Thursday, June 30, 2011

Getting acquainted with ... Elizabeth Taylor

This is the fifth in a monthly series designed to help me expand my library of older films, in the form of watching three films by a film personality I think I need to get to know better. I should ALERT you now that there may be SPOILERS.

Okay, so I'm a couple months late for the "Liz Taylor Appreciation Piece" on my blog. But that's because when she died, I would have had little to appreciate. In fact, it was reading a piece about her career that caused me to realize I hadn't seen many of her films -- that caused me to line her up as my choice for June. (Besides, I'd been getting acquainted with men for the first four months of this series, and I desperately needed a woman).

I guess you wouldn't exactly call her a prolific actress, and she quit at an age when she would have still been viable for awhile longer. But the fact remains that she was an icon, yet I had still only seen two films in which Elizabeth Taylor appeared: Cleopatra and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Both to honor her and as a legitimate pursuit of cinematic knowledge, I decided I should broaden my number of Taylor films from two to five.

The only problem is, watching three films by a movie personality and then trying to examine overarching themes in a month-end piece is a bit easier to do with a director than an actor or actress. After starting with James Cagney in February, I then proceeded to Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Alejandro Jodorowsky, each directors who had definite interests they kept returning to. I didn't realize this with Cagney, but I did with Taylor -- actors tend to play a more passive role in the process of making films, and it's not always possible to extrapolate similarities between their roles. Sometimes, three separate films are just three separate films.

Such was my experience with Taylor. But that doesn't mean I won't or can't write about her. She was, after all, an icon, undeniably talented in front of the camera, and beautiful even from when she was 12.

National Velvet (1944, Clarence Brown). Watched: Tuesday, June 14th

Which, conveniently, is where we start with Taylor. National Velvet was one of those movie titles I'd always heard, but didn't know anything about until recently. In fact, not until reading that piece after Taylor's death did I even know it was about horses.

I did know it starred Mickey Rooney in addition to Taylor, but I didn't have any idea that I would also meet a young Angela Lansbury in the movie. Her role as the older sister to Taylor's Velvet Brown is brief, but memorable for anyone who got acquainted with Lansbury much later in her career (Murder, She Wrote was about the time she came on my own radar). She seems impossibly tall in this movie.

But let's not let the erstwhile Jessica Fletcher steal the spotlight from Taylor, who truly shines. Taylor was 12 when the movie was released, meaning she was probably 11 or younger during filming. And she certainly does command the screen. As this is considered her star-making performance, it shouldn't be any great surprise that I found her captivating, especially with the benefit of hindsight. What did surprise me a little was how many of the horse-riding stunts she appeared to be doing herself. In fact, falling off a horse in this film contributed to back problems she had later in life.

The film itself is about a young girl's desire to win England's Grand National horse race with her horse, called The Pie, short for Pirate. In this instance, Hollywood doesn't do a great job making us think all these people are British, however. For one, a disconcerting number of the characters have no British accent to speak of. Isn't that the first rule about setting films in England, especially when you shoot them in California?

The greatest impression the film made on me was not Taylor, nor Rooney (who reminded me of Dana Carvey's impressions of him on Saturday Night Live), nor Lansbury, but Anne Revere, who plays Velvet's mother with a mixture of benevolence, wisdom and slyness that I won't soon forget. The characterization ran rather contrary to what I expected of a movie made in 1944, where you'd think the patriarch might receive more of the positive character traits. Instead, he's a bit of a buffoon, and Revere is grace and intelligence incarnate. Something about Revere seems so familiar to me that I have a rather hard time believe I've only seen her in a single other movie, Gentlemen's Agreement. And while I did see that movie for the first time within the past five years, it did not make a particular impression on me.

