Article by Ryan Wilson

Women’s History Month ended two weeks ago, and with the passing of Elizabeth Taylor just prior to that, it seems fitting to dedicate some thought to her notable role in film history.

For better or worse, Taylor all but invented what it means to be a movie star/ celebrity. Her turbulent personal life often eclipsed the quality work she put on screen, which is a shame. Married eight times, she qualifies as our first tabloid sensation. In the contemporary style, she used her fame to launch fragrances and to champion humanitarian causes, most notably AIDS prevention and treatment. Every current diva from J-Lo to Angelina Jolie should probably send flowers.

But perhaps more interesting is Taylor’s trajectory as a working actor. Her career is a blueprint of a life entirely devoted to the industry, and by studying her changing characters, from her early days as a child star to her more jaded adult roles, we witness the sea change in how women were depicted on film.

Taylor’s career goes all the way back to those early Lassie films, where she projected the image of the all-American girl. Her innocent image followed her to 1944’s National Velvet, where she co-stared with fellow child star Mickey Rooney, and to later teenaged roles, such as Spencer Tracey’s daughter in 1950’s Father of the Bride. This is arguably how the culture wanted to treat women at the time, as fathers sheltering a daughter from the world.

But Taylor’s innocent image was used to greater affect just a year later in George Steven’s masterpiece A Place in the Sun. The film is an adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s naturalistic novel An American Tragedy, and in the film Taylor’s projected innocence isn’t so innocent. In fact, it represents a dividing line between wealth and hard labor. Taylor plays a wealthy socialite whom drifter Montgomery Clift falls for. He’s so smitten with what she represents, beauty, a better life, that he’s willing to murder just to keep himself in her orbit. A Place in the Sun shines a light under the American Dream, but more, it asks us to reconsider the female form and the danger of placing that form on a pedestal.

Taylor fit neatly into the female as object role for the remainder of her young career, with slight modifications. In Stevens’ epic Giant, she again symbolizes a sort of material success, as a socialite who marries a wealthy Texas rancher, played by Rock Hudson. Once on the ranch, however, her beauty teases the crude ranch-hand played by James Dean. When Dean can’t win Taylor, after striking it rich himself, he waits a generation and pursues Taylor’s daughter. But as poignant as Taylor’s role is in these films, it’s still her beauty that’s being used, even if to convey a message against exploiting such beauty.

Taylor’s best work probably comes when she’s able to transcend her looks and become a fully realized character, as we see in Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1958. As the “Cat,” Taylor mixes her sultry looks with a devious mind, willing to manipulate her alcoholic husband, played by Paul Newman, in order to acquire her father-in-law’s inheritance. Here Taylor is not just a pretty object to be won, but a fellow player in the pit of humanity, getting her hands dirty along with the men. We see this as well in Butterfield 8, in which Taylor plays Gloria, an urban girl using her sexuality to find her own place in the sun. Thus, by the 1960s Taylor’s characters are liberated enough to become ambiguous and somewhat unlikable.

This is the era, of course, where she cashed in as an actress to play Cleopatra, a major flop, although it should probably be seen as progress that a major studio would invest in such a project 1963.

Taylor’s real triumph during this time, perhaps her biggest triumph as an actress, came in 1966’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Here she plays Martha, the boozy wife of a college professor, and one of the most frightening women to ever grace the screen. This adaptation of Edward Albee’s play is one prolonged screaming match between Taylor and her husband at the time, Richard Burton. Taylor is almost unrecognizable as Martha, a woman whose only joy in life is to publicly humiliate her spouse. That America’s sweetheart Elizabeth Taylor transformed so utterly for the role is important. Through her various transformations within a twenty-year span, American audiences witnessed a new version of womanhood, one that was at first narrowly viewed as chaste but transformed into a new, more realistic woman who was allowed to be ugly and even vile.

Like Patricia Neal, who passed away last August, Elizabeth Taylor is more than just the sum of her celebrity. And like Neal, Taylor was working at a time of adaptations, be they from novels or plays. Her best work sought to explore gender and American values through uncomfortable stories and characters. Taylor was at the right place at the right time, and we are fortunate in a historical sense to see the changing face of womanhood throughout her career.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011