Happy Twice a Best Actress Day to all!!! It's Elizabeth Taylor day. I'm so excited about this, because Taylor is one of those screen icons I still get goosebumps thinking about. She was the true definition of a star, a glamorous icon who had the talent to back up her undeniable charisma and allure. To cap it all off, her Oscar wins (at least one of them) is swirling in controversy, so it makes debating it all all the more delicious.
And guess what, the panel is ALL OVER THE PLACE when discussing that divisive turn!
Here we are:
Andrew from The Films the Thing
Drew from A Fistful of Films
Fritz from Fritz and the Oscars
Josh from The Cinematic Spectacle
Kevin from Speaks in Movie Lines
Sati from Cinematic Corner
So far in this series we've witnessed some Oscar winners that had other aspects influencing their victory. We've had "make-up" wins (Bette Davis in Dangerous), a win for a former child star proving she was an adult (Jodie Foster in The Accused), even a win as condolence for the loss of a co-star and lover (Katharine Hepburn in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?). But I don't think there's been a win so far where the actual performance itself was almost completely inconsequential as it was when Elizabeth Taylor won her first Oscar for BUtterfield 8. In 1960, Taylor was the most famous, most glamorous, and most controversial star in Hollywood. After the tragic death of her third husband, Mike Todd, in a plane crash, she soon took up an affair with Todd's best friend (and the very married) Eddie Fisher. Suddenly Taylor was seen as a harlot stealing Fisher away from wholesome wife Debbie Reynolds and the public couldn't get enough of it. When the now-married couple both appeared in the film together, audiences turned up in droves (especially to see Taylor as the marked woman playing "the slut of all time" that the media was portraying her as). But despite the film being a hit and three previous nominations (any of which would've been more deserving), what actually won Taylor the award was a near-death experience. In the early part of 1961, while filming began on the infamous Cleopatra (1963), Taylor came down with a case of life-threatening pneumonia, slipped into a coma and required an emergency tracheotomy. Conveniently all during Oscar voting time. Fearing the biggest star in the world was near death, Oscar voters showed their sympathy by awarding Taylor with the win. Her fellow nominees didn't even bother showing up to the ceremony and Deborah Kerr (the frontrunner for The Sundowners) never was able to manage a win and the other possibility that year (and my pick), Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment, would have to wait another 20 years before winning. It's all even more ironic because Taylor loathed the film and never wanted to make it in the first place. (It was the last film she made for MGM under contact so that she could leave the studio to take her unprecedented $1 million salary for Cleopatra.) But for a film she had such disdain for, her performance doesn't seem like that of someone uninterested or indifferent. It's only because of the star-wattage of Taylor that the film is even watchable. In a nearly wordless 10 minute opening scene, she commands the screen by basically doing nothing (brushing her teeth, smoking a cigar, padding the run-time of the film). It doesn't even matter that she has zero chemistry with Laurence Harvey as the married man she loves or Fisher as her best friend because Taylor has charisma to spare. And when she's given a chance to play big moments (like her confrontation with her delusional mother or her "shocking" sordid backstory about older men), she plays them for all they're worth, wailing and emoting with all her might - infusing life into a story that's hokey and dull.
My Grade: C+
Elizabeth Taylor is a name I adore. I know that she can read hammy and over-the-top and yet she’s one of my favorite actresses, she was my first actressing obsession and she’s a presence in film that is undeniable. Despite that deepseated affection for her, I’ve been nervous about seeing her Oscar winning film, ‘Butterfield 8’, because I’ve heard nothing but negative things about it and her performance in it. Much like Davis’s reaction to her ‘Dangerous’ performance, Taylor’s own feelings for ‘Butterfield 8’ are pretty well known. She didn’t want to do the movie, downright refused to speak to the director the entire time they were filming and believed the only reason she won the Oscar was because she nearly died during the time of voting.
Also, like Davis, I think that Taylor was being too hard on herself.
