Elizabeth Taylor

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Elizabeth Taylor Pencil Portrait
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My portrait of Miss Taylor dates from 1958 when she was filming Cat on a hot tin roof. A mere 26, she would be widowed during the shooting schedule when her third husband, the film producer Mike Todd, died in a plane crash.

She was an exquisitely beautiful creature. With typical bluntness, Richard Burton once described her effect on the opposite sex when he said, “Elizabeth only has to walk into a room and every man wants to unzip himself and stick it in her”.

I first saw this film when I was fourteen and the sight of her removing a stocking in one of her early scenes was a heart thumping moment. Living with the sad reality of maxi skirts – as all males were in the 70’s – it was an all too discomforting reminder of the single most powerful tool women have at their disposal. Curiously in her private life she was not promiscuous by Hollywood standards (although that doesn’t say much for her) – seven men and eight marriages plus a handful of affairs for a woman who once famously said “nothing comes off until the ring goes on”. I often have to smile at Hollywood party photographs where it appears as if everyone has slept with one another but can nevertheless still convivially enjoy an evening together showing off their “latest squeeze”. Come dining time, it’s a logistical problem as to the most suitable seating arrangement; for me personally a collection of very strange people.

I think she was probably a very likeable person, swearing like a trouper on occasions which always amuses me to hear when a woman has sufficient class, self deprecating wit and an uproarious laughter. I struggle with women who cannot either (a) see anything funny about themselves or (b) convulse with laughter. They have probably reached a point in time where they cannot actually see anything THAT funny about life. Working for her in a business capacity would, I suspect, have been a fun experience provided one did one’s job correctly at all times.

Despite her beauty, I still cannot understand men wanting her. She was obviously high maintenance 24/7 in every sense of the word, and frankly you would have thought they had far too much else to do maintaining their own careers. Her relationship with Richard Burton certainly derailed his career being, as he often was, farmed out by his agent to “junk” movies such as Candy to maintain her taste in jewellery. She remained chippily sensitive to accusations that her husband had forsaken the theatre for movieland but the statistics spoke for themselves and her fire could be doused. There is still available a filmed interview with the couple where Miss Taylor reacts aggressively to such an accusation citing her husband’s more recent theatrical work but the interviewer is not impressed before slicing her argument in half with a single line – “Paul Schofeld has only made one film in the last fourteen years.” She is silenced with a look of acute frustration. Perhaps in the final analysis it was guilt on her part because she could have easily foregone further additions to her vast jewellery collection yet subjugation of one’s own desires in the wider interests of a partner is no easy matter. One cannot apportion all blame to her because Burton was equally either (a) compromised in his desire to maintain the always unsteady equilibrium in the marriage by showering his wife with inordinately expensive gifts and/or (b) averse to a commitment to the excessive demands any long run on Broadway would place upon an actor. Either way he does not enter the conversation whilst this topic rages.

There is so much written material available on her life, that her emotional travails wash over one like a tidal wave. When she and Burton were reunited in August 1974, he quite sensibly, displayed little appetite for re-marriage; after all, the legal union had failed first time around, they had no siblings from their previous relationship and their interaction at best, remained volatile. Burton’s biographer, Tom Rubython, reports on pages 714-715 of his mammoth book, that Taylor over dramatised her X-Ray findings after a period of hospitalisation falling a fall. The shadow on her lung was later ascribed to scar tissue from childhood tuberculosis but the other possibilities were milked to the nth degree until she was given the all clear and Burton changed his mind about re-marriage. What on earth was the point to all this? The point is that it’s what Taylor wanted. There didn’t have to be any rhyme or reason to it all, merely that being legally re-united with her ex-husband was a point in focus. As it transpired, the couple re-married and were separated again within nine months whereas a more frank exchange of views and sentiments might well have precluded re-marriage if not harmonious cohabitation, and would obviously, in turn, have avoided a second divorce.

By this time, the Burtons had probably experienced what millions of couples go through as the years begin to seemingly fly by. Every little idiosyncratic nuance to their respective personalities, once so beguiling and bewitching, now began to appear simply irritating as communication ebbed and feelings were increasingly suppressed. The solution presents itself quite readily but is of course, inordinately difficult; namely to treat each day of the relationship as if it were the first; to bring to mind those first heady sensations and to radiate out those sentiments. I don’t believe it’s ever too late provided any semblance of manipulation can be studiously avoided. Burton knew he was being coerced yet went along with it, as if carried along on the crest of a wave. By the end of his life and in the months following their distastrous professional reunion onstage in Noel Coward’s Private Lives,’ he wrote in his diaries that the attraction between the pair had all but disappeared. He singularly failed to bid her farewell at the end of the play’s closing night, his fourth wife Sally adding that; ‘the experience on _“Private Lives utterly destroyed Richard’s relationship with Elizabeth, even on a friendly basis, and made me feel all the more secure’._ Within weeks of his death, Taylor was reunited in Wales with his family, still basking in the glow of the warmest of relations she had enjoyed with them in earlier decades. What she can truly have been thinking is anyone’s guess, for denial is invariably more palatable.

