La Liz & the Evolution of Mid-Century Celebrity

I had an idea of who Elizabeth Taylor was from the time I was pretty small, I think. When my mom said La Liz, I knew exactly who she was talking about. My dad would buy my grandmother the gift set of White Diamonds from the PX every Christmas. I remember thinking how odd it was that she and Michael Jackson should be good buds. I knew nothing of her as a movie star and only saw Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when I was maybe 18 or 19 (I only just watched Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Whoa.). Still, I am certain that I knew of her as a public figure marked by fame, extravagance, and luxury (reading about a run-of-the-mill morning that had her answering husband Richard Burton’s question of “What are you doing?” with “Playing with my jewels!” suggests my sense of her was on the right track). Also, at some point, I knew she was a woman many times married.

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As I’ve been thinking about women and celebrity in the 1960s – and about which women were the most famous celebrities, Liz has become a source of fascination. She was a MOVIE STAR (who loved being a MOVIE STAR) and potentially the most famous woman in the world (whose fame ultimately extended well beyond her movie star status). With her fame came power, a power she embraced and channeled toward her chosen ends. LT challenged the studio system at mid-century and ultimately, I’d argue, played a role in diminishing its authority by following her own desires rather than studio directives. A central element of her challenge was the assertion that she should have some measure of control over her private life. Joining with other stars of the 1950s and 1960s, among them Monty Clift and Marlon Brando, Liz rejected the ideas that a) she owed fans more than what she gave them on the screen; b) that her personal life had to live up to a moral standard determined by forces beyond her own purview. And her purview was that eight marriages to seven men – interspersed with a variety of non-marital relationships – was perfectly legit.

All that said, it seems to me that it took an overextension of studio power and a fairly dramatic encroachment into Taylor’s private life to set her on the track to independence. The kind of celebrity she ultimately helped to create stemmed from a deep dissatisfaction with the nature of celebrity she first encountered during her early days of stardom. As LT took on the part of Kay Banks for the 1950 film Father of the Bride, she likewise began a fledgling romance with hotel heir, Nicky Hilton, a romance MGM encouraged her to cultivate. By February 1950, the two were engaged, and the eighteen-year-old Taylor spent the spring playing bride on the Metro lot while planning her “real life” wedding to Hilton off set. After being fitted for a dress onscreen as Kay Banks, LT flew to New York City where she selected her wedding trousseau. Her father, like Spencer Tracy’s Stanley Banks, played up his father of the bride role and found his responses to questions about the wedding quoted in fan magazines. The line between art and life blurred as LT, after filming a wedding scene, reported to gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, “I wish you’d seen the wedding. The ceremony was so wonderful, I cried just as brides do.”

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I don’t deny LT some element of agency in her relationship with Hilton, and pretty clearly, she enjoyed both the fanfare and the idea of what being married might really be like, but MGM’s orchestration of events speaks to the studio’s desire to link the young star’s private life to her film persona and to use that private life for publicity purposes. And as an eighteen-year-old raised in the studio system, one can imagine the influence MGM had over Liz. Father of the Bride, released in June, was preceded by the wedding, held on May 6. Very clearly, the studio had a direct hand in staging the Taylor-Hilton wedding. Liz, greeted by a cheering crowd, arrived at the Church of the Good Shepherd in a limousine that had been accompanied by an honor guard of off-duty police escorts. Accustomed to such crowds, LT took it all in stride, waving graciously to her many fans before entering the church. Studio florists were responsible for the arrangements; studio photographers snapped pictures; a studio contract singer performed. Even Liz’s bridesmaids were contract players with studio connections. Seated near Taylor’s own parents were Spencer Tracy and Joan Bennett, the actors who’d just completed their turns as mother and father to Liz in Father of the Bride. Images from Liz and Nicky’s reception at the Bel-Air Country Club made for a perfect preview of the forthcoming film. As the two set sail for a European honeymoon a month later, Father of the Bride opened and became a great hit, earning $4 million and ultimately becoming the sixth biggest picture of the year.

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Art imitates life. Top, Kay Banks & Buckley Dunstan wed in 1950’s Father of the Bride.

Bottom, newlyweds Nicky Hilton and Liz Taylor cut their wedding cake a month before Father of the Bride’s opening.

But while the studio prospered, Liz suffered. Less than six months after the wedding, she’d left Nicky Hilton. Rumors of an affair with the married director of her next film shocked the public. In less than a year, LT went from adored child bride to Hollywood harlot. Beyond the fact that the glamour of the wedding had worn off, Hilton revealed himself to be a drinker, gambler, and womanizer, not to mention a man who, as Taylor put it “kind of got a kick out of beating the shit out of me.” When the two finally divorced in January of 1952, Liz used a demure courtroom appearance in an effort to win back some sympathy, but public opinion (news of Hilton’s abuse wasn’t dispensed publicly) had shifted. No longer a sweet ingénue, Liz was painted as spoiled, childish, and flighty by popular media.

But rather than looking to regain her position as Hollywood’s sweetheart, rather than choosing to do her penance and stay home and hide from the spotlight until the scandal dissipated, Liz Taylor decided to embrace adulthood as a woman who followed her own desires. Public opinion be damned. From her youth, she’d followed the directives of her mother (who, today, we’d definitely call a momager) and the studio, and in the aftermath of her marriage debacle – a crisis from which she’d extricated herself by force of her own will – she questioned the direction the influences of her youth had given her. Rather than trying to fit a predesigned role or assume a link between her screen persona and real life, Taylor seemingly made a conscious decision to let her work speak for her. And her timing was perfect. In August 1951, Paramount released A Place in the Sun, for which LT received tremendous praise and for which she’d had to do virtually no promotional glad-handing. Her beauty made her a charming screen presence, but her talent would win her respect and a certain modicum of freedom to do as she liked. Her work on screen could feed her stardom – and as Liz came to believe that, she came likewise to believe that her personal life could be her own.

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