 1944 captured the nature of her initial appeal: "Ever since I first saw the child I have been choked with the peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school. I wouldn't say she is particularly gifted as an actress. She seems, rather, to turn things off and on, much as she is told, with perhaps a fair amount of natural grace and a natural-born female's sleepwalking sort of guile. She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful. I think that she and the picture are wonderful, and I hardly know or care whether she can act or not."

Almost 30 years later, evaluating "X Y & Zee," the now obscure 1972 sex comedy in which Miss Taylor got her last chance to kick up a rumpus in the spirit of her "Virginia Woolf" performance, Pauline Kael looked back on a career that soon would run out of fresh opportunities.

"Like everyone else," Miss Kael wrote, "I adored the child Elizabeth Taylor, but I have never liked her as much since as in this bizarre exhibition. She's Beverly Hills Chaucerian, and that's as high and low as you can get. Taylor has changed before our eyes from a fragile child with a woman's face to the fabled beauty to this great bawd. Maybe child actresses don't quite grow up if they stay in the movies; maybe that's why, from ingenue-goddess, she went right over the hill.

"She's got to be active and brassy and bold; she's best when she lets her gift for mimicry and for movie-colony sluttiness roll out. Though her voice is stronger now, she still gets shrill, and she starts so whoopingly high that the performance can't build and the viewer needs to recover. But Taylor has a talent for comic toughness; what she needs is a director to rein her in a little."

The prospects for Miss Taylor as an explosively comic resource in her 40s were never realized, either. She ended up as a decorative cipher in the likes of "The Blue Bird" and "A Little Night Music." One heard that she had lobbied for the lead in "Mame," ruinously denied Angela Lansbury and entrusted to Lucille Ball. Earlier there were reports that Miss Taylor craved the roles of Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly!" and Nellie Forbush in "South Pacific." A musical comedy belter may have been waiting to emerge from that thin and girlish voice to which one had grown accustomed from "National Velvet" to "Cleopatra."

A Kennedy Center accolade might have been better timed during the late 1970s, when Miss Taylor was married to Sen. John W. Warner, then the junior senator from Virginia. She seemed to promise a bit of oomph for the local social scene, looming for a time as a hostess with the mostest miraculously transported from the realm of show-business legend. She was a fixture of Wolf Trap's seasonal program while her enthusiasm lasted, but the marriage was over in four years, less than a senatorial term.

Miss Taylor's altruistic tendencies were rallied permanently by the AIDS epidemic. An earlier Kennedy Center Honors ceremony might have taken timelier notice of that notable commitment. It also might have avoided 20 years or so of discouraging news about Miss Taylor's health, not to mention the postscript of yet another failed marriage during the 1990s. Nevertheless, Miss Taylor returns to town, representing the movies, as a formidable and inimitable survivor of the show-business saga at its most exhilarating and humiliating.

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