‘Butterfield 8’ is kind of an awful movie. It’s not awful, it’s like so awful it’s good because it was thoroughly entertaining despite the fact that it was just all sorts of terrible. What isn’t terrible is the ensemble. The relationships and character developments really don’t make sense, and I do wish that the film had more meat because for many reasons I don’t really care much about who these people are (especially Harvey’s Weston) and I do wish that censorship wasn’t such a huge ordeal back in the 60’s, because the story this film is semi-based on would have been far more tantalizing and effective, but the ensemble is kind of incredible. Dina Merrill, Mildred Dunnock and Betty Field could easily make up the better half of a Supporting Actress ballot, and Laurence Harvey, despite having a rather droll character, inserts so much life into the second half of that performance.
But this is Taylor’s movie, and she owns it.
The opening scene alone proves WHY she owns this movie. She commands every ounce of our attention with this slinky, sultry progression of character, waltzing through the open rooms, getting herself dolled up, and then her expression changes with the discovery of a letter, her face hardens, her eyes narrow, her rage explodes. She burns from scene one to the very end. Sure, she has a few missteps (that car chase scene was unflattering) and her character is clichéd and at times somewhat cringeworthy, but when she’s on it, she’s on it. The way she shows her indignation for the way Weston is treating her (the infamous ‘heel’ scene), the way she pleads for love and affection (that breakdown with Steve), the way she reals in the theatrics for a rather tender reaction towards her own mistakes (that brilliant scene with her mother); all of these moments make her win, in retrospect, not feel like such a mistake. Sure, she had some stiff competition, and this isn’t the most progressive character or performance, but Taylor was a star, a REAL star, and after being nominated three times prior, losing all three, it was time.
My Grade: B-
There are many legends surrounding this win and many of them are probably even true. Yes, Elizabeth Taylor almost died while the Academy members voted for the Best Actress of the year but she survived and announced that she would attend the ceremony – all four co-nominees basically gave up as a win for Liz was now a sure thing. And indeed, Liz Taylor did accept an Oscar for a movie she hated and a character she never wanted to play. And many critics agreed that BUtterfield 8 was nothing less than trash. But on the other hand we shouldn’t forget that this was Liz’s fourth consecutive nomination and she had more than proved herself as a serious actress with her performances in movies like Cat on a hot tin roof or Suddenly, Last Summer. And even if BUtterfield 8 was trash and Liz hated it, we should also not forget another thing: that Liz was true pro who had basically been acting since the day of her birth, who knew the Hollywood game – and who would never on give a bad performance on purpose simply because she hated the movie. To sum it all up: Liz Taylor might not be truly Oscar-worthy but it’s still not the disaster that many like to pretend it is. Liz surely gives all to the part and tries to add some dignity to her call-girl with a heart of gold. Proof: the scene when she confesses that she was abused as a child (even though she loved it…yes, the movie is trash) has the right amount of horror and pain to make it work. Liz also works well with her co-stars and she quite simply is the sole reason that BUtterfield 8 survives its own awfulness. Of course, there are other moments that didn’t work so well: Liz has no instinct for snarky one-liners and often becomes trapped by the theatricality of the movie and the dialogue. Most of all, BUtterfield 8 does not give us Liz Taylor, The Actress, but Liz Taylor, The Movie Star: without her one-of-a-kind screen presence and that undeniable charisma and star power, her performance would not work. But she did possess this power and she knew how to use it. In the end, many worse performances have been considered for an Oscar but of course, many better have been, too…
My Grade: C
Taylor won her first Best Actress Oscar for playing Gloria Wandrous, a promiscuous dress model who becomes involved with a rich executive, with tragic results. The role is a flashy one, and Taylor does her best to handle each melodramatic twist. Naturally, she has the sex appeal for the character, but she's given lines like "I was the slut of all time!", which cause her to go overboard at times and really ham it up. While Taylor would later do wonders with the material in Virginia Woolf, she can't quite make this work. Her performance can be a bit too much, though the film - dated, but not entirely unwatchable - arguably demands as much as she gives. Still, she seems to be trying too hard, and it makes her performance somewhat commendable, but disappointing overall. It does feel like a nice preview of things to come in her other Oscar-winning performance, though.
Did Taylor deserve to win?
No. Shirley MacLaine's adorable performance in The Apartment was much more deserving.
