History of Old Hollywood coming to a close


News Editor

How can a true legend be defined? Whether we’re talking about sports, films, or music, the term gets thrown around too often, and it’s hard to settle on one clear definition. I think we can each find different people who we claim are legends of their trade.

For me, a self-proclaimed cinephile, Hollywood lost a true legend on March 23. I’m a firm believer that the films made in today’s Hollywood come nowhere close to rivaling the films made in the golden years of Hollywood. In those golden years, no star was more impactful than Elizabeth Taylor.

She was a Hollywood force of nature; a beauty who grew up in the public eye. People who are familiar with her well-chronicled life find that her own life was more of an intricate story than any of her Hollywood films. She was married eight times and overcame a number of obstacles to establish herself as someone with true resilience. This was a woman who was condemned by Congress for her affair with Richard Burton and managed to come before the same body years later to champion AIDS research. That was the beauty of Elizabeth Taylor. She wasn’t just one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood, but she used her star power to further causes greater than herself.

Her many accomplishments in film, however, cannot be ignored. Before coming to SDSU, I had a thought that I would write and direct my own feature films, and when I think about the kind of actresses I would like to see in Hollywood, I think Taylor is the model for the very best. Most of the students on campus know nothing of her film career, so I thought I’d take a little time to look back on her five best performances. There are surely more, as Taylor had a career that spanned six decades, but for me these performances have come to define who Taylor was onscreen.

5. Butterfield 8 (1960) – Taylor was at an interesting time in her life when this film was released. In her personal life, she was branded a home-wreaker after she had an affair with Eddie Fischer, her co-star in this film. After the Oscar nominations were announced in 1960, Taylor had a near-death bout of pneumonia; an instance that many argue helped catapult her to the Best Actress win. The film isn’t especially strong, but it features a mature performance from Taylor who stars as a call girl in Manhattan. Taylor had said that this film wasn’t a favorite of hers, as she was forced to finish the project before she could start filming Cleopatra, a film for which she became the first actress to earn $1 million for a role. The role is a strong one, though, and it shows Taylor as a star on the verge of something great.

4. Giant (1956) – This epic is one of my personal favorites. Taylor’s role is really a minor one when compared to co-stars Rock Hudson and James Dean, but what stands alone in this film is the type of performance Taylor gives. It’s much more quiet and grounded than some of her more famous roles. She’s quietly affective and she begins to show the flare of an actress who could tackle the more “grown-up” lead roles. She holds her own against the men, especially considering the genius of Dean, who would tragically pass away as the film was being prepped for release.

3. A Place in the Sun (1951) – As I mentioned, Taylor grew up in the public eye after breaking through at the age of twelve in National Velvet. A Place in the Sun really marked her transition from child star to prominent leading lady. Taylor plays the character at the heart of an affair and the film is filled with several dramatic twists. Under people other than Taylor and director George Stevens, the film would probably have been a disaster.

2. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) – Perhaps the most iconic performance of Taylor’s career came at a time of great personal grief. On the first day of shooting, Taylor’s husband, Michael Todd, died in a plane crash. Taylor soldiered on, though, and the result is astounding. Though the original Tennessee Williams play has been toned down, the film still features two lead performances that drive the film. Relative newcomer Paul Newman starred opposite Taylor, but it was Taylor who took the spotlight for all the right reasons. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she’s at her sexiest and she begins to expose an actress that is as vulnerable as the great characters she helped create.

1. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) – This influential film not only refined Hollywood films, but it features Taylor and then-husband Richard Burton at their absolute best. The original play wasn’t considered adaptable due to its language, but studio heads went forward with the project anyways. The finished movie was almost not granted a seal of approval by the Motion Picture Association of America and the Catholic Church threatened to condemn it. Thankfully, director Mike Nichols released the film as it was originally shot. Taylor and Burton were known as a volatile couple and their fiery disputes and history of alcohol use were well known. So, in many ways this film was art imitating life. Both Taylor and Burton are unhinged and allowed to show their true acting ability. They curse, they drink, they fight…and they forever leave their mark on film. The twist at the end comes as the lead characters have torn each other apart, leaving moviegoers speechless. Taylor stretches herself more than in any other film and her performance joins Meryl Streep’s lead performance in Sophie’s Choice as the finest leading actress performance of all time. She would go on to win her second Lead Actress Oscar, while Burton was left empty-handed. Director Mike Nichols, who used this film to showcase the greatest directorial debut of all time, would go to make another controversial film — The Graduate.