The Liz they love: Notables and cinephiles share favorite Taylor moments

March 26, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor’s obituaries had been written and ready to go for years when she died Wednesday. In search of fresher encomia beyond biography, we called a grab bag of notables and cinephiles and asked them to impart their favorite Elizabeth Taylor moments, on-screen or off-screen.

“ ‘Boom,’ to me, is the greatest failed art film ever. And in it is her most troubling and beautiful and insane performance. . . . She plays the richest woman in the world, Sissy Goforth, who’s about to die, and Richard Burton plays the angel of death who visits her. She coughs blood on a handkerchief and goes, ‘Oh look, a paper rose.’ It’s pretty out there. . . . I met her and I told her I loved it and she thought I was insulting her at first.”

JOHN WATERS, director of “Hairspray” and “Pink Flamingos”

“She was the first one at rehearsal, she was ready, she knew her words, she was a delight to work with. . . . The only problem we faced was that Elizabeth was used to movie takes, which last about three minutes, but onstage, of course, you had to be ready for at least a half an hour. Sometimes we would notice that after three minutes or so, Elizabeth’s eyes would wander — she was used to that short take — but if you could grab her attention onstage, she was fire and ice.”

TOM ALDREDGE, her co-star in “The Little Foxes” on Broadway in 1981

“One of my favorite Elizabeth Taylor movies is the lesser-known ‘X, Y and Zee’ in 1972. Pauline Kael raved about this performance and I agree. The character is a shrew . . . but somehow she found something deeper and more meaningful in this harpy, even though the text and the direction are not quite as inspired as Albee or Nichols. . . . Taylor had been making oddball films since ‘Secret Ceremony,’ a deadpan black comedy in 1968, and she would continue to do so, appearing in strange movies such as ‘The Driver’s Seat’ and ‘Hammersmith Is Out.’ Was she taking chances or making bad choices?”

JOHN EPPERSON, a.k.a. LYPSINKA, entertainer and drag artist

“In ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’ the major wordplay between her and [Paul] Newman — there’s the famous scene where he asks her, ‘What’s the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?’ And she says, ‘Staying on it.’ The two of them were magic and electric in that film. . . . During production of the film, her husband [Michael Todd] went down in a plane crash. . . . For her to block out those distractions in her personal life and deliver that kind of memorable performance speaks volumes about her abilities not only as a major star, but also a brilliant actress.”

TIM GORDON, president of the Washington Area Film Critics Association

“I spent the most remarkable three hours with her in her living room in Bel Air in 1992. This was the genesis of getting her permission to name the new Whitman-Walker medical clinic [on 14th Street NW] after her. We largely discussed HIV and AIDS. . . . I remember that she was sitting on her couch and I was sitting on a chair, and when I could no longer absorb her incredible violet eyes, I could look above her shoulder at a van Gogh painting. . . . She was so engaged on HIV issues, so intelligent, so conversant. . . . I left totally impressed because there were so many celebrities that get involved but never really get deeply involved. But she really did.”

JIM GRAHAM, D.C. Council member, Ward 1

“I love everything about John Huston’s ‘Reflections in a Golden Eye,’ featuring memorable turns by Marlon Brando and the underrated Brian Keith. But Elizabeth Taylor’s performance here was impressive. She’s sassy with Keith, nasty to Brando and a charismatic pain in the ass the whole way, changing gears to convey a genuine sense of terror during the film’s climactic shock ending.”

TODD HITCHCOCK, director of programming at the AFI Silver Theatre

“I have to say my all-time favorite mother-daughter moment ever in movies is the scene in ‘National Velvet’ when Elizabeth Taylor and her mother sit down and talk about how her mother is going to give her the money she needs to enter the race. It is just a moment of exquisite sensitivity and beauty, and you can see already that she’s an extraordinary actress and screen presence at the age of 12.”

NELL MINOW, the Movie Mom columnist

“There are so many winning moments. But if I have to pick one, it’s eating the chicken leg — bones and all — in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’ So reckless and over-the-top, but weirdly endearing. It’s why we love her.”

PEGGY PARSONS, head of the film program at the National Gallery of Art

“After the New Orleans opening of ‘The Little Foxes,’ we’d taken over a little restaurant in the French Quarter. She became aware — just when we were about to sit down — that the understudies were being put in another room at a smaller table. And, without telling anyone, she had them move to the table with us. She had this huge and constant generosity.”

AUSTIN PENDLETON, who directed Taylor in her stage debut

“We made a big billboard for ‘Cleopatra’ in Times Square of just [Taylor and Richard Burton] in costume, in a painting, and all it said was, ‘Twentieth Century Fox is proud to announce the opening of the motion picture the world has been waiting for.’ No title and no names. And she loved it. I found her very professional. She knew what she liked. There was no quibbling about lighting or how she was portrayed. [She and Burton] came to a meeting to look at the advertising at 444 West 56th Street. We dealt with movie stars all the time, and they were the real thing. There was an aura about them that set them aside from anyone else. She was crazy about him and he was very funny. They were both funny. There was a lot of banter.”

GERALD RAFSHOON, advertising director for Twentieth Century Fox in 1962-63, and former adviser and communications director for President Jimmy Carter

“My most vivid memory of Elizabeth Taylor is my most recent. In anticipation of the latest adaptation of ‘Jane Eyre’ a few weeks ago, I revisited the 1943 version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine, which I hadn’t seen since I was a teenager. And there, in early scenes of Jane Eyre’s sad childhood at Lowood School, was Taylor — who looks to be around 10 years old — in an uncredited performance as Jane’s consumptive friend Helen Burns. Her scenes are brief but indelible in that movie, her famous double-lashed eyes flashing like liquid embers, and each time she’s on the screen, she all but obliterates her young co-star Peggy Ann Garner. Even in 1943, Taylor had already appeared in two movies; her next, ‘National Velvet,’ would make her a bona fide star. But in those fleeting, incandescent scenes in ‘Jane Eyre,’ Taylor proved she was a real actress of focus, fire and mesmerizing force.”

ANN HORNADAY, film critic for The Post

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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