My Grade: B-
"BUtterfield 8" is shallow, show-offy and relentless in its wish to be a bad movie. It succeeds. And the story behind it is fascinating. I understand Liz had one more job left on her MGM contract and, after recently breaking up Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, hastily made a bad movie (pretty much on purpose) in which she plays a character who toys with the heart of a guy named Steve, played by Eddie Fisher, who has a girlfriend played by Susan Oliver, who looks like Debbie Reynolds.
And then she won an Oscar for it.
This movie is just so over-the-top and ridiculous in nearly every frame. The only heart in the movie comes from the Fisher character, Steve. And that poor fella just gets trampled. Thankfully, he nuts up at the end at least a little bit.
Elizabeth Taylor is beautiful. We first see her half-dressed in a New York apartment of the wealthy Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey), traipsing around in a negligee, lighting cigars and rinsing her mouth out with Scotch. Her character's name is, get this!, Gloria Wandrous. Gloria as in glorified trash. And Wandrous as in flashy, flighty heartbreaker. Clever. Taylor is fine here. But neither the character nor the performance is Oscar-worthy. Gloria is cold, hard, manipulative, everything I despise in a woman. So, granted, I sat through this one fuming about how sick it is to try to get people to actually root for a character like this. There are a couple good scenes (the first one with Fisher, for example), but she's mostly blasé. When the script calls for melodrama, she delivers, and it's sort of fun, but any actress of the time could do that.
All-in-all, it seems that Liz won this one for being Liz. She did a scandalous crap movie in a time of scandal in her personal life and, as a big FU to the man, Hollywood gave her a statue. Why, oh, why? To add insult to injury, Liz's win here meant that Shirley MacLaine had to lose for playing a sort-of similar, but exponentially more real and likable, character in Billy Wilder's ahead-of-its-time masterpiece and Best Picture winner, "The Apartment." C'est la vie.
The Scene That Won It: The one where she gets all over-the-top and puts her heel into Liggett's shoe.
My Grade: D
While the movie is so-so its overall quality probably helped highlight just how good Taylor's performance was - she plays Gloria, beautiful, lost, slutty. Taylor is electric in the role and she commands us to follow her on screen mesmerized, from the very first moment she appears on screen. We see her walk around some man's apartment, simply snooping around, and you simply cannot take your eyes off her.
This is a worthy win - the only other Taylor movie I saw was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and that performance was better than her work in B8,but I have no problem with her winning it. She creates an actual person, longing for connection and something real while she is forced to create this steely persona just to cope, falling to drinking and meaningless relations with men when she is down (and she is down a lot). Taylor juggles all of that brilliantly - being so hurt when she finds the money in the beginning, so strong when she talks to her new main admirer at the bar and so desperately charming when she is with her only friend.
My Grade: B+
If a tracheotomy was responsible for her first win, there's no denying that her much deserved second win 6 years later for Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? was definitely due to the actual performance. The glamorous 30-someting Taylor, playing the boozy, bawdy, and berating Martha, the middle-aged wife of George, a browbeaten history professor at a small university (played by real-life husband, Richard Burton), wouldn't be the first choice for such a dowdy role. But gaining 30 pounds and applying age make-up, complete with gray hairs, allowed the actress to transform herself into a different person - as much as someone with her level of fame possibly could. And instead of coming across as gimmicky, the aging transformation works effectively. Even though Taylor is much too young to play the role as written, by infusing her history with Burton, bringing along their actual relationship baggage and lived-in history together gives their on-screen pairing a natural past that makes it feel like these characters have loved and fought for decades. And Taylor in those early scenes with Burton, bickering and impersonating Bette Davis, seems more casually effortless than she's ever appeared - biting into the role with as much gusto as Martha does into cold, leftover chicken legs.Without having to rely on the confines of her famous beauty, she's more than willing to make herself unattractive (physically and emotionally) as she spits an endless barrage of insults at George, but with enough variance and nuance so that it doesn't become too repetitive. As the film progresses, its not able to sustain its initial energy and bite (which is more a fault of the film than the performers). But Taylor, in the film's quite last moments, is still able to surprise, this time with her vulnerability and a fragility beneath the roughness, softening Martha enough so that we can see why these two have stayed together for so long. Beneath the hateful words is the compassion and love that sustained them. So often we hurt the one's we love the most. Luckily Oscar's love for Taylor that year didn't end up hurting a more deserving winner, her gutsy performance rightfully earning her the award.
