More than just a pretty face
M.G. Lord reveals Elizabeth Taylor's lasting social legacy
Elizabeth Taylor may be best remembered for her physical appearance—her curves, her eyes, her weight gain in later life—but M.G. Lord's new book, The Accidental Feminist, explores how Taylor's films contributed to a sexual and social revolution without anyone taking much notice.
Even as the world was consumed with her private life and sexuality, Elizabeth Taylor's onscreen presence was being used by the writers and directors behind her films to challenge the Production Code's censorship and address subversive issues such as abortion and prostitution, long before she became an activist in her own right. Lord anaylzes Taylor's life through seven of her most memorable film roles to reveal a fresh side to the icon, giving us us a whole new reason to revisit Taylor's classic movies.
The one-year anniversary of Taylor's passing is approaching (March 23). In your opinion, what is her greatest legacy?
Taylor's greatest legacy is unquestionably her leadership at a crucial time in the fight against AIDS. That leadership, however, was made possible by her extraordinary celebrity, a byproduct of her film career.
Your discovery of Taylor's accidental feminism began during a Taylor marathon with two generations of friends. How did watching with other generations change how you viewed the movies?
I was born at the end of the baby boom, so I had at least a child's vague awareness of Taylor in her heyday. My Gen X friends, however, mostly knew her in a later incarnation, as the butt of Joan Rivers' fat jokes in the 1980s. My Gen Y friends only knew her as a gay icon and AIDS philanthropist.
My friends and I thought that watching the boxed sets of Taylor movies that I had received as a gift would lead to a night of guilty, campy pleasure. Instead we were blown away, by both the quality of Taylor's performances and the feminist messages hammered home in film after film. They enabled me to see the films with fresh eyes and to recognize the feminist content that had been hidden in plain sight.
"Taylor fought consciously—not accidentally—for social justice. Her final role in life, I believe, was influenced by the movies with feminist content that she had starred in as a younger woman."
Many of Taylor's early films, such as National Velvet, contributed to Taylor's "accidental feminism," since her presence in these films was more a reach for stardom than any conscious attempt to present a positive image for women on film. At what point do you believe Taylor transitioned from accidental feminism to intentional feminism?
As columnist Katha Pollitt has observed, feminism "is a social justice movement." As an AIDS activist from 1985 until her death, Taylor fought consciously—not accidentally—for social justice. Her final role in life, I believe, was influenced by the movies with feminist content that she had starred in as a younger woman. Actors both shape and are shaped by their parts. They bring aspects of themselves to their characters and they take aspects of their characters away.
George Stevens, who directed Taylor in A Place in the Sun and Giant, saw qualities in Taylor as a teenager that she had not yet recognized in herself—strength and courage and a willingness to defy social convention that would serve her well when she began raising money to combat AIDS.
This is evident, for example, in Taylor's part in Giant. Taylor's character, Leslie Benedict, makes common cause with the sick. She steps away from her privileged community—the white Texas ranching elite—to serve a community of outsiders, the Mexican workers. Although she is warned not to enter the Mexican homes, she does so anyway. And when she finds an ailing child, she cradles him. She doesn't pull back, fearing contagion, just as Taylor herself did not recoil from people with HIV. She demands medical attention from the privileged community's physician.
Leslie forces the doctor to acknowledge the humanity—and the suffering—of outsiders. She stands up to bigotry. She risks being ostracized. And in that brave moment, she leads the doctor—just as Taylor herself would lead a callous nation—to do the right thing.
If you could recommend just one of Taylor's films, which would it be and why?
I don't think a single movie captures all of Taylor's facets—or all of the aspects of feminism that her projects have addressed. I would narrow her vast filmography to the seven movies I concentrate on in the book. If pressured to narrow to, say, three movies, they would be Giant (in which her character's commitment to social justice anticipates her real-life AIDS activism), Butterfield 8 (in which her character is censured because she controls her sexuality, a core feminist tenet) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (because, among other things, it was the film that put the Production Code Administration censors out of business forever).
Camille Paglia, after Taylor's passing, said in an interview with Salon, "To me, Elizabeth Taylor's importance as an actress was that she represented a kind of womanliness that is now completely impossible to find on the U.S. or U.K. screen." Do you agree? Is there is any actress today who can compare to Taylor?
The movie industry has changed dramatically since Taylor's day. Studio movies are mostly made for teenagers now. Grown-up drama intended for grown-up viewers appears primarily on episodic cable TV. With this has come a thinning of the movie audience and a dilution of the power and influence of big-screen stars. As a consequence, I don't think any contemporary male or female actor can compare with Taylor.
How do you define where feminism is today versus during Taylor's time? How has its depiction in film changed?
I think Taylor's brand of feminism would fit right in with the so-called "third-wave" that evolved in the early 1990s. Third wave feminism emphases cultural diversity and a commitment to social justice. Younger feminists have also made a practice of re-appropriating pioneering cultural icons from the past. I hope they will come to embrace Taylor—or at least explore that possibility by reading my book.
You talked to a lot of interesting people for Accidental Feminist. Do you have a favorite interview, or a most memorable interview moment?
I loved meeting the late actor Kevin McCarthy—not only for his insights about Taylor but also because his sister, the novelist Mary McCarthy, was one of my role models when I was growing up.
My favorite interview, however, was with Gore Vidal. We talked about his adaptation of Tennessee Williams' Suddenly, Last Summer. The Production Code, a set of rules that severely restricted the content of American movies between 1934 and 1967, prohibited any representation of homosexuality on screen. Many directors caved to this proscription; the film adaptation of Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, for instance, makes absolutely no sense. The play was about a gay man's refusal to sleep with his beautiful wife because he was in love with his dead best friend. The movie is about a man who for no conceivable reason refuses to sleep with Elizabeth Taylor—a situation that Williams, a gay man who said he himself would "bounce the springs" with Taylor, found beyond absurd.
In contrast, Suddenly, Last Summer retains the homosexuality Williams alluded to in his play. This is because Gore Vidal met with a priest every other week while he was working on the adaptation and convinced the priest that the movie could be interpreted as a "moral fable." In the interview, Vidal told me how he achieved this.
What have you learned from studying Taylor's life?
From looking at Taylor's movies, I got a frightening glimpse of a recent past in which rights we take for granted—abortion, interracial marriage and certain sexual acts in private between consenting adults—were against the law. The Production Code also forbade the depiction of such things as interracial marriage on film. I hope my book motivates younger people to watch these harrowing movies—and to help ensure that these hard-won rights are not taken away.
Your books have covered Barbies, life in the 1990s, American masculinity in the space program and now feminism in film. What's next?
For the first 12 years of my career—between my graduation from Yale and the publication of Forever Barbie—I was a syndicated political cartoonist based at Newsday. I fled the job because I grew to dislike working at a newspaper. But recently I've found that I missed drawing. For my next project, I am collaborating with a neuroscientist, Dr. Indre Viskontas, on a graphic novel that deals with the brain. I'm also learning to use drawing software—Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop and a Wacom Cintiq tablet. The learning curve is steep. These days to be a cartoonist one also needs to be a software engineer. But I love this difficulty, because an all-consuming challenge can take an author's mind off the vicissitudes of publication. In my view, the best way to survive the publication of one book is to immerse yourself in the making of a fresh one.