The other big takeaway from National Velvet is the climactic racing scene, which some critics have called the greatest horse racing scene ever captured on film, and I'd be hard-pressed to disagree. Especially for the time in which it was shot, with its significant technical limitations, the sequence is crackling with tension and life. It also seamlessly incorporates a number of wipeouts that seem like they should have injured either the horse or the rider, but presumably did not. No, it's not Taylor -- whose Velvet disguises herself as a man in order to ride The Pie in the race -- on the horse during these sequences, but the close-ups with her in them are also executed unobtrusively. With its grand scale and complicated staging, this sequence had to have influenced the chariot races in Ben-Hur a full 15 years later.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958, Richard Brooks). Watched: Thursday, June 16th

Fourteen years later brings us to our next Taylor movie, by which point she has matured into a full-fledged ingenue. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was of course also familiar to me, both as a movie and as a Tennessee Williams play, but I'd gotten to this point in my life without seeing any version of it. Time to change that.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof disappointed me a bit out of the gate, for a very simple reason: the title makes its way into the dialogue not ten minutes into the movie. I admit, from having seen clips of the film, that I knew the words "cat on a hot tin roof" were spoken by Taylor in the dialogue -- they would almost have to be, wouldn't they? But I always assumed they would come during some climactic part of the narrative, when we'd sat with the characters for the majority of the play, and the simile (she says she feels like a cat on a hot tin roof, so it's a simile, not a metaphor) would have this kind of cathartic impact on us, make us understand the character in a way we hadn't previously. Coming so soon in the story, there's no way it can have that effect, and I couldn't help but be disheartened by that. Williams should have chosen a line in the third act for the name of his play.

However, I did soon get into the story and the characters, which involve a drunken ex-athlete (Paul Newman), his possibly unfaithful wife (Taylor), his obnoxious brother (Jack Carson) and sister-in-law (Madeleine Sherwood) who continually churn out babies, his "Big Momma" (Judith Anderson) and his "Big Daddy" (Burl Ives), who may or may not be dying of cancer. This big dysfunctional bunch meets in the psychologically close confines of a sprawling Mississippi mansion, where they yell at each other over perceived and real slights over the course of 107 minutes.

That's an oversimplification, and is not actually meant to be a slight to this film. More, I mean it to be that I was surprised at the level of real, visceral anger and barely contained violence that was present in this film. Not that 1958 was such a genteel time for the movies, just that I found Cat on a Hot Tin Roof to be more sexually frank than I was expecting, and more scandalous as well. I guess I have this idea that a Williams play -- since they all seem to deal in some way or another with scandals and betrayals among families in the steamy south -- would be safe for the stage, but might need to be toned down a bit for the movies. The consistent honesty of emotion, the brutal refusal to pull punches (emotionally) but nearly come to blows (physically) ... it left me feeling I was witnessing a truly modern entity, when I might have been inclined to consider the 1950s a time when the movies were just trying to make us happy. (Like I say, this is a vast oversimplification of that era, but I have to be honest when I tell you what impressions I may have carried into the viewing experience.)

One thing I will say is that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof does not serve particularly well as a showcase for Taylor in a month devoted to examining her films. Although she is probably the name most associated with this movie -- she's the centerpiece on the poster -- she is only the third most important character, as Williams' play is really a showdown between Brick Pollitt (Newman) and his Big Daddy (Ives). Taylor's Maggie actually disappears for stretches of the film, as much as one can disappear while still in the same house as the rest of the characters. It's Newman's first really famous film in a movie career that began four years earlier, and he sure announces himself as a heavyweight, surly and quick-tempered and oozing magnetism. Meanwhile, the actual heavyweight, Ives, is an actor I don't think I've ever seen outside of possibly his most famous role in a considerably more benign context -- he of course voices the snowman narrator in the Rankin-Bass TV special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Having been fully aware of Newman's dramatic capabilities, I was therefore considerably more surprised to see just how much Ives can bring it. He's a gargantuan presence who lives up terrifically to the name Big Daddy and the role of the rich paterfamilias who's full of contempt. The one-on-one scenes between these two actors, which make up the bulk of the film's most memorable moments, are scintillating tutorials on acting.