So how good was Elizabeth Taylor as an actress? I think it’s fair to say that she was a capable actress who extended her range significantly to great effect in a number of key roles. I always loved “A place in the sun” which she made with Montgomery Clift in 1951. A synopsis of the plot is freely available on the net for anyone unfamiliar with the story. It was the first time my father used a film to illustrate to me the more than difficult search to understanding an individual’s true motivation for his/her actions. I was accustomed to happy endings in movies and Montgomery Clift’s character had clearly decided against murder once he got his pregnant ‘girlfriend’ on the boating lake. She accidentally drowns ostensibly leaving Clift to indulge his upwardly mobile aspirations and marry his true passion Elizabeth Taylor. The prosecuting lawyer Raymond Burr (later Perry Mason and A man called Ironside on Tv) is having none of it and this was my first education in “true intent”. Clift doesn’t try hard enough in the water to save her and after all we don’t always have to physically kill someone with our own bare hands. Eventually of course, Elizabeth Taylor’s beauty and position in life is his undoing. In life we can all anticipate the likely variables of any given situation. If Clift’s character hadn’t taken Shelly Winters boating then she most assuredly could not have drowned.

Elizabeth Taylor was a tireless campaigner for AIDS awareness (she lost a number of friends to the disease, most noticeably the actor Rock Hudson) and in December 1999 was rewarded for her efforts when Queen Elizabeth II anointed her a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She was also a fearless woman, dogged by chronic ill health throughout most her life and, as I‘ve suggested previously, quite possibly one of the best friends anyone could have.

Around this time in her life, she was also displaying normal human characteristics by failing to face up to her past when husband number four Eddie Fisher attempted a conversational reconciliation to discuss what had happened in their marriage. He is quoted as saying “I wanted to see her and sort out all that had happened between us. Needless to say, she never responded. Looking back, I felt I’d gotten the short end of the stick. I can honestly say she was the love of my life. She was also my ruination. I basically gave up my singing career to be with her and when she dumped me for Richard Burton, she made me out to be the bad guy. The press lauded her as nothing short of Joan of Arc at the same time that they condemned me for not immediately agreeing to a divorce, as if I were the one standing in the way of Elizabeth’s happiness”.

Mr Fisher need not have worried. He will have caught up with her in the afterlife having passed away on 22 September 2010. Elizabeth followed shortly afterwards on March 23, 2011.

Recommended viewing

A Place in the sun (1951)

An undoubted highpoint for Taylor, this adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s ‘An American Tragedy’ is one of postwar Hollywood’s most affecting and genuinely adult love stories.

The film took a clutch of Oscars for direction, screenplay, cinematography, score, costumes and editing, and centres on the aspirational desires of one George Eastman (Clift), a shy, slightly awkward Midwesterner who arrives in California hoping for a job in his uncle’s factory. Finding work, he is soon promoted whilst secretly courting an assembly-line worker Alice (Shelley Winters), despite company rules forbidding such liasons. Now moving in more rarified social circles, he meets and immediately falls for beautiful socialite Angela (Taylor).

Stevens’ eye for detail is evident in the deft delineation of social divisions and the meticulous characterisation, but what distinguishes the film is the way he homes in, with ravishing close-ups and lingering dissolves suggestive of inexorable destiny, on the rapt, languid, irresistible desire that drives the story. Clift’s moral compass is spinning wildly like a man standing at the magnetic South Pole, and their scenes together are memorable for their wounded beauty.

Cat on a hot tin roof (1958)

A wonderful portrayal of physical repression by Miss Taylor matched only by Paul Newman’s acting. It took a powerhouse performance on his part to keep her in check even if the overt homosexuality of the novel was understandably downplayed.

Suddenly last Summer (1959)

Tennessee Williams’ dark portrait of moral disintegration, was first produced for the stage in 1957, and the film of the book was released two years later.

I first saw this film when I was fifteen and the story of a seemingly insane, young New Orleans debutante and a wealthy aunt who wants to lobotomize her, was frankly beyond my fullest comprehension at the time. I recall two aspects to the movie; firstly, questioning the business ethics of the young doctor who succumbs to the rich Society matron’s offer of a substantial grant in return for treating her traumatised niece, and secondly, the sight of Taylor in her white one piece bathing suit effectively killing what remaining concentration I had left in me, but in all honesty I was bored with the movie. My fascination with women suitably compartmentalised by the age of thirty two, the film made more sense when I caught a late night rescreening in the early 90’s.

The doctor (played by the disfigured Montgomery Clift), redeems himself by refusing to perform the lobotomy operation until he uncovers what actually happened to Taylor’s brother. The original play’s allusions to pedophilia, cannibalism, and incest, cling tentatively to the censor’s coattail and the film nonetheless provoked heated controversy.

The following link analyses the storyline’s dark undertones:


Butterfield 8 (1960)

She won an academy award on a sympathy vote for cheating death and frankly she was unconvincing as a high class escort call. Her acceptance speech on Oscar night wasn’t much better being more in tune with the Marilyn Monroe breathless “little girl lost” school of enunciation than her real persona. Mind you, some subsequent Oscar acceptance speeches from actresses over the years have been hilariously execrable so perhaps I shouldn’t criticise too heavily! In any event the award should have gone to Shirley MaClaine that year and she knew it. Recommended therefore for all the wrong reasons if only to determine how flawed any back slapping event can truly be.

