Book Review--Jean Cocteau: A Life

Cocteau: A Life
Claude Arnaud
Originally published: Gallimard, 2003
English translation by Lauren Elkin and Charlotte Mandell:
Yale University Press, 2016

Jean Cocteau never quite fit in with the human race. Lost in fairy land fantasies and opium reveries, with even his hair refusing to part right and standing on end in rebellion, he was an oddity who inspired rage and affection, but rarely disinterest. Unable to find a cohesive thread throughout his many pursuits: novels, poetry, plays, films and drawing, he would sometimes agree with his critics that he was nonsensical and not of this planet. He lived in his own world.

In 2003, Claude Arnaud drew on years of research to compose an epic take on the life of this misunderstood artist, giving him his proper due as a unique and influential artist. It is a dense work, full of daily details and a cast of characters more populated than a Russian novel. It takes great patience to navigate, but offers a rewarding history of a man, the great geniuses he knew and the time in which he lived. In its recent English translation the beauty and irritation of this massive work retains the feel of its culture, occasionally even taking on the otherworldly, fanciful voice of its subject.

Cocteau in 1923
It took me a while to engage with Cocteau. The first half of the book was jammed with so many quotes and references to various personalities that it didn't have room to breathe. Eventually Arnaud finds his flow though as he begins to trust his own voice and settles into more cohesive storytelling. Cocteau was a narcissist, in constant need of love and attention, and as a result he knew just about every creative soul of note and patron of the arts in early Twentieth-century Paris, and all of these relationships are important to his story. It's a complex tale to unwind.

In associating almost entirely with creative people, the sensitive Cocteau found himself surrounded by intense and ambitious personalities. The pressure of these dynamos molded him as much as they destroyed him. He counted among his allies major modern influencers like Coco Chanel, Marcel Proust and Igor Stravinsky. He was mentored by writers including the now mostly forgotten Anna de Noailles and nurtured new talents like the doomed Raymond Radiguet, who was also his great romantic obsession, and the eternal thief Jean Genet.

Jean Marais, 1947

Throughout his life Cocteau also made many enemies, irritating many with his unusual and erratic ways. Among his worst detractors were the Surrealists, who, led by movement founder André Breton, waged a public campaign against him in the twenties and thirties. The artist held no grudges though and his forgiving nature would often win over his most vehement critics, though notably not Breton, who hated him for life. Cocteau also had an enduring frenemy in Pablo Picasso, who was as loyal as he was toxic over the course of a decades-long relationship.

As Cocteau lived for other people, it is appropriate that his relationships form the core of his biography. While most attracted to the male physique, he could be fluid both sexually and with the nature of his friendships, which included platonic romances and a highly-satisfying threesome late in life that was more affectionate than erotic. He had a passion for young men and would mentor many to great artistic success throughout affairs that were sometimes romantic and always paternal. Along with Radiguet, his most famous "son" would be actor Jean Marais, with whom he would have a complicated, but essentially supportive relationship for the second half of his life. His rare romances with women are also examined, and in particular his love affair with socialite and princess Natalie Paley with whom he dreamed of having a child.

Natalie Paley
While I was fascinated to learn about the culture and creators who affected and formed Cocteau, I craved more detail about his process of creation. I found the text especially uneven and lacking detail when it came to the production of his films, which was especially disappointing as I approached the book with a particular interest in his cinematic works. For example, while the process of filming Blood of a Poet (1930) is described in satisfying detail, from conception to completion, there is very little space devoted to his marvelous post-war masterpiece Beauty and the Beast (1946). Given that film offered Cocteau the opportunity to combine so many of the different arts that inspired him, it surprised me that these unusual works did not get more attention.

Overall Cocteau is effective because it takes you under his skin, making clear his desires, motivations and dreams. He led a tortured existence, sensitive to criticism and hate, and plagued with skin ailments, allergies, insomnia and myriad other discomforts. For much of his adult life he dealt with his physical and emotional pain by self-medicating with opium. It is a habit that would take him out of the world to an alarming degree, and Arnaud captures that disconnect with reality effectively.

Cocteau offers a far-reaching, detailed history that cannot be recommended for a casual reader. Committing to this massive text offers many rewards, but it is a demanding book, with much to absorb and understand. It is well worth the effort for any fan of French culture of the early Twentieth century in addition to Cocteau devotees.

