High Violet: The Best Takes on Elizabeth Taylor

The passing of Elizabeth Taylor, truly the last of the old-school, studio-groomed Hollywood stars, has triggered a wave of eulogies and tributes throughout the internet. Still more are being posted, but after having read a couple dozen, I offer excerpts from some of my favorites:

No one as big as Elizabeth Taylor was can quite be forgotten, but the reasons why we remember her are not entirely clear. One younger colleague of mine recalls her as a mysterious figure who pitched diamonds on TV. Another was blown away by Taylor’s electrifying performance as the boozy, embittered, charismatic Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” — the only Taylor movie she’s ever seen — and resolved to have a marriage like that. (Will those of you in the congregation who were actually raised in 1960s or ’70s alcoholic households please join me in saying: Dear God, please don’t.) How in the world do you make sense of a career that encompasses those things, along with a period of pure, almost piercing child stardom, stretches as a leading lady and an Oscar-winning character actress, well-deserved reputations as a boozehound and serial monogamist, genuinely heroic AIDS activism (at a time when almost no celebrities wanted to be associated with a deadly homosexual plague) and an extended afterlife as the butt of late-night comedy routines and confidante of Michael Jackson?

Andrew O’Hehir, Salon

What Taylor had was something oddly rare in the annals of movie stars: certainty. However frail or neurasthenic or ravaged she appeared, she needed no one else to tell her she was a star. And with that confidence came honesty. She had no airs.

When you see her in her breakthrough role, in National Velvet, a 13-year-old shrimp coming shoulder high to Mickey Rooney, you can’t get over the grown-up steadiness in her eyes — which draws your own eyes away from everyone else and that gorgeous horse, too. Taylor’s certainty that she could play Velvet — which won over the film’s dubious producer — is at one with Velvet’s certainty that she can ride in the National. You already see what Camille Paglia called Taylor’s “liquid realm of emotion,” and it gives Velvet’s ambition a startling purity.

David Edelstein, New York Magazine

It was George Stevens, who directed “A Place in the Sun,” who gave the young actress her first Elizabeth Taylor role, the one in which everything — her looks, presence and power — came together. Based on Theodore Dreiser’s novel “An American Tragedy,” it starred Ms. Taylor as an heiress whose allure is so potent it drives a young striver (Ms. Taylor’s close friend, Montgomery Clift) to murder his pregnant working-class lover (Shelley Winters). Everything wondrous and mysterious about cinema itself is captured ina dazzling, sensuously lengthy kiss between Ms. Taylor and Clift that Stevens shot in tight, almost claustrophobic close-up, filling the frame with beauty made immortal by film. It’s an intoxicating vision of bliss if one that — and this is critical to the film’s force — has been paid for by the murder of another woman.

– Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

This was a woman with such an appetite for life that finally jokes had to be made about her, by Joan Rivers and other comedians, because her huge needs and urges could not be allowed to go un-mocked or un-chastised. Her passion for jewelry was well known; she even wrote a book about it. Once, in a restaurant, with the photographer Bruce Weber, Taylor spotted a rich woman wearing a beautiful diamond; she approached the woman’s table, smiled, looked at the gem and brazenly asked, “Can I have it?” The woman turned her down, but there weren’t many things Taylor couldn’t get; in her 1960s prime and beyond, Taylor was large, she was bawdy, and she was unapologetically vulgar. After being schooled in the 1940s at MGM, the stuffiest of the major movie studios (she sometimes seemed to be sleepwalking through some of her minor films there), Taylor won the first million-dollar salary for playing Cleopatra (1963), a film so expensive that it nearly destroyed Twentieth Century Fox. “If someone’s dumb enough to offer me one million dollars to make a picture, I’m certainly not dumb enough to turn it down,” she said at the time, as she exchanged one famous husband (Eddie Fisher) for another (Richard Burton), and then went on a drinking and lovemaking and filmmaking tear with Burton, all in the most merciless media glare.

Dan Callahan, The L Magazine

She was her own montage: seven husbands

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