My Grade: A-
There are some performances that are just for the history books. There is nothing about them that one would change. They are perfect performances. People idolize them, memorialize them, dissect them, try to emulate them. When one thinks of perfect performances, the greatest performances of all time even, most immediately think of Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
There’s good reason for that.
This is a performance that haunts. I wonder how much Taylor (and Burton, who is astonishing here as well) was drawing from their own tumultuous relationship, because the wounds they bare and the gnashing of the teeth so-to-speak is so human, so raw. Some may say that Taylor is far too over-the-top, but she’s not. I’ve seen this happen. I’ve lived through these moments. I’ve been in a room with Martha and George, slovenly drunk and commiserating, berating and interrogating. I’ve looked into their eyes and watched them flair and penetrate the very essence of each other until there was nothing left but misery and regret. I’ve seen the dramatics fall away and the inner demons overtake and the soul crush and the bodies come down.
Taylor and Burton get EVERYTHING right.
I don’t even know what more I can say. This pair of performances destroy me, because they hit far too close to home. In fact, I couldn’t (wouldn’t) even rewatch the film for this project because I couldn’t handle it, not right now. But know that this is a perfect performance, maybe too perfect.
My Grade: A+
The fact that Elizabeth Taylor has two Oscars is rather curious. One the one hand, she doesn’t seem like the kind of actress who should be considered a two-time winner when so many other great talents only won once – or even never. On the other hand: she is such a true mega-star, such an icon in the history of Hollywood that it seems like the most logic decision by the Academy to give her two statuettes. And both statuettes fittingly covered the spectrum of her Hollywood personality: the star and the actress. BUtterfield 8 needed her star power to survive – and Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf needed her talents to succeed at all. Of course, we should not forget the star power here – or rather how it is used. It was (and is) such a stunning portrayal because Liz basically denied her charisma and power on the screen to disappear in the role of the frumpy, loud and vulgar Martha but there is still that presence, that undeniable personality that helps to make Martha such a fascinating character. But in the end, Liz really threw herself into this role and gave one of the most fascinating performances that was ever rewarded with an Oscar and that was basically ever given. She is over-the-top and obnoxious, she is quiet and heartbreaking and dominates the movie from start to finish. It’s an overwhelming portrayal of anger, of make-believe, of regret, of bitterness and of hate and the casting of Liz and Richard Burton adds an unexpected layer of fascination – but without overshadowing their work and their roles. The Academy may have validated Liz Taylor the star in 1960 but it certainly recognized Liz Taylor the actress here.
My Grade: A+
Taylor won her second Best Actress Oscar for playing Martha, a woman who resorts to playing barbaric emotional games with her husband at the expense of a young married couple. This character gives Taylor a chance to improve on the performance she gave in BUtterfield 8. Granted, Gloria and Martha are very different characters, but Taylor does everything right with a flashy role this time. Her performance is a fascinating range of emotions, which never feel false or calculated. She's loud, hammy, overbearing, spiteful, flirtatious, pitiful and completely broken at one point, and she simply owns the screen. Of course, the dialogue is tricky, but Taylor is able to handle lines like "I am the Earth Mother, and you are all flops." She never misses a beat in this rich, captivating performance. Frankly, it's one of the best performances of all time (as is Richard Burton's), and Taylor deserved to be recognized again for her best work.
Did Taylor deserve to win?
Absolutely. Though, I would've loved to see Bibi Andersson recognized for her bravura performance in Persona, had the film been eligible that year.
My Grade: A+
"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" is deep, dark and relentless in its pursuit of immersing its audience in a decayed marriage. It succeeds. In fact, it is a masterpiece of American cinema. Directed by Mike Nichols (his debut) and adapted by Ernest Lehman from Edward Albee's stage play, this film is a testament to screen acting.
As emasculated history professor, George, Richard Burton is flat-out amazing. A young George Segal as young, newly-married biology professor, Nick...incredible. Best Supporting Actress Sandy Dennis bouncing around as Nick's young, narrow-hipped wife, Honey is genius. And, Elizabeth Taylor as George's wife, Martha, well, she delivers one of the best performances I've ever seen…period.
