Tuesday, March 29, 2011

How I'll Best Remember Liz

"Lassie Come Home", 1943, MGM

When iconic film personalities pass from us, we all do our own retrospectives in our heads.  We look back at their roles, their best performances, their most notorious missteps, and our personal favorites. 

Lately, I have looked back at the early film roles of Helena Bonham-Carter and Alan Arkin, who are very much still with us, to find new appreciation for their current work.

Now, I have a poignant reason to go back to the early work of a departed screen star, Elizabeth Taylor, to share my appreciation of one of my own favorite roles, and consider the origin of her legendary popularity.

It's surprising to me to consider that Liz Taylor was a contemporary of my parents' generation. Taylor, who died at age 79, was just a couple years older than my mother, who grew up seeing Taylor's movies on the big screen.

When I heard of Taylor's death, the movie that immediately came to my mind was one that Taylor filmed in the middle of her career.  It contains what I think is her best performance, in arguably her finest role, as Martha, in the 1966 "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf".  It won her her second Oscar, and this time she triumphed on the strength of her acting, not out of sympathy for being near-death, as is rumored to be the cause of her victory in 1960's "Butterfield-8".

But since "Virginia Woolf", Taylor never again had a major screen hit.  Not only that, "Virginia Woolf" was the pinnacle of what would become Taylor's persona on-screen (and often off):  Look at her big-screen filmography since "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in 1958, and you'll see that she built her theatrical film career, from that point on, on characters that were impatient, demanding, angry and somewhat unsympathetic.

Before all those, she was innocent, not yet hardened by life. This was the persona that captured moviegoers' imaginations. Was there ever a lovelier bride-to-be than Spencer Tracy's daughter in "Father of the Bride"? or a more desirable love-interest, in her eye-searing closeups with Montgomery Clift, in "A Place in the Sun" ?

And still, the images that will be forever fixed in my mind are those younger portraits in which her freshness and beautiful energy first graced American movie screens.  I especially loved how natural she was in her youthful roles with animals.  "National Velvet" was a mega hit and gave her her first real marquee role.

But in my personal retrospective, I will always cherish her portrayal of Priscilla in "Lassie Come Home".  I know, I am biased in favor of my love for dogs.  

Her first film for MGM, "Lassie Come Home" was a sentimental Technicolor smash, and she was radiant.   In the film, Lassie's poor owners must sell the dog in order not to starve.  Unhappy to be away from her family(Roddy McDowall, Elsa Lanchester and Donald Crisp) Lassie escapes from her new home to travel from Scotland back to Yorkshire and her beloved caretakers.  Her new friends along the way help her through hair-raising adventures, ending in a heartwarming reunion.

Taylor's tenderness with the dog of the title not only endeared her to moviegoers everywhere, but helped make the Collie one of the most popular American breeds through the 1960's (when  the TV series "Lassie" was a staple on Sunday nights). 

It was Taylor's love for animals, and her lack of fear of dogs that was evident when she appeared with them on-screen, that secured her this role.

The first canine "actor" to play Lassie was actually a male dog named Pal.  Amusingly, Taylor received her first screen kiss in this film:

"Some of my best leading men have been dogs and horses."

~Elizabeth Taylor

Thank you for the great roles and memories, Ms. Taylor, and especially your love for your canine co-stars... 

Must publish now, my readers will not tolerate my being 15 minutes late.....


  1. It is kind of amazing the major transformation that happened. My only relation to Taylor's work was Virginia Woolf and what came after for the longest time... so to find out later (via Father of the Bride) how much of an America's Sweetheart she was at one time was both surprising and endearing.

  2. A lovely retrospective on Liz Taylor's film career, Tom. I think she was the last true Hollywood starlet.

  3. Luke, it is amazing how Taylor's career evolved from America's Sweetheart (as you accurately described) to a glamor icon and sex symbol. It is so instructive to look back at the work that made a star famous in the first place.

    Mark, thank you as always for your kind words. Let's watch "Lassie Come home" together soon!