Making a feminist case for Elizabeth Taylor & ‘The Sandpiper’

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From Jan. 25, 2012 – Walker and Company is publishing a smart little book next month — “The Accidental Feminist” — in which the cultural critic M.G. Lord shows us how Elizabeth Taylor became an unlikely political barrier breaker both on screen in the roles she played and off-screen with her turbulent, unconventional personal life.

Lord makes a good case for Taylor as a pre-Women’s Liberation era movie star who laid some of the groundwork for the explosion of feminism in the 1970s.

Although many female stars of the 1930s and 1940s became feminist icons because of the power of their screen personalities — Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis foremost among them — during their peak years those two women faced the restrictions inherent in being studio contract players who frequently had to bow to the wills of their bosses.

The Hepburn and Davis images also suffer from movies in which their strength was mocked or turned against them — it’s painful to watch Hepburn making breakfast for Spencer Tracy near the end of “Woman of the Year” or seeing Davis as the neutered magazine writer in the ghastly “June Bride.”

Taylor was lucky to escape the clutches of MGM when she was still a very young actress — the studio system collapsed around her — and to emerge in the 1960s as one of the most powerful stars (male or female) in Hollywood.

As Lord points out, the actress suffered from the censors in such key roles as Maggie the Cat in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Gloria Wandrous in “Butterfield 8.” But Taylor became a major force in turning over the Motion Picture Code with the 1966 landmark “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” which included language and sexual situations that were expressly forbidden until the actress and her director (Mike Nichols) used their clout to push the material through.

Some of the fun in Lord’s book comes from her quirky taste and judgement.

The author writes up a storm in favor of “The Sandpiper” (below), the mid-1960s soap opera in which Taylor plays a bohemian artist and Richard Burton is the married Episcopal minister who questions his own faith and morality after an affair with the artist.

For me, the movie has always been an entertaining bit of scenery-chewing camp — something in the same ballpark as “Valley of the Dolls” — but Lord pulls out all stops: “‘The Sandpiper’ with all its flaws, seemed a feminist ‘Citizen Kane.’”

As if that statement isn’t over the top enough, the author goes on to compare the Taylor character with Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s “The House of Mirth.”

In the last third of the book, Lord shows how Taylor moved on to real political activism after her screen popularity dimmed in the 1970s and 1980s — becoming a major force in AIDS activism at a time when other celebrities (and the President of the United States) ignored the “gay plague.”

“From 1985 until her death, Taylor fought consciously — not accidentally — for social justice,” Lord writes.

“I believe her final role in life was influenced by the movies with feminist content that she had starred in as a younger woman. Actors both shape and are shaped by their parts. They bring aspects of themselves to their characters and they take aspects of their characters away.”

Joe Meyers

One Response

  1. Marina Coca says:

    Sorry, Joe. The kitchen scene in Woman of the year is probably my all time favorite. I couldn’t boil water and was totally non domestic when I was married. The complete silence in that scene with Tracy looking up from his newspaper with his eyes getting bigger and bigger and the waffle iron going higher and higher is as good as any silent classic scene ever made. I knew exactly how Hepurn felt in that kitchen for the first time. That was acting as art in my opinion.

    Taylor was gorgerous period! She never could play comedy – which to me is more difficult than drama and underrated. A quote I once read: Many comediens can also play drama, but very few dramatic actors have been able to do comedy. Think Pacino and DeNiro. And yet Tracy, Grant and Gable were fantastic at both.

    Keep writing. I enjoy reading your column.

    Marina