The Queen is dead…what chance ‘old Hollywood’ now?

Ye Gods – what is happening? Every time I get ready to write some incisive entry, life throws out a curve ball (a sporting analogy – I’m starting with baseball as I can’t quite work out the parallel with cricket…it’s a little less easy to work into the vernacular) which I just have to respond to. True to form, this week Elizabeth Taylor died.
There is very little I can say which will do her justice or really sum up how I feel at this loss. I always react condescendingly to people who blindly idolise celebrities – the Fanilows and Beliebers of this world seem to be incapable of objective thought when it comes to the object of their affections. The fuss caused by Cher Lloyd’s ‘fans’ when the real Cher had the temerity to question the bargain basement Cheryl Cole’s identity was ridiculous: destroying Twitter essentially. Albeit by mistake (surely none of them are smart enough to actually hack something) but nonetheless…
However, when it comes to the great legends of Hollywood, I admit to being like a child looking up at Gods. I can’t help it – I’m old enough to remember re-runs of the classic 1940s and 50s films being commonplace (instead of a treat) on TV. Every Wednesday evening – well, after homework and before bath – I watched Charlie Chan movies played on BBC 2 and imagined I was in a world of smoky opium dens peopled by men wearing hats (men in hats – imagine!) and really smart (ie sneaky) ladies who kept their folding money in their underwear. It didn’t matter that they were black and white – I knew exactly what colours everything came in.
Then came a revelation…National Velvet. In it, I saw colour (and the colour is very bright) and the simple tale of a young girl daring to do what she wants – and, yes, being a teeny bit sneaky in the execution of her plan – and winning. I didn’t know she was Elizabeth Taylor – I just thought Velvet Brown was magnificent. I also loved her two – now legendary – co-stars, Mickey Rooney and Angela Lansbury. It’s telling that Miss Taylor did not receive top billing (it went to Mickey Rooney) or even second billing – no, this is an ensemble piece and more magical for it. It also contains three fantastic quotes – all from Velvet’s doughty mother, Araminty: ‘What’s the meaning of goodness if there isn’t a little badness to overcome?’; ‘That’ll be a dispute to the end of time, Mr. Brown: whether it’s better to do the right thing for the wrong reason or the wrong thing for the right reason.‘ and, in response to her husband saying ‘It’s one thing to out-think a man, quite another to outsmart him.’, the immortal line ‘And who will say which is which?’.
In fact, there’s an Elizabeth Taylor offering for every time in my life, it seems. Admittedly, I have a tendency to ‘go off on one’ when I like something and completely immerse myself in (or overdose on) it – but this is useful when it comes to La Taylor. Her professional output contains shamefully few (though priceless) treasures amongst a large collection of pretty bargain basement films. I assure you – unlike a Taylor super-fan, for instance – I was always a discerning viewer.
She acted as Helen Burns in the Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine version of Jane Eyre. I saw this after watching Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton (he was so hot as Rochester!) on Sunday evenings in the BBC1 1983 version. I devoured Jane Eyre, staying up to read the book – which I only managed to read completely one time in every four. Whilst it’s tempting (as in my case) to leave out all the mess with St John Rivers, you cannot skip anything else. Somehow an eleven year old Elizabeth Taylor managed to conjure up the exquisite pain of Helen’s miserable, yet selfless, ‘existence’ – without any saccharine or crocodile tears. Probably the only other female actresses who have turned in performances of similar precocity are Jodie Foster and Anna Paquin. Well done them, I say…sounding horribly patronising.
When my parents decided my obsession with Jane Eyre was a little bit maudlin, I was given a copy of Little Women – I think my Mum was hoping I’d love musical Beth, rather than rowdy Jo – which I loved. I watched Miss Taylor play Amy and every one of my expectations was borne out…her Amy was the horrid, spoilt, brattish little madam we all know and hate. Well done, ET.
Next came Suddenly Last Summer. This coincided with a horribly overdramatic period in my teenage development. Of course, it was written by Tennessee Williams – more of whom later – and I just loved all his overblown, over-emoted characters. Well, Suddenly does not disappoint. As usual, there is a combination of matriarchs, poor relations, moral corruption and mandatory scandalous dénouement. With all those ingredients meaning a fantastically colourful storyline, combined with Williams’ brilliant dialogue (delivered in a ubiquitous Southern drawl – which Taylor had honed in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof) and views of pre-Katrina New Orleans, I got lost in a wonderful world of determined women and the family tensions they caused.