Many thanks to Yale University Press for providing a copy of the book for review.

Warner Archive: Four Atmospheric Horror Classics Produced by Val Lewton

In the early forties, Russian-American film producer Val Lewton was head of horror production at RKO Studios. In a precise agreement with the studio, for each film he was given a strictly limited budget, a title and instructions to keep the running time short. With these basic elements, an efficient and effective cast and crew for each production, and his own talent for scriptwriting, he made a series of viscerally chilling films, in a distinctly shadowy style, that would become horror classics.

In a pair of double feature DVDs, four of Lewton's classic chillers are now available from Warner Archive. One disc features Boris Karloff in two of the three films he made for the producer: Isle of the Dead (1945) and Bedlam (1946). The other showcases stars Dennis O'Keefe and Richard Dix in The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship (both 1943) respectively.

Isle of the Dead/Bedlam

The future director of plush productions like Peyton Place (1957) and Valley of the Dolls (1967), Mark Robson would show a flair for horror with this pair of Karloff flicks. Isle of the Dead and Bedlam are two of five films the director would make for Lewton (the others: horror flicks Ghost Ship and The Seventh Victim [1943], and the drama Youth Runs Wild [1944]). Both movies are notable among Lewton's productions for building horror with more disturbing than creepy content. Here the fear isn't so much of what is hiding in the dark, but human nature.

Inspired by a mysterious painting by Swiss artist Arnold Böcklin,
Isle of the Dead, by Arnold Böcklin
Isle of the Dead takes a while to build momentum. Like the static world in that work of art, it maintains a feel of lingering dread, but it takes much of the film's running time to escalate to anything truly compelling. It almost plays out like a stage production, its characters quarantined in a house on an island infested with the plague, afraid of the real threat of death, but also wary of local legends. There is a pay-off though, with a truly terrifying final sequence that descends into palpable confusion and madness.

While Karloff is a dominating presence in Bedlam, it is also a remarkable showcase for Anna Lee. The actress rarely had the chance to dig into a role as meaty as this 18th century tale of a woman accustomed to living among the rich, as a sort of jester for prominent men, who is inspired by a Quaker to fight for improved conditions in a local insane asylum. Karloff is the cruel overseer of the institution in which inmates are treated like animals and brought out for parties to be mocked by the upper classes.

Through Karloff's machinations, Lee is wrongly committed to the asylum and there she finds strength in the sort of feminine traits typically mocked as weak by men. Though horrified and unsettled by the inmates, she relies on the wit that has given her a plush life to keep her own sanity. She finds herself capable of disturbing behavior herself, the sort of dark impulses that provide the true horror in this unusual film.

The disc includes commentary on Bedlam by film historian Tom Weaver

The Leopard Man/The Ghost Ship

While the dangerous men in The Leopard Man and The Ghost Ship are as gripped by the dark side of human nature as Karloff, these films present those impulses more firmly in the threatening, shadowy world that formed Lewton's unique style.

The Leopard Man would be the last of three horror films Jacques Tourneur directed for Lewton. He was as responsible as the producer for the feeling of fearful anticipation that would characterize these RKO productions. Like his previous efforts Cat People (1942) and I Walked With a Zombie (1943), it draws its chills from dangers lurking in the darkness; its most terrible moments drawn from something as simple as the fear of a sheet of pure, black night, with just enough light to show the fear on the face of whoever must enter that void to reach safety. 

There's a feeling of doom chasing the residents of a small New Mexican town, where an escaped leopard used for a nightclub publicity stunt seems to be killing women who walk the streets alone late at night. Voices, sounds and the swish of tree branches increase the feeling of being alone and doomed. A gush of blood oozing from beneath a doorway simply and efficiently communicates the horror of what is happening on the other side.

The Ghost Ship approaches that terror of isolation in a different way, leaving a man feeling alone among a crew of many because they can't see as he can how dangerous their obedience-obsessed captain has become. As played by Richard Dix, the unhinged seaman leads with icy calm, sending his men to doom simply to test his own powers and satisfy his need for revenge over anyone who defies him. The ship feels like a haunted house, empty, shadowy and with the feeling of being filled with dark spirits that possess the captain and his men.