When she is on screen, which is probably more than I'm giving her credit for, Taylor is certainly a captivating presence as well. I really noted how director Richard Brooks made use of her sexuality, as he lingers on a scene of her removing her stockings early on, bringing her status as a budding sex symbol to the fore. National Velvet didn't require much range from the actress, since she was just an adolescent, but Roof demonstrates the chops we'd see in future performances in which she really dominates, such as Virgina Woolf.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof also made me really think about the contrasting narrative possibilities of a play and a movie. Because most plays are limited by the logistics of set design, they involve a lot of talking about events that may have happened elsewhere, rather than showing them. This film in particular seems to be a great example of that, as the event against which most of the characters are defining themselves -- the suicide of Brick's friend Skipper -- is never dramatized, occurring off-screen at an earlier time. If Cat on a Hot Tin Roof had been conceived as a screenplay rather than a play, it's very likely that Skipper would have been played by an actor and there would have been some kind of flashback to the fateful night in which various characters think they made some crucial error that led to him killing himself. Instead, the event is discussed in the dialogue only. Without being much of a Williams scholar myself, I think this might be a common element in his other plays: conflicts deriving from events that have to be told to the audience, rather than shown. While that runs contrary to the main guiding principles of cinema, I found it to be quaint in a way I enjoyed. With only one shooting location for this film, it's stripped of distractions and can focus only on the acting and on the depth of the characters' emotions. Which are two pretty damn good reasons why we go to the movies.

The Taming of the Shrew (1967, Franco Zeffirelli). Watched: Tuesday, June 28th.

The Taming of the Shrew was not my first choice for my third Taylor film. In fact, it was not even my second choice. But Netflix was being a fickle mistress, perhaps in part because other people were also watching Taylor's films in the wake of her death.

My first choice had actually been Butterfield 8, for which Taylor won the first of her two Oscars, only two years after Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. However, Netflix listed this film as having a "Very Long Wait." Not a short wait or a long wait, but a "very long wait," meaning way past the end of June. So I shifted my attentions to 1951's A Place in the Sun, which, to remain in chronological order, I would have watched before Roof. Frustratingly, the same length wait was listed for this film as well. I knew of Shrew as Shakespeare's classic more than I knew of it as an Elizabeth Taylor classic, but opted for it as the best of the remaining options I hadn't seen. Besides, I'd never seen Shrew at all, and as a lover of Shakespeare, I felt like that was something I needed to correct.

(Only after Shrew was already on its way did I see the "Very Long Wait" notation disappear from next to Butterfield 8. Shucks. Then again, looking today, I see that it's back, so maybe I only imagined that it disappeared in the first place. Also, I just now noticed she was in Giant. Seeing that would have also allowed me to see the only James Dean movie I haven't seen.)

Anyway, maybe there was a reason I hadn't seen any dramatic performance of The Taming of the Shrew before now. I have always considered myself a lover of Shakespeare, and took a class devoted entirely to his tragedies in college. However, I have always disliked his comedies. It all started when I saw A Midsummer Night's Dream and thought it was ridiculously frivolous. My opinion didn't improve with Much Ado About Nothing, although I find that title incredibly accurate. If I had to choose one Shakespearean comedy as my reluctant favorite, it would probably be Twelfth Night. But I try to avoid them in general.

The Taming of the Shrew reminded me why. Given how sober and somber his tragedies are, I find it endlessly frustrating how much Shakespeare showed himself to be the polar opposite in his comedies, populating them with loud, boorish, drunken fools. In fact, it seems that each comedy has at least one and usually several characters whose role is, literally, The Fool, whether it's Puck in Midsummer or Feste in Twelfth Night. I'm sure there's one in Much Ado About Nothing, but I've only seen that once (as opposed to at least twice for the others), so the characters don't leap immediately to mind.

