“The man is a husband and a father and something else, say a doctor. The woman is a wife and mother and … nothing. And it’s the nothing that kills her.” Elizabeth Taylor as Laura Reynolds in The Sandpiper.
I admit that I decided to read M. G. Lord’s non-fiction book, The Accidental Feminist because I was curious to read the author’s argument that Elizabeth Taylor is a feminist icon. The book’s overly long, but self-explanatory secondary title is: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice, and this secondary title goes a long way in explaining the book’s direction. First the disclaimer: I like Elizabeth Taylor. I think she is a seriously underrated actress, and I tend to enjoy the films that are a little off-beat. The Driver’s Seat, for example. Butterfield 8 is another one, but in spite of my admiration, I couldn’t really see her as a feminist icon. There again I am fascinated by the idea that Taylor, who had many of the hallmarks for tragedy that destroyed other female stars (child stardom, tabloid sensationalism, multiple marriages, illness, and a noticeable appetite for gems), managed to live to a ripe old age and die fabulously wealthy. In other words, unlike let’s say Barbara Payton, Marilyn Monroe, and Linda Darnell (just to name a few from an endless list), Elizabeth Taylor managed to survive the demands of Hollywood and unlike many glamorous female stars before her, she didn’t die in oblivion. Apart from the fact that I like Elizabeth Taylor as an actress, I also admire her early stance of support for AIDS–especially when many other famous people, who might have brought attention to the issue in those critical early days, opted instead to hide from the topic.
The Accidental Feminist is not a biography of Taylor. Instead it’s primarily film criticism with an emphasis on how her roles challenged censorship and social mores of the time. The author states that feminism is “a tricky thing to define,” and after quoting various definitions, argues that many of Taylor’s films had a definite “feminist context” – “accidental or deliberate–text or subtext.” Most of us have heard of the Hays Code with its explicit lists of dos and don’ts, and what’s so interesting here is Lord’s intense exploration of how the Hays Code not only censored many of Taylor’s films but tried to creatively shape the messages of several films. This sort of information is a valuable read for any film buffs. Films examined include:
National Velvet (“A sly critique of gender discrimination in sports.”)
A Place in the Sun
Giant (“The feminization of the American West.”)
Suddenly, Last Summer (“The callousness of the male medical establishment towards women patients.”)
Butterfield 8 (“A woman’s right to control her sexuality.”)
The Sandpiper (“goddess-centered paganism against patriarchal monotheism.”)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (“What happens to a woman when the only way that society permits her to express herself is through her husband’s career and children.”)
The Little Foxes
The slight biographical information in these pages is restricted to the bare outlines of Taylor’s life and how these details impacted her career. At one point the book unobtrusively lines up the tragedies Elizabeth Taylor dealt with effectively, including the death of James Dean, Montgomery Clift’s car accident, and the death of husband, Michael Todd in 1958 (they’d been married for just over a year).
The characters she played were women to be reckoned with. And many of her roles–the great and the not-so-great–surreptitiously brought feminist issues to American audiences held captive by those violet eyes and that epic beauty. While I know that writers and directors create movies, stars create a brand. And the Taylor brand deserves credit for its under-the-radar challenge to traditional attitudes: a woman may not control her sexuality; she may not have an abortion; she may not play with the boys; she may not choose to live without a man; she must obey her husband; and should she speak of unpleasantness, she will be silenced.
There were points at which I felt myself arguing with the premise of the book–after all these were roles that Taylor, the actress played, and that’s a separate thing from Elizabeth Taylor, the person. In spite of the risky film roles, Taylor played so well, her life, covered vividly by the tabloids also had a message. But at the same time, the author makes a powerful argument (depending on a person’s notion of what constitutes feminism), about Elizabeth Taylor’s bravery in allowing herself to be photographed bald prior to surgery to remove a benign brain tumor, her box-office power when it came to a female audience, and her early support for AIDS research. I’d also argue that the really risky role in A Place in the Sun went to Shelley Winters–not Taylor. And then there are those hilarious sexed-up ads for Taylor’s early films which de-emphasized her acting and instead accentuated her physical attributes. Giant, for example was sold to audiences as a “steamy love triangle.” Here’s a marvellously astute passage:
The ad then shows Dean, shirt unbuttoned to the waist, oozing intensity, and Taylor on her knees before him. Although they are technically chaste, their positions hint at an act that would violate the Production Code. The caption: “Jett Rink, the outsider–and Leslie, wealthy and beautiful.”
The last frame shows Dean leering at Taylor as if she were a hamburger and he had missed lunch. The caption: “Jett Rink’s shack. No one has ever set foot in it–and then suddenly, Leslie.” The last picture is the most distorted. Far from depicting a sweaty libidinous tryst, the actual scene is prim and tender. To show Leslie that he is not a brute, Jett struggles to get everything right as he makes her a cup of tea. His actions are a perfect metaphor for the feminization of the West.
At the same time, I bristled at a few statements. Taylor and third husband, Michael Todd led a lavish lifestyle, and at one point, we’re told that after Todd’s premature death in a plane crash, he left a “mere 250,000 in the bank.” Taylor picked up and went back to work. What else could she do since there were bills to pay and three children to support, but there’s something grating about that “mere $250,000″ wording…I went to http://www.dollartimes.com/ to check the value of 1958 money compared to today, and according to that website, $250,000 in 1958 terms was worth around $1,929,392.61 in 2011. With those kind of numbers, it’s hard to put Taylor in the same boat with other single mothers who live on state support or meagre child support payments. That’s not to say that Elizabeth Taylor didn’t suffer at the death of her spouse, but let’s face it, the woman had advantages…. Another point of disagreement with the author occurs over The Taming of the Shrew, a film I love btw, but whose final scene can be construed as the “shrew,” a very beautiful Elizabeth Taylor advocating blind obedience to one’s spouse–even if his demands are insane.
One of my favourite anecdotes in the book must be included:
As a young woman Taylor, too, played the duplicity game. But in 1962, after two men in sequence very publicly ditched their wives for her, she stