Violet Eyes To Die For

Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in
Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in "A Place in the Sun," based on Theodore Dreiser's novel "An American Tragedy" (Hulton Archive / Getty Images)
Reviewed by Louis Bayard
Sunday, September 3, 2006


By J. Randy Taraborrelli

Warner. 548 pp. $26.99

The scene is straight out of the "X-Men" franchise. A beetle- browed physician calls a pair of young parents into his office and, in the gravest of cadences, informs them that their newly born daughter has -- a mutation.

"Well, that sounded just awful," the girl's mother later recalls, "a mutation . But, when he explained that her eyes had double rows of eyelashes, I thought, well, now, that doesn't sound so terrible at all."

No, indeed. In fact, it is more evidence, as if any were needed, that the greatest camera subjects are, in strict biological terms, genetic freaks. Or as pal Roddy McDowall later put it: "Who has double eyelashes except a girl who was absolutely born to be on the big screen?"

And if Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor had any doubts on that score, she had a ferociously focused mama to set her straight. Herself a forestalled actor, Sara Taylor took advantage of Great Britain's wartime diaspora to plant her young daughter as quickly as possible in the Hollywood firmament. When small roles in "Lassie, Come Home" and "Jane Eyre" failed to turn the trick, Sara and Elizabeth executed a double press on MGM exec Pandro Berman and snagged the lead in "National Velvet" (1944), the story of an equestrienne who dons boy-drag to enter the Grand National Steeplechase.

Has there ever been a less convincing male than Elizabeth Taylor? No matter. From that steeplechase, it is a more or less straight trajectory to "Liz," the first actor -- male or female -- to earn a million clams a movie and, along with Marilyn Monroe, the first to become a reality show in herself. Yes, it's Liz TV, 24-7, and we don't miss a minute, do we? The husbands and the hospitalizations and the good movies and the bad and the Krupp diamonds and the nervous breakdowns and the Betty Ford Center and Michael Jackson and the chicken bone in the throat and -- well, it's no wonder, really, that author J. Randy Taraborrelli can announce, without a trace of irony: "It has never been easy being Elizabeth Taylor."

Not as easy, anyway, as being an Elizabeth Taylor biographer. When I checked the Library of Congress catalogue, I found 52 books written about her, which puts her slightly behind Elizabeth Blackwell (69) but well ahead of Elizabeth Dole (16), Elizabeth Montgomery (3) and Elizabeth Hurley (0). It also quite dwarfs the well-regarded British novelist who had the misfortune of sharing the same name (2).

Right about now, the churlish critic will ask if 52 equals 51 too many. No question that Taylor, in her prime, was a luscious raven-haired vision; no question she possesses the kind of fame granted to few mortals. It's equally apparent that she is a timid and rather unintelligent woman whose deepest aesthetic impulses are reserved for the baubles on her fingers and whose idea of morality was to marry every man she slept with. ("Always a bride," quipped Oscar Levant. "Never a bridesmaid.")

None of this has stopped Taraborrelli from delivering the 53rd volume. His timing may charitably be called curious. Taylor's last movie was the 1994 live-action classic "The Flintstones," and poor health has kept her even from making appearances on behalf of her beloved AIDS charities. To most people under 30, she is at best a name attached to a few stills. Taraborrelli labors on as if the eyes of the world are upon him, and as he goes, he heaves up stone after stone of fanzine prose: "Elizabeth and Richard were led by something bigger than both of them. . . . This truly was her shining moment. . . . She belonged to Hollywood. She belonged to the world." Nothing, though, quite tops the author's endorsement of Husband Number 7, Sen. John Warner: "He genuinely seemed to want to contribute to mankind, or at least to the state of Virginia."

The only way a movie-star bio can attain lasting value (and virtually none of them do) is to document the actor's intersection with some lasting work of art, as Lee Server accomplished in his take on Robert Mitchum. For Taraborrelli, self-appointed chronicler of the Kennedy women and Princess Grace, the movies are just coffee breaks in the full-time disinterring of ancient gossip: Nicky-Mikey-Eddie-Dickie. We learn that Taylor's most lauded performance, in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," was fueled by alcoholic marital rages with Richard Burton, but we learn next to nothing about her best work, which, in my opinion, came 15 years earlier, before Burton ever infected her with the desire to be an ektress .

Check her out sometime as the wealthy love interest in "A Place in the Sun," George Stevens's film transcription of the Theodore Dreiser classic An American Tragedy . You'll find a pitch-perfect study of an entitled young woman undone by desire. Her love scenes with Montgomery Clift are almost painful in their eroticism, and a biographer who was curious about such things might wonder why Taylor could generate more on-screen heat with a gay man than she ever did with Burton. There's something to be said here about artifice yielding truth and truth yielding artifice and the drowning of a small talent in the shoals of high culture and the pitfalls of having double eyelashes. There is, yes, a book to be written about Elizabeth Taylor and the cultural phenomenon she represented. It's just not the book that J. Randy Taraborrelli has written. Or had any intention of writing. ยท

Louis Bayard, author of "The Pale Blue Eye," writes frequently on film.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company