Special features include commentary by director William Friedkin on The Leopard Man and a trailer for the film.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Warner Archive--Doris Day and James Cagney on Blu-ray in Love Me or Leave Me (1955)

So much of the joy of Love Me or Leave Me is in the luxurious MGM-style polish of the production. There's the beautiful sets, the too gorgeous to be real costumes and the beauty of the luscious color photography. This glossy fictionalization of the rise of chanteuse Ruth Etting and her relationships with the gangster Martin "Mo" Snyder and pianist Harry Alderman, starring Doris Day, James Cagney and Cameron Mitchell respectively, is now available on Blu-ray from Warner Archive.

Doris Day is a curious choice to play Etting, as the pair have vastly different personas. Day is the wholesome, determined daffodil, while Etting was a sexy, slinky chanteuse. Despite the longing and sadness in so many of her torch songs, there's always a bit of laughter in Etting's eyes. Her appeal is in seeming strong enough to stand up for herself while still exuding inviting warmth. These qualities are in evidence in the shorts A Modern Cinderella (1932) and Roseland (1930), which feature the singer and are available as special features on the disc.

While Day is also a candy-coated woman of steel, she doesn't quite capture these aspects of Etting's personality in her portrayal. For one, she takes the toughness too far, coming off like a glum Doris instead of tough but tantalizing Ruth. Day's also not the kind of actress to disappear into a character. Though she was able to play comedy, drama and musical moments with satisfying success, her persona and sense of self was always too powerful for her to be anyone but that side of herself she had crafted for public view.

Though footage of Mo Snyder is not as readily available as that of Etting, it is likely fair to assume that Cagney's persona was just as dominant in his portrayal of the mobster who launched and promoted the singer's career. Photos of Snyder show the face of a tough man who could get incredibly unpleasant if pushed. While Cagney has plenty of moments where he is just that kind of overbearing bully, his take on Snyder is ultimately that of a pathetic, if powerful man with plenty of sadness hidden within him.

You begin to feel sorry for Snyder as Etting takes full advantage of his generosity, pushing him to do things even he finds morally repugnant, while offering nothing in return. He is too rough and controlling to deserve her love, but as portrayed here, the singer often doesn't show respect or even gratitude for what he does to help her. She sees him as a means to an end, and he can never do enough. However, she does offer a much-needed challenge to his overbearing ways: he thinks he is buying himself a malleable lover, but is humbled when she proves to be more than his match.

Day and Cagney are an effective team, because both actors are effective listeners. They're not meant to have chemistry and they manage to portray the friction between the two well. It isn't nearly as messy as it was in real life, but they capture the jarring effects of a toxic relationship, where there is always a thin grime of ugliness weighing them down.

It is difficult to accept Cameron Mitchell as Etting's irresistible piano playing lover. He may be nicer than Cagney, but he's not nearly as interesting. I found myself looking around for a third option to please this lovelorn songbird.

Day sings several of Etting's hits in her own distinctive style. While she doesn't sound at all like the cooing torch singer, her interpretation of her catalog is pleasing in its own way. The tunes are presented in simple, but visually-appealing production numbers which rightfully keep the focus on the songs.

While the MGM take on Etting's story has its own slick delights, I can't help but pine for a pre-code version of this story. Of course the timeline of her life would make such a thing impossible, but imagine Jean Harlow playing Ruth and a young Cagney still in the role of Snyder. Maybe Robert Montgomery as the piano player? Perhaps it wouldn't be a much more accurate take on the tale, but the spirit of the age would serve the story well.

As that scenario is impossible; I'll take Doris and Jimmy, who always deliver, even when they don't hit the bullseye.

In addition to the Ruth Etting musical shorts A Modern Cinderella and Roseland, special features on the disc include the star-studded MGM promo A Salute to the Theatres which highlights upcoming features also produced the year of Love Me or Leave Me's release, and a theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

UPDATED WITH WINNER! Book Review and Giveaway: High Life on Via Veneto in Dolce Vita Confidential

Dolce Vita Confidential: Fellini, Loren, Pucci, Paparazzi, and the Swinging High Life of 1950s Rome
Shawn Levy
W.W. Norton & Company, 2016

When I learned of the publication of Shawn Levy's Dolce Vita Confidential, my first thought was, "Please let him write about the time Anita Ekberg threatened the paparazzi with a bow and arrow!" Levy does chronicle this brief, amusing episode and many other sensational tales of the wild life in 1950s Rome. However, these bits of dolce indulgence sit on a solid foundation, one where I found even more intriguing storytelling and a fascinating history of a city, and country, pulling itself out of the devastation of World War II and glittering more brightly than it had before.