Four characters. Two hours. Yelling. Screaming. Drinking. What a movie! It is just so richly written, so well-acted, so handily directed by Nichols, I hardly know where to start. The opening scene was enough to win the Oscar for Taylor. Coming home drunk with your significant other at two in the morning can be just like this. Their banter is perfect, and Taylor's hysterical laughing is genius. Mix in another couple, and you've got the makings of a real truth-spewing, loud, sad, darkly comic middle-of-the-night. When you start a movie with the two leads already drunk, you know you're in for something. And, of course, throughout the film, the foursome drink enough gin, bourbon, and brandy to shit-face half the frat boys at The University of Tennessee (Go Vols!).
Taylor is [expletive deleted] fierce in this movie. She's loud and honest and brutal just as the character demands. Her face oozes drunken abandon and anger. I could go on forever, but the highlights for me were, first, the scene, in close-up, with Segal as he lights her cigarette. She goes on and on flirting, asking about his playing football. Dennis' reactions in the background are priceless as well. Second, the first scene where she just rips George apart. The camera zooms in close from Burton to Taylor and back. She's walking around, screaming, "Maybe he didn't have it in him!" George grabs up Honey and starts bouncing around, singing the movie's title. I've never seen anything like it. The dancing scene at the bar. The fight by the car after the bar. The attempted emasculation of Nick in the kitchen after they come back home. The final monologue about the son. The breakdown with George preaching in Latin. Bitterness, anger, disillusionment, sarcasm, arrogance, utter sadness. It's all there, and it's amazing to watch. This is acting at its finest, and, leading the pack is the stunning Elizabeth Taylor.
The Scene That Won It: Take your pick, but, for me, its the "Maybe he didn't have it in him" scene in the living room. Pure intensity on her face!
My Grade: A+
I loved this movie! Such a great work from everyone involved, marvelous direction and script. Taylor who was in her 30's looks so much different than in her glamorous roles - she is bitter, aged, weary and quite scary. She spits out vitriol, resentment and rage with such energy and authenticity. I saw many comments that people think she was over acting but I thought it was perfectly in tone with the movie - it's like her own energy, the energy of all of her iconic roles building up once it goes into an older version of these characters, trapped in a loveless, hateful marriage.
Taylor is fantastic throughout the movie and she really, really sells her character - she sounds much older than she was at the time and she sounds so bitter, her voice and way of talking really sounding like she had to say these words thousands of times before - words filled with mockery and hate. The depths of the couple's sadness are truly shocking and all of that comes near the end of the film in a crushing sequence which was easily Taylor's best moment in the movie.
Watching Burton and Taylor together was like watching aging Amy and Nick Dunne - if Nick was intelligent. I got a kick out of finding all the parallels between two stories. But what I loved the most was the whole torture thing - with this bitter couple making an evening a living hell for the innocent young couple - George's stories and games were especially riveting to watch. Taylor's Oscar win is I feel very well deserved but Burton's performance was easily my favorite thing about the movie. If this movie deserved any wins his would be my top choice, it's such a shame that he didn't get it.
My Grade: A
There is a number assigned to each letter grade that helps us give a score to each performance. The highest number (and A+) would be 20 points. An F would warrant 0 points (a D gives you 5). So these are the scores for each performance as well as a collective score (which will be used at the end to rank each individual actress).
Elizabeth Taylor received a total of 60 points for her performance in BUtterfield 8.
Elizabeth Taylor received a total of 114 points for her performance in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
This is a collective total of 175 points.
As a point of reference, the highest collective score you can attain is 240.
While this doesn't make Taylor the highest collective ranking (she's below Swank and Rainer), her score for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is the highest lone score so far, 2 points above Swank's score for Boys Don't Cry.
So this closes our discussion of Elizabeth Taylor. Next Friday we're going to be discussing MERYL STREEP! OH.MY.GOD! Isn't this the week everyone has been waiting for? Let's talk about THE IRON LADY!!!! Oh shit, does this mean we need to watch it again?
Again, a big round of applause for the awesome bloggers sharing this series with me! You guys did some awesome work, as to be expected.