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Anyone perusing my website will realise that I am not by default, a “technicolour man” and sadly for me, the first half of the 1960’s marked the last great flowering of the black and white cinema in America. As the Age of The Epic dawned in Hollywood, some of the most beautiful black and white cinematography ever committed to film flourished in the shadow of behemoths like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and Miss Taylor’s own CLEOPATRA. The use of faster film stocks, smaller cameras, and a generation of cinematographers who’d been influenced by combat and newsreel photography, gave to black and white a brief, brilliant Indian summer. Rod Steiger’s appearance in the 1965 motion picture “The Pawnbroker” is a case in point whilst the medium worked well even for lightweight froth such as The Beatles’ debut movie. Few would argue with me that the cinema- veritee of “A Hard day’s Night” is streets ahead of the technicoloured froth of “Help!”, however appealing a travalogue picture it may have been.

Richard Burton himself had benefitted from this medium a year earlier. Martin Ritt’s 1965 adaptation of the John Le Carre thriller THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD perfectly crystallized the glories of black and white in its ‘fin-de-siecle’ period. The French may strictly refer to the “end of the century” but trends within cinematography are much briefer and this was no more evident than with the demise of black and white pictures. Boasting visual styles as grim and overcast as the East German sky, THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD was as emotionally chilling as its subject, the Cold War dance of espionage.

As for “Virginia Woolf” there is much evidence to suggest that the Burtons were portraying themselves in this picture and Elizabeth duly picked up a deserved Academy Award. Friends warned them that the experience of making the movie could tear them apart. In reality, the effect was not immediate although true unity in the relationship had only two years to run. We truly never fully know what goes on behind closed doors but I cannot live like that and certainly not with a virago of a wife such as Martha. I am equally inept and reluctant to play “jealousy games” for common sense dictates that a true loving relationship needs no such provocation. In this fictional marriage she and George know just how to push each other’s buttons, with George having a special advantage since he need only mention the couple’s son to send Martha into orbit. This evening, the couple’s guests are Nick (George Segal), a junior professor, and Honey (Sandy Dennis), Nick’s child-like wife. After an evening of sadistic (and sometimes perversely hilarious) “fun and games,” the truth about George and Martha’s son comes to light. First-time director Mike Nichols was clearly in need of light relief after the intensity of this two month shoot. He went onto direct one of the defining movies of late 60’s whilst picking up an Oscar for “The Graduate”. Mrs Robinson was scheming but no match for Martha!

The taming of the Shrew (1967)

A Shakesperian drama of marital strife, the film prefaces the impending drama lying in wait for the Burtons. Taylor plays Katharina, the shrew, with Burton playing Petruchio, who ultimately tames her. It was still a time of great optimism for the couple, both in their private lives and for the future of the world in which they lived. That summer, basking in the box office returns and critical reviews for the film, Burton had alligned himself to Robert Kennedy in his quest for the White House.

Years later, Taylor would recall the six month shoot as ‘one long honeymoon’. The couple rented a typical old style flat-roofed Roman villa that had been restored to very high standards; members of Burton’s family describing it as a ‘display of ostentation and luxury’. That summer, the Burtons moved in their four children from their privious marriages. The couple had household staff to look after them, no car washing for Burton and no marigolds for Taylor, and after the children retired for the night, the pair would rehearse for the following day’s shooting. Burton fostered a loving environment in which the chiildren would be greeted with kisses first thing in the morning and last thing at night; the only regret in their lives at the time being the absence of a child of their own. It’s difficult to comprehend how anyone would have been disatisfied that summer in Rome yet three years later, Burton would be involved with another woman and Taylor would be facing up to her late 30’s, a difficult time for any actress in that era.

Recommended reading

This all depends on how objective a work you wish to read. The biographer kitty Kelley published a book on Taylor in 1981 and the pair became life long enemies as a result. Unperturbed by such a hostile reaction Miss Kelley produced a subsequent biography on Frank Sinatra in 1985. She must have had a “death wish” on herself in tinseltown.

Elizabeth : The life of Elizabeth Taylor (Alexander Walker)

Worth investigating for the detailed analysis of her early child star years at MGM which firmly entrenched her in the “star system”. Thereafter I seemed to lose as much interest as the author himself in detailing her later years.

Photographic books

There are numerous titles available and considering the number of imperfect faces I have to look at each day including my own when shaving might I suggest at least a cursory glance at one of these? She epitomised glamour and as a young man I would happily trail older women from all different countries in airports simply marvelling at their make up, clothes and hair. From my perspective now, they all look as if they’ve rushed from the kitchen to the departure lounge; no class, no style, no nothing. What went wrong? I suppose the emancipation of women which has enhanced so many aspects of their professional lives but at a terrific cost to their femininity. My days of symbolically drooling are over.



Some lovely picture galleries.