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.