In a horrible adolescence spent locked up in a girls boarding school that resembled Mean Girls – on crack, I over-analysed everything. Somehow, the monstrous Violet Venable (played magnificently by Katherine Hepburn) reminded me of my mother – I said I was an over-dramatic adolescent– and I identified with the institutionalised nut-job played by Taylor, Catherine Holly. Thinking about it now, maybe I wasn’t so off on the Catherine Holly thing…oh well, I survived.
In college, I moved on to Cat On A Hot Tin Roof. Mainly, I suspect, because I got caught up in the hyper sexualised look which seems to be a product of a combination of the characters’ frustrations and the geography and climate of Mississippi. Again, the writer was Williams but – unlike Suddenly Last Summer – it’s a later work which shows a much more sophisticated (and, arguably, stylised – to its detriment) technique that won it the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1955. For me, Elizabeth Taylor is the film. I know Paul Newman was the star but, somehow, she sums up all the humid decay that Tennessee Williams intended and that some say the script does not properly evoke. Well, she conveyed it with every cell.
Since then, I’ve watched almost everything else she starred in (good or bad) and loved them all: Butterfield 8 has to be the most stylish film to merit Academy Awards; she showed that, without any formal training, she could do Shakespeare in Taming Of The Shrew; provided the best kitsch performance bar none in Cleopatra & was a tour de force in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf.
Interestingly, we tend to think of her career as drying up from the 1970s onwards. Perhaps it’s worth remembering two things – firstly, she was a living icon of the silver screen for three decades and secondly – despite being out of fashion in her chosen profession since those days – she was still always considered a star, inspiring continued fascination amongst us mere mortals. In saying that, I intend to throw dirt in the eyes of Liz Hurley: I don’t mind being a ‘mere mortal’ when compared to Taylor. I object to being termed a ‘civilian’ by Hurley. After all, in comparison with ET, who is she? Plus, ET would never have allowed anyone (apart from the avowed love of her life, Richard Burton) to call her ‘Liz’. Like the queen, I suspect – ha, LIZ, get over yourself!
After that homespun obituary, I would like to say that absolutely my favourite throwaway fact about Elizabeth Taylor is that she is the only person to voice Maggie Simpson – yes, that Maggie Simpson. It’s a one word performance – but don’t let that put you off: Maggie’s only ever said one word. And that’s all that counts.
So…back to my first point, blind admiration. I guess I’ve just professed to mine – maybe I do have something in common with those teenage girls and post-menopausal women I previously disparaged. Something about the way ET lived her life just compels my fascination – whilst her career (even when it was, sometimes, pretty low-rent) demands respect. The serial (and, sadly, never successful) marriages, the two layers of eye lashes, the violet eyes and the friendship with some of Hollywood’s most controversial figures continue to interest us – whilst her valuable work drawing attention to the importance of supporting AIDS research and single minded pursuit of her career goals should inspire.
Lights on Broadway will be dimmed tonight. It might not seem like a big deal but, bear in mind, Taylor rarely performed on stage. Let’s wait and see when it happens next. I doubt Justin Bieber will merit that homage. Manilow, on the other hand…
Even as the curtain closes on Miss Taylor’s final act, we should remember that a little bit of light will leave our lives – no more pictures of ET on her walker which continue to sell gossip mags, no more references to her style legacy in the glossy mags and no more tales of her fantastical love life and lurid details of her divorces. All of which added a little more interest to everybody’s day-to-day…

As a postscript, there has been one positive in all of this – the reappearance of another legend. Yes, we’ve been lucky enough to see a little bit of Debbie Reynolds. Who, somehow, is still able to wear her hair in the same style she sported to appear in Singing In The Rain. Selfishly I just wished she’d burst into a rendition of Good Morning…except we’ve lost Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor who accompanied her so perfectly. I don’t fear death – but I do hate loss. And I am not enjoying seeing the eventual – and inevitable – extinction of ‘old Hollywood’. Somehow, despite the fact that I’d much rather see them in their most glittering incarnations, I still love to see the legends…whatever they look like now.

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