Thursday, March 24, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor: Ten Personal Favorites

While the news perhaps wasn't a surprise, I felt a profound sense of sadness yesterday when I heard that Elizabeth Taylor had passed away at the age of 79. As many have already noted, we have lost the last truly great star of Hollywood's golden era. Of course, other great icons are thankfully still with us but I think anyone would be hard pressed to name someone who equaled Taylor's monumental stature. Yesterday I thought a lot about my own memories of Taylor, her life and her great humanitarian work. Most of all though I thought of the great cinematic legacy she left us, so today it seemed fitting to try and list my ten favorite films Taylor appeared in. I realize many are making similar lists today but they will all be different, which is a tribute to a truly great career. So here in chronological order are my ten favorite films that the glorious Elizabeth Taylor appeared in.

1. A Place in the Sun (1951): While I enjoy many of her early roles, for me Elizabeth Taylor truly came into her own as Angela Vickers in George Stevens’ remarkable A Place in the Sun. Based on Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, A Place in the Sun is one of the great works from the fifties and Taylor is unforgettable opposite a never more beautiful Montgomery Clift. Stevens’ film has lost none of its power in the last sixty years and there has still never been an onscreen couple that generated the kind of heat and passion Taylor and Clift do here.

2. Giant (1956): I think Taylor was mostly wasted in the five years following her breakthrough performance in A Place in the Sun, so it’s a major tribute again to George Stevens that he saw fit to cast her in the pivotal role as the feisty and headstrong Leslie Benedict in this epic adaptation of Edna Ferber’s novel. Taylor is tremendous in the role and proves very moving opposite both her legendary co-stars, Rock Hudson and James Dean. Taylor’s sporadic scenes with Dean are especially mind-blowing and it is amazing to watch two actors with such different styles working so well together.

3. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958): Director Richard Brooks had already worked with Taylor once, on the disappointing Last Time I Saw Paris(1954), when their paths crossed again for this striking big-screen version of Tennessee Williams’ landmark play. The whole cast, which includes Paul Newman, Burl Ives and Judith Anderson, give exemplary performances but its Taylor as ‘Maggie the Cat’ that really stands out. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Taylor here is the way her performances manages to make what was a sanitized version of Williams’ play still extremely provocative.

4. Suddenly Last Summer (1958): Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s adaptation of another Tennessee Williams play received a lot of critical disdain upon its initial release but in hindsight it is one of the key works of the fifties. A haunting and quite strange work scripted by Gore Vidal and starring Taylor along with Katherine Hepburn and a shattered Montgomery Clift, Suddenly Last Summer is quite an impressive achievement and I don’t think Taylor was ever more beautiful than she was here.

5. The Sandpiper (1965): Sure it’s incredibly corny and sure it’s overly melodramatic, but I absolutely love Vincente Minnelli’s beautiful The Sandpiper. From Milton R. Krasner’s gorgeous California location photography to Johnny Mandel’s exquisite score, The Sandpiper is one of the last great classic studio films of the sixties. Also, of the many films they made together, this is my favorite pairing of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.

6. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966): In my opinion. Taylor didn’t deserve the first Oscar she won, for Butterfield 8 (1960), but she absolutely did for her astonishing performance opposite Richard Burton in Mike Nichol’s ferocious film version of Edward Albee’s play.

7. Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967): Elizabeth put up her salary so her favorite co-star Montgomery Clift could act with her again in this mesmerizing John Huston film. Tragically Clift passed away before he could film a scene, leading the way for Marlon Brando to come in and give one of his defining performances. Another film that received a critically beating that can now ne looked back on as one of the great works of the period.

8. Boom! (1968): Joseph Losey’s whacked out film version of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore has to be seen to be believed. I’ll let Kimberly Linberg’s excellent tribute over at Cinebeats sum up my feelings for this remarkable film that again matched up the unbeatable team Burton and Taylor.

9. Under Milk Wood (1972): A great and extremely undervalued version of Dylan Thomas’ wonderful play directed by Andrew Sinclair. Taylor is again joined by Richard Burton, as well as Peter O’Toole, for this very striking and rather sweet film.

10. The Driver’s Seat (1974): I will admit that I have only seen this film, from Italian director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi, once many years ago but I remember being quite struck by it and floored by Taylor’s performance. Griffi was an interesting director, he would helm the terrific Laura Antonelli film The Divine Nymph right after The Driver’s Seat, and it is a testament to how daring Taylor was that she would have made a work like this at this point in her career.

Of course, this list is just a small sampling of a truly amazing career. Share some of your favorites if you would like in the comments section...


Erich Kuersten said...

nice selection of some underseen Taylor. BOOM! is a good choice to watch for Taylor at-home wake parties, since it's all about Taylor facing mortality, in her cliffside parlor by the sea, oh by the sea... crimson, sometimes like fire, and BoOm! I've never even heard of the driver's seat!

I also love "reflections in a golden eye" - the film's kind of lame, but Taylor is awesome as the only character with balls.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Erich,
I really need to track down a copy of THE DRIVER'S SEAT as I want to see it again. I appreciate the comments!

cilla said...

Yes, good selection...
& I suppose it's generally thought to pretty awful but personally I love SECRET CEREMONY with E.T., Mia Farrow and Robert Mitchum.

OhSusannah said...

Thank you for loving The Sandpiper as much as I do.

le0pard13 said...

This is an excellent list for the one and only Ms. Taylor. Most I've seen, but that tells me I need to catch up on the others here. Fine tribute, Jeremy. Thanks.

MondoHeather said...

Superb list that really highlights what a bold actress she was. Taylor could have easily just coasted on her looks but instead chose roles that often were interesting, layered and at times unflattering. Have immense respect for her. Plus Passion is a damn fine perfume.

dfordoom said...

Good to see the underrated Reflections in a Golden Eye on your list. I actually think it's fortunate that Brando ended up getting the role rather than Clift. He gives one of his three or four best ever performances. Taylor is great but that goes without saying.

And Boom! is a personal favourite of mine. I also like the other movie she made for Joseph Losey at about the same time, Secret Ceremony. It's also fairly outrageous.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks everyone for the very nice comments and for mentioning some of your own favorites. It looks like SECRET CEREMONY is one I absolutely need to track down soon. Thanks again everyone!