While Levy devotes plenty of attention to the glamour and chaos of the scene that centered on the famed Via Veneto, most of the book focuses on the cultural changes that led to its establishment. He charts the post-war growth of Italy in fashion, film and celebrity and how these things were affected by crime, scandal and the birth of the paparazzi. At the center of it all is Federico Fellini's great Roman master work La Dolce Vita (1960), which mixed the director's fanciful imagination with real life events among the city's fabulous and depraved.

Though I admit I was eager to get to the more sensational stories, it was fascinating to read about Italy's rise from the destruction of war. Much is made of the contribution of fashion to this rebirth, from the solidly stylish Fontana Sisters who dressed stars like Ava Gardner and Linda Christian, to Emilio Pucci and his distinctive, colorful prints and innovative sportswear. I also loved the various profiles of the characters who made up the scene: including movie stars Gina Lollobrigida, Sophia Loren and Marcelo Mastroianni; filmmakers Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Pier Paolo Pasolini; and the men who originated the concept of paparazzi-style photography, only to later abandon it for respectability, Tazio Secchiaroli and Pierluigi Praturlon.

Even more fascinating were the stories of personalities who are lesser-known today, but who were a sensation in the press at the time. Swedish actress Anita Ekberg stands out as the face of La Dolce Vita: a sensual, glamorous and free-spirited presence who knew how to enliven a party. Wealthy, titled members of the upper class like race car driver Fon de Portago were also stars in their own right, inevitably living so hard they came to tragic ends. There are also the quieter, more devastating stories; among the most intriguing, Iranian Princess Soraya, who pined for a lost love amid the clamor of this busy scene.

There is plenty of sensation woven into these various histories. Among the scandals disclosed: an infamous strip tease at a private party made public by photographers, wild nights of paparazzi mischief and tangles with the famous and of course that story about Ekberg and her bow and arrow, which she really did shoot at a group of determined photographers. American movie stars are also included in the mix, with special attention given to the uproar over Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's illicit romance during the production of Cleopatra (1963), which was exposed via the determination of a single photographer.

Many of these stories were retold through Fellini's unique lens in La Dolce Vita. A significant portion of the book is devoted to this influential, controversial film. The director was stunned to inspire such anger with his film and perhaps also a bit amazed by the extent of the acclaim it won as well. Upon exiting the premiere, Sophia Loren said to him, "Poor you: What do you have inside of you?"

Levy charts the growth of the Italian film industry as well, including the construction of the government-owned film studio Cinecittà and the local and international productions it attracted in its heyday.

A passage about Italian music of the era, or rather the lack of an significant local scene, was one of the more half-baked aspects of the book. While I understood Levy's intent in acknowledging that this important medium was not a key part of Italy's growing cultural influence on the world, I would have liked a bit more insight as to why that was the case.

Overall this is a breezy read which gets at the core of what made post-war Rome so exciting with a well-paced, but nicely detailed style. I found it engrossing to read and difficult to put down.


Excited to read this book?

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-Deadline to enter Monday, 10/10, 11:59 PST
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-Winner to be announced in an update to this post Tuesday, 10/11

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Thank you to all who entered the Dolce Vita Confidential giveaway!

This morning I drew a name from the season-appropriate jack-o-lantern:

And the winner is...


Congratulations! Please send your name and mailing address to and I will send you your book.

Many thanks to W.W. Norton & Company for providing a copy of the book for review and the giveaway prize.

Book Review--Dan Duryea: Heel with a Heart

Dan Duryea Heel with a Heart
Mike Peros
Hollywood Legends Series
University Press of Mississippi, 2016

Though Dan Duryea made his name playing slippery cinematic cads, it turns out he was one of the nicest guys in Hollywood, just like fellow screen rascals and beloved citizens Basil Rathbone and Audrey Totter. What is it about being good that makes it so easy to play bad? Biographer Mike Peros doesn't get into that in his new book about the actor, but he creates a satisfying portrait of one of the studio era's most memorable performers.

