Sunday 27 March 2011

Elizabeth Taylor (1932 - 2011)

I was in two minds as to whether to post about the death of Elizabeth Taylor: my view has always been that despite being a massive star in the 1950s and 60s she largely appeared in forgettable movies, to the extent that her personal life became more italked about than her work.  Until her death last week she was perhaps the last remaining major figure from the period when the studio system and the star system were dominant in Hollywood.  In that context, if no other, her passing deserves to be noted.

But then I had a look back over her filmography and was surprised by the number of unusual and interesting films she had made.  There was SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER (1959), a troubling and these days little-seen film about repression and madness.  And there was DR FAUSTUS (1967), in a bit part admittedly but nevertheless the original 'man who sold his soul to the devil' story.  And there was REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE (1967), John Huston's barking melodrama about closeted homosexuals in the US military.  And BOOM! (1968), a really weird Joseph Losey version of a Tennessee Williams play about a mysterious poet who may be the Angel of Death.  I couldn't make head nor tail of it when I first saw it but then read that it's really about a homosexual relationship; it made perfect sense after that.  Another odd one is HAMMERSMITH IS OUT (1972) an impossibly hard to find satire directed by Peter Ustinov, which was apparently also based on the Faust legend.  I have a copy of this but haven't watched it yet.  Stand by for a review soon.  She also made an uncredited appearance in William Richert's excellent conspiracy thriller WINTER KILLS (1979) which starred Jeff Bridges as the brother of an assassinated US President.

Taylor was evidently quite prepared to act in films that dealt with unwelcome or taboo subjects, particularly homosexuality, which was an unusual and brave attitude to take at that time; in that respect you could add CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (1958) to those listed above.  So it turns out that someone whom I had previously tended to dismiss as the epitome of mainstream cinema actually did more than her fair share of offbeat stuff, including a few good and a couple of very good films.  I suspect that, in the short term, Taylor will be remembered primarily for her lifestyle but it may just be that in years to come people will start to reappraise her film career and judge her more favourably.  I hope so.

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