I found almost everyone to be the fool in Shrew, starting with Richard Burton as Petruchio and continuing on to almost everyone he comes into contact with -- most problematically, Taylor's Katharina. But my first impression of the film was the following: "Hey, this is the plot from 10 Things I Hate About You!" I'm kidding of course, as 10 Things is a modern-day update of Shrew, a fact I knew at the time I saw it. In the intervening decade, I'd forgotten which play 10 Things was updating. But I actually think I might have liked 10 Things better than this film/play -- and I didn't really like it very much at all.

The reason is simple: 10 Things is a battle of the sexes fought with equivalent artillery on both sides, as a movie made with modern gender politics in mind must be. Shrew is not. In fact, Shrew is unforgivably misogynistic. I was aghast at how few times Katharina scores against Petruchio. She's a one-dimensional harpie who is tamed, as the title promises, but a lot more quickly than I imagined she would be. She's subjected to numerous humiliations, most notably when her horse falls into a puddle and Petruchio leaves her to walk back to his castle, some number of miles, through the snow. He then denies her food, drink and warmth, which she direly needs. Through this process she turns into a doting wife who does everything her husband tells her. The end.

Really, it's almost that bad.

I couldn't believe it. I was in shock. I know that Shakespeare's plays are often considered to be sexist in one way or another, but usually, they make up for it with astute observations about the human condition or brilliant turns of phrase that have become some of the classic lines in English literature. Not so here. The Taming of the Shrew has the usual farcical mistaken identity elements that I hate in most of Shakespeare's comedies, which occasionally are clever despite their trying frivolity. But they aren't particularly clever here, and the fault is compounded by a significant lack of smart observations and brilliant language. In fact, The Taming of the Shrew may now be my least favorite of Shakespeare's plays.

I also found it oddly out of balance. As you know if you saw 10 Things I Hate About You, the crux of this play is that a father won't allow his younger daughter Bianca, a beauty who is sought by many suitors, to marry until his older daughter, the shrew, is married off first. This leads to considerable scheming and many of the mistaken identity stuff alluded to above. But I thought I remember the Bianca plot in 10 Things being only slightly less important than the Petruchio-Katharina plot. In the actual version of the play, it's frequently an afterthought, with most of the time being frittered away on the gross dynamics of the relationship between the reprehensible lout and his shrew. (Petruchio actually seems much more shrewish than Katharina -- her main fault seems to be that she likes to throw temper tantrums.) Not only that, but the problem of marrying her off is resolved fairly early in the narrative, leaving a lot more time for the taming process, during which the play becomes unforgivably sexist. The coup de grace is when Katharina ends the play with a speech -- a genuine speech, not a ruse with hidden agenda -- in which she extols the virtues of obedience to one's husband, whom she sees as her lord. Has Petruchio earned this? I think not.

Okay, I don't want to say too much more about this movie/play. However, I will finish with a couple things:

1) I was interested to see that Franco Zeffirelli was the director. Zeffirelli also directed the Mel Gibson Hamlet from 1990, and probably the most famous screen version of Romeo and Juliet (which I haven't seen) from 1968. He was probably cinema's most regular Shakespeare interpreter before Kenneth Branagh came along, so I was interested to see his work in Shrew. I found it generally undistinguished and very broad, although of course that is also dictated by the material.

2) Taylor herself. Thought she deserved a mention. She's pretty feisty at times and is certainly very watchable. She's also pretty sexy as she is required to show plenty of cleavage here and there. However, I found myself thinking that she was already starting to seem a bit matronly in this movie, even in her still-young mid-thirties. Perhaps that's just a relative observation based on seeing her on screen this month in films where she was significantly younger, but it took me by surprise.

3) I read after the fact that Burton and Taylor shot this film when their marriage was already on the rocks, rather publicly. In retrospect, it's interesting to see how that adds extra fire to their on-screen conflict. However, the film may be more interesting as an insight into their personal lives than it is as a work of art in its own right.

Okay, for not thinking I had very much to say about Elizabeth Taylor, I ended up writing quite a lot about these three films.

Next month: Back to directors, and back to films with a very definite theme connecting them.

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