Though he played both good and bad characters and even starred in comedies, for most classic movie fans the name Dan Duryea evokes crime and film noir. His most memorable roles were as lady slapping, sneaky snakes in dark flicks like The Woman in the Window (1944), Scarlet Street (1945), Too Late For Tears (1949) and Criss Cross (1949).

Actors live to play great parts, so it isn't surprising that, like many stars who experienced typecasting, Duryea wanted to break out of the bad guy parts, but he knew how to face facts. Being mean paid the bills and it was what he did best. He was rewarded for his philosophical attitude with a career that lasted to the end of his life and which eventually led to a better variety of parts on film, television and the stage. That said, his audience always preferred him in the black hat.

Though he was attracted to acting from an early age, Duryea first became an advertising executive with the reasoning that he'd have a regular paycheck to support his family. While he was successful in the industry, he was also unhappy and became so stressed out that he had a physical breakdown. His wife Helen essentially told him she'd rather deal with irregular paychecks than a dead husband.

Once he changed careers, Duryea never had trouble finding work. It wasn't always the best of work, and starting with strong supporting roles in movies like The Little Foxes (1941) Ball of Fire (1941) and Pride of the Yankees (1942) was good as being set up for a fall, but he had a satisfying career, in good part thanks to his own practical attitude about the industry. Though higher-paying movies were always his primary interest, he was happy to work in radio, on television and on the stage to pay the bills, with the added perk of often finding more interesting parts. These pursuits often gave him the higher profile he needed to receive more movie offers.

Peros' portrait of Duryea reveals a contented family man who was beloved in his community and in the film industry. He was blissfully married to his wife for over thirty years, adored by two sons for whom he was never too busy to build a relationship and even led a Boy Scout troop. Always interested in the needs of those less fortunate than himself he often devoted time and money to improving the lives of others. He spent and invested his money wisely, apparently never had an affair (though he does seem to have been a bit of a flirt), didn't do drugs and drank in moderation.

With a scorecard that good, you might expect Duryea's life story to be a bit dull. In some respects that's true, as complications are generally the spice in your typical biography. In lieu of colorful stories from the set and stories of illicit lady loves, much of the text is devoted to detailed plot descriptions. Still, for the most part this is an engaging read, because it is deeply satisfying to admire the intelligence with which this consummate professional approached his life and career. He was a smart, compassionate man, who brought joy to those around him and the reminisces of the people he knew are some of the best passages in the book.

While Duryea did not have many friends in the film industry, those he did have were life-long companions. Some of the best stories from his time on the set are about his frequent costar and pal Jimmy Stewart. While stuck on location with Stewart in Durango, Colorado, he would sit on the corner with Jimmy and costar Audie Murphy, drinking beer and betting on which direction the next car to go by would be driving. On another set, Stewart and Duryea had an ongoing competition as to who would say good morning first, which led to a four AM phone call on one occasion and a noisy loudspeaker greeting on another.

The warmth of those stories essentially reflect the tone of the book, which is affectionate, though not overly worshipful. Peros offers a thoughtful and I thought well-informed analysis of Duryea's strengths and weaknesses as a performer. As a man, as hard as it may be to believe, he seems to have been essentially flawless.

This is a solid effort, sure to please fans of Duryea or film noir.

Many thanks to University Press of Mississippi for providing a copy of the book for review.

A few more titles I have reviewed from the University Press of Mississippi Hollywood Legends Series:

Zachary Scott: Hollywood's Sophisticated Cad

A Girl's Got to Breathe: The Life of Teresa Wright

Garden of Dreams: The Life of Simone Signoret

Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman

Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-up

Warner Archive: John Barrymore in a Pre-code Version of Moby Dick (1930)

"Call me Ishamael." Herman Melville's opening line to Moby Dick is one of the most famous first sentences in English literature, and yet, when a large volume of the book is opened to the first page in the credits of this pre-code take on the novel, there is no Ishamael in sight. The man himself never even makes an appearance.

