The first phrase that popped into my head when I heard about the death of Elizabeth Taylor this morning was “erotic vagrancy.”
That’s what the Vatican charged the actress with while she was conducting her flagrant extramarital affair with co-star Richard Burton on the set of “Cleopatra” in 1962.
20th Century Fox feared that worldwide press accounts of Taylor’s shenanigans would hurt their ultra-expensive movie, but for the first time, a sex scandal actually enhanced a star’s aura.
“Liz & Dick” would go on to become the most talked-about movie couple of the 1960s.
Little more than a decade earlier, the announcement that the married Ingrid Bergman was pregnant by a man other than her husband caused that actress to be run out of Hollywood for several years.
The “Cleopatra” scandal helped to launch the sexual revolution of the 1960s. If Liz could go toe to toe with the Vatican — and triumph — it meant that the days when religious leaders could dictate public sexual behavior were over.
Many people thought the foul language in Albee’s play would never make it to the screen intact, but they underestimated the clout of Elizabeth Taylor. When she decided to do the movie and picked Mike Nichols to direct it, a seismic shift occurred.
The duo was determined to be true to Albee and they got Jack Warner (then head of Warner Bros.) to agree to their plan.
The studio invested $6 million in the movie — an unprecedented amount for a black-and-white film at that time — and when it was completed in the spring of 1966, a battle erupted between Warner Bros. and the Motion Picture Association of America.
The MPAA had never given its seal of approval to a film with such harsh language (and sexual situations) but Warner was determined to release the movie without cuts.
Of course, the studio had the advantage of fighting for a terrific film — even industry insiders who hated the sex content acknowledged the picture’s high quality — and so Warner was able to cut a deal with the new head of the MPAA Jack Valenti.
The studio agreed to release the movie with a label in all advertising that suggested the film not be seen by anyone under the age of 16 (guess who snuck in to see it at the age of 14?).
The movie went on to be a critical and audience smash and opened the door to much more adult content in the late 1960s.
Valenti used the movie — and Warner’s agreement to label it “adults only” — to create the movie rating system that went into effect in 1968. The new R and X tags enabled Hollywood studios to release films such as “Midnight Cowboy” and “Easy Rider” which would have been impossible to screen before the “Virginia Woolf” battle.
Elizabeth Taylor was a wonderful actress — and a fabulous humanitarian — but we should never lose sight of her role as a key barrier breaker of the 1960s.