The last truly great film performance of Elizabeth Taylor’s career was probably as the boozy, bossy Martha, locked in a codependent marriage from hell with her hubby George (Richard Burton) in Mike Nichols’ searing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 45 years ago (I happened to visit Mount Vernon last weekend, and every time the guides spoke of George and Martha I couldn’t help but picture Dick and Liz, in powdered wigs, swilling martinis and mercilessly pushing each other’s hot buttons).
You can’t say it was all downhill for Taylor after that—she remained in many ways one of Hollywood’s most beloved actresses until her death, and if the past is any indicator her star is about to start blazing brighter than ever. But despite her fame and immense talent, in her later years Liz never seemed able to summon her legion of fans to the boxoffice. Just look at her track record for the past 30 years: Besides six TV films—most made in a flurry of activity from 1983 to 1987—she made just two theatrical movies, and that, sadly, includes her turn as Wilma Flintstone’s shrieking mother. Of all that work, only The Flintstones remains in general circulation on DVD. Her other theatrical film, Franco Zeffirelli’s not-bad-at-all Young Toscanini (1988), never even got released in this country.
So today, as we get ready to live in a world without Elizabeth Taylor, I’ve been trying to figure out why the public—who so passionately hung on her every marriage, her every illness, her every pound gained or lost—so studiously stayed away from her actual performances. And I think it may have to do with the fact that while her fans couldn’t bear the thought of Elizabeth Taylor getting older, Liz, despite her notorious vanity, never stopped rubbing their noses in the reality of passing time.
I mean, take a look at the plot descriptions of those last eight films:
Between Friends (1983) Facing middle age, two women with nothing in common (Taylor and Carol Burnett) develop a close friendship.
Malice in Wonderland (1985) Aging gossip monger Louella Parsons (Taylor) deals with the upstart columnist Hedda Hopper (Jane Alexander).
There Must Be a Pony (1986) A washed-up star (Taylor) attempts a comeback after a stay in a mental hospital.
Poker Alice (1987) Leaving her old life behind in Boston, an aging society woman tries her hand at running an Old West bordello.
Young Toscanini (1988) A fading opera star (Liz) pins her hopes for a comeback on an upstart conductor (C Thomas Howell). I should note that Zeffirelli, who directed Liz in the delightful Taming of the Shrew (1967), uses her wonderfully here, and his star looks astonishing in her elegant gowns.
Sweet Bird of Youth (1989) A failing, aging movie star (Taylor) takes up with an ambitious masseur (Mark Harmon).
The Flintstones (1994) As mother-in-law to Fred (John Goodman), the best you can say here is that Liz brings unsettling authenticity to the role of an old, bitter, battleaxe.
These Old Broads (2001) The title says it all—Liz, Shirley MacLaine, Debbie Reynolds and Joan Collins play long-dormant movie stars making a comeback.
Aside from Poker Alice—which I suppose could have starred a younger actress—Taylor’s final decades on screen were spent relentlessly reminding her fans that time not only marches on, it often marches right over you, particularly if you happen to be in a job where youth is the prevailing currency. Lots of other actresses have made that same observation with considerably more commercial success: MacLaine, Helen Mirren, and Angela Lansbury to name a few. Liz Taylor, though, was a special case. Click over to my recent online appreciation of Liz Taylor’s 10 Greatest Roles and you’ll see: For the first 20 years of her career, Taylor was the poster girl not just for youth and beauty, but for simmering, volcanic youth—a once-in-a-generation blending of impossible beauty and seething charisma. Her public was even okay with it when Liz first pushed her characters prematurely into middle age (Woolf came when she was just 34). But as middle age set in for real, her hardcore fans seemed to go into a state of denial—a denial that Taylor herself never seemed to share.
Bravely she forged ahead, looking for projects that illuminated the alternating regrets and joys of passing years. But those films fell, one by one, by the box office wayside. In time she had to give up on interesting explorations like Divorce His-Divorce Hers (1973) and The Driver’s Seat (1974)—a remarkable little film in which she plays a deranged spinster prowling the streets of Rome in search of someone to kill her (costarring Andy Warhol!).
It’s perhaps for the best that in her final decades Taylor largely leveraged her celebrity on behalf of charities (her family asks that in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation). Depressingly, Liz’ last films went for the low-hanging fruit that had already been picked clean by Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard: A bygone star dreams of reclaiming her lost fame and youth. Elizabeth Taylor deserved better than that, and in the end, neither she nor her fans got what they wanted.