Making its DVD debut from Warner Archive, Moby Dick (1930), starring John Barrymore and Joan Bennett is one of those adaptations that is better appreciated if you don't concern yourself too much with the source material. As a window into a classic literary work it flops. As a slick, efficient Warner Bros adventure and romance it's great entertainment.

It is more accurate to say that this version of Moby Dick is a remake of the silent The Sea Beast (1926), which also starred Barrymore and was very loosely based on the book as well. Both films keep a couple of Melville's characters, the whaling ship and Ahab's quest for vengeance, but little else. Instead of an exploration of class, social and religious issues, you get a romance, some comic sketches and a couple of action scenes.

The opening scenes introduce a playful, mischievous Ahab who has a way with the ladies. Unlike the novel, he has yet to lose his leg to Moby Dick. As he alights on the dock after a long sea journey, in a perfectly pre-code moment, the randy seaman asks a young woman her age. When she says she will be eighteen next Wednesday, he leers, "see you next Wednesday."

Ahab then proceeds to get drunk and steal his brother's girl, Faith (Bennett), who doesn't seem to have gotten the memo about being in a relationship in the first place. He wins her by drunkenly staggering into church and flirting with her as she plays a pump organ, the hymns blurring and spinning on the book page in front of him. Seemingly unconcerned by his alarming behavior, Faith promises to wait three years for his return from the sea so that they may be married. A certain whale puts the brakes on that romantic plan.

Moby Dick provides Barrymore with many excellent opportunities to be a ham, and while he takes full advantage, he also knows when to reign himself in. Particularly in his scenes with Bennett he becomes more reserved, indicating that he has finally found a woman with whom he doesn't need tricks. He finally feels that being himself is enough and he portrays that realization with subtlety.

It is the action that really makes this film pop though. A pair of exciting whaling scenes have great, scary effects, made all the more believable by the terror of Barrymore and his shipmates. While the whale has an undeniably rubber and paper-mâché look, it is still frightening to see it looming over Ahab and his mates. In another shocking moment you get the astonishing spectacle of The Great Profile plunging a harpoon into a whale's back, laughing maniacally while torrents of blood gush over him.

While the production speeds along with the typical efficiency of a Warner Bros pre-code, it has a pleasing visual flair. Scenes are filmed with an eye for detail, like a lovely low shot of the ladies' full skirts peeking out from the pews during the church scene, or an elegant overhead view of Ahab sliding down a rope from the top of a ship's mast. While director Lloyd Bacon was never known to be a great stylist, he would often grab small, interesting moments like these, a bit of flair that I have always thought to be unfairly overlooked in the non-musical parts of musicals he made with Busby Berkeley in particular.

The supporting cast is pleasing, though with few stand-outs. Bennett is sweet and determined, but a bit wooden as Ahab's beloved and Lloyd Hughes makes as little impression as he is meant to as the peg-legged captain's brother. Noble Johnson is given predictably moronic lines as the Polynesian shipmate Queequeg, which is disappointing, because he is a magnetic presence and could clearly have done much more with the role.

The DVD image is mostly clean and clear. There are some scratches, most of them minor, though there are brief moments when a swirl of scratches appear on the screen. This isn't a pristine copy, but highly watchable.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

Elizabeth Taylor on Warner Archive Blu-ray: The Legend Emerges in a Trio of Films

There are few screen actors who have gone through as many career changes as Elizabeth Taylor. In the first part of that astonishing professional journey she transitioned from a sweet-tempered child actress, to a gorgeous ingénue and then decided that she was more than a movie star; she was going to learn how to act.

A trio of Blu-rays now available from Warner Archive vividly document Taylor's growth as an actress from her teenage years to middle age. Father of the Bride (1950), Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) showcase many facets of her developing talent. She was always a strong presence on film, and could have endured many years on her beauty, charisma and professionalism. That she continually took her skills to a higher level, and so often proved her critics wrong, is evidence of Taylor's strength in an industry and society bent on defining her from the beginning of her career.

Father of the Bride (1950)

As the title makes clear, Father of the Bride is Spencer Tracy's show. His performance as an exasperated, frightened and ultimately proud parent of a young bride dominates and elevates what could have been a much more fluffy, inconsequential film. He is helped along by Joan Bennett, who perfectly nails the resigned placidity and practicality of a long-married, mid-century wife, and Taylor as a young bride who tries to go with the flow, but who cannot hide her true feelings.

