A few years ago, on Turner Classic Movies, I came upon a 1952 MGM movie called Love Is Better Than Ever that was entirely unknown to me. It turned out to be a delightful romantic comedy about a fast-talking press agent whose head is turned by a young dancer. The press agent is always insulting the dancer: “Ah, I see you took your ugly pill today,” he says, or “Hey, hideous.” It doesn’t sound very nice, but she doesn’t take it personally, and those of us watching completely understand why he’s doing it and why she doesn’t take offense. This ordinary-looking guy has to do something to cope with the fact that he is in the presence of something all but supernatural. For the dancer is played by Elizabeth Taylor in one of her first leading roles. The mere sight of the 20-year-old Taylor in this movie is literally gasp-inducing, and not just at first glance. These apneas continue throughout Love Is Better Than Ever, whose cameraman wisely and lovingly lingers on that face, that figure, those eyes.
In the wake of her death on March 23 at the age of 79, eulogists and obituarists have universally taken note of Taylor’s extraordinary beauty. But the quality that made Taylor seem almost as though she were not quite a mortal being among us was due neither to her perfectly symmetrical visage, nor to her womanly form, which was exceptionally supple. There was something within, a still serenity, as though the fact that she had not only retained the eerie gorgeousness of her adolescence (as seen in such classics as the 1943 Jane Eyre and the 1944 National Velvet) but had somehow actually improved on it gave her the confidence to know she had been blessed by the gods.
That serenity gave the young Taylor a comfort and ease that made her complete lack of range as an actress—she sounded the same and acted the same in any and every setting—entirely incidental to the overwhelming force of her cinematic presence. In her twenties, she had the peculiar freshness that is usually the hallmark of a nonprofessional performer. Her uninflected line readings as the ultimate object of desire in A Place in the Sun (1951) don’t matter; it’s the combination of sympathy and sexuality as she places Montgomery Clift’s head on her shoulders and murmurs, “Tell Mama all,” that makes the viewer understand why Clift’s character would want to murder his pathetic wife just to be near Taylor. And while Rock Hudson galumphs around her and James Dean broods over her in the glorious and endless Giant (1956), the best movie she ever made, Taylor slowly but surely becomes the cool magnetic center of the entire state of Texas.
In the course of her twenties and thirties, Taylor also achieved a kind of fame that is all too common now but to which, in retrospect, she held the patent. She was successively the wife of a playboy (Nicky Hilton) and the widow of an aged impresario (Michael Todd) before the married singer Eddie Fisher came charging at her in a move that first destroyed his career and then destroyed him personally when she moved on to Richard Burton—in what was the most-discussed romantic relationship since the days of the King and Mrs. Simpson.
The first movie they made together, Cleopatra, took three years to film and seems to last as long onscreen. Its only value even now comes solely from the great apocryphal story about the female bit player sometime toward the end of Year One sitting around Rome and moaning, “Who do I have to sleep with to get off this picture?”
But in 1966—oh, in 1966. It was the film version of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And out of nowhere, perhaps in the downdraft of her otherwise sad two marriages to a remarkably intelligent and self-destructive man who could have been the greatest actor of the age if drink had not intervened, Elizabeth Taylor let herself loose and knocked the world’s socks off. As the drunken and disappointed academic wife of everyone’s nightmares, Taylor begins at fever pitch and never relents in a hilarious, terrifying, heartbreaking performance. She was not quite 35, but her gorgeousness had already begun its fast fade, and rather than disguise it, she made the most of it: Her Martha is a woman who knows her husband married her for her looks and now regrets it every second.
This time she won one of the most deserved Oscars ever given, but she had given it her all, and it turned out she didn’t have anything left. She phoned in most of her work afterward. She could no longer take our breath away, as she did for 15 years and then as she did when she stripped herself bare for Virginia Woolf, and she knew it. And somewhere she must have known, too, that taking our breath away had been her surpassing gift, and that without it, she was just another actress of the second rank.