Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Farewell Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011): Her finest moment...

Boy, oh boy, this scene is hard to watch. Two acting titans - a couple on screen and off - Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton lock horns in Mike Nichols' 1966 masterpiece Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. This is a particularly painful moment in the film, when Martha (Taylor) lets George (Burton) have it over his lack of ambition and his low-paying job as an associate professor of... (deep sigh) ... history. Ouch, man!

Elizabeth Taylor, of course, died today, at age 79. Taylor was one of those incredible figures in film who straddled two generations of Hollywood: the so-called "classic" age of the 1940s and early 1950s, and the more modern era of the late 1950s through the 1970s.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? was one of those films of the Sixties that anticipated the coming of post-Production Code filmmaking, an era of new movie realism that introduced profanity, violence, nudity and gritty depictions of life - elements absent in the movies made in Hollywood's Golden Age. Who's Afraid was based on the 1962 stage play, written by Edward Albee, of the same name. In its day, it was considered quite revolutionary for its painfully honest depiction of a deeply dysfunctional codependent relationship.

Taylor was in so many great movies: National Velvet (1944), A Place in the Sun (1951), Giant (1956), Raintree County (1957) and my personal favourite, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). Even when she was in a dud, like 1994's dreadful live-action version of The Flintstones, she gave it her all, the same way Bela Lugosi did in those old Monogram cheapies of the 1940s.

You often hear that tired old saying when someone dies about it being the "end of an era." In this case, those words ring true, though. Elizabeth Taylor was one of the last stars of Golden Age Hollywood, and her death comes less than a month after silver screen starlet Jane Russell passed away at the end of February at age 89.

There are still a few "classic" Hollywood stars still alive: Mickey Rooney, the sibling rivals Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, two-time Academy Award winner Louise Rainier (who recently celebrated her 101st birthday!), Shirley Temple, Lauren Bacall, Kirk Douglas, Ann Blyth, Esther Williams. I'm sure if I thought long and hard, I could come up with some others. In the Netherlands, prolific Dutch film actor (and, sadly, Hitler apologist) Johannes Heesters just celebrated birthday number 107 in December.

So there are a few classic stars left. But their ranks are thinning out more and more with each passing year. And each time we lose one of these precious people, the world is a lesser place because of it.

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