In her first adult role, Taylor is already a polished performer and starting to mine the deeper meanings in her characters. Here she could have been a passive ingénue, but she takes more power for herself by communicating her emotions with visceral energy. You really feel the passion throbbing inside of her as she daydreams about her man or when they quarrel and she begins to understand the depth of her emotions. When she chats with Tracy in an impromptu hallway conversation she's hip and offhand, telegraphing the confidence and maturity developing in her character and in herself as a performer.

Perhaps this is why, despite playing essentially a supporting role, her presence in the film is always more prominent in memory.

Special features on the disc include two newsreels: one of Taylor's first wedding day, an ill-fated marriage to hotel heir Nicky Hilton that did much to publicize the film, and the other footage of the cast of Father of the Bride meeting President Truman.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)

This film adaptation of this Tennessee Williams play is yet another production where the memory of Taylor is more prominent than her actual screen time. Of course this has much to do with that seductive shot of her lounging in a slip on a brass bed. Even the sight of the elaborate twists and knobs on its frame can inspire an erotic thrill.

While it is true that the film centers on a long dialogue between Paul Newman and Burl Ives as a tortured son and distant father, Taylor once again finds a way to distinguish herself. Taylor was Oscar nominated for her portrayal of Maggie the Cat, a woman who struggles to compete with the memory of a man her husband Brick (Paul Newman) loved.

In a film full of characters jockeying for position in the world of Big Daddy (Burl Ives), Brick's wealthy father, she is coolly aware of how her beauty and understanding of the people surrounding the cranky patriarch can work to her benefit. The one exception is her own husband, and her frustration over not being able to manage this key aspect of her life is so palpable it practically leaks out of her pores. She simmers with frustration and lust. It was the start of Taylor playing determined, strong women not content to wait passively for men to decide their fates.

Special features on the disc include commentary by Williams biography Donald Spoto, the featurette Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Playing Cat and Mouse and a theatrical trailer.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

In the opening scenes of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the combative married couple Martha (Taylor) and George (Richard Burton), wander drunkenly home from a party. Martha laughs loudly and George angrily shushes her; he seems embarrassed of her. And yet, the pair is oddly in sync. They easily match their strides. Weaving together unsteadily, they seem united if uneasy.

While the film and the Edward Albee play upon which it is based are famous for the dysfunctional relationships at its core, it is clear that Martha and George really are far more united than they seem. When they invite the young couple Honey (Sandy Dennis) and Nick (George Segal) back to their place for a post-party tipple, their solidity becomes increasingly more apparent despite the discord between them.

While Honey and Nick seem constantly at odds, with Nick seeming shocked and uncomfortable about his wife's behavior and Honey blithely ignoring his objections, Martha and George are oddly as in step as they were in that walk home. They may not be peaceful, but they instinctively feel that a strong marriage is based on a sort of understanding. As ugly as the games they play with each other are, they accept the often-changing rules and that keeps them together, oddly content.

Taylor certainly had plenty of real life battles with Burton to draw from as she created the screen version of Martha. The stage actors in the cast had been skeptical of her talents, and were surprised to find how polished she was as a performer and how well she understood film acting. She'd had a lifetime to build to this role and it would be the pinnacle of her conventional success in Hollywood.

In the years to come, Taylor would play increasingly louder, drunker and more unhinged characters. These roles would often be written off as trashy camp, though beneath the pure pleasure of that uninhibited noise her ability to project emotional depth was continually developing. She somehow understood society's discomfort with unruly women, but had been through far too much to care what anyone thought. Martha is the true start of that wild, untamed aspect of her career.

The film looks beautiful on Blu-ray, but where Taylor is concerned, it is almost too polished. It already took great effort to make the still stunning actress look like a dowdy professor's wife; here, despite the aging make-up, messy do and frumpy clothes, she glows in a way I haven't noticed in previous formats. Her beauty dominates the attempt at fiction. That has the unusual effect of making her performance even more touching. You sense that Martha has so much more to give and that the life she is living is an unnatural state of being for her.

Special features include commentary by Mike Nichols and Steven Soderbergh, commentary by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who made the film shimmer with his inimitable style and the featurettes: Too Shocking For Its Time and A Daring Work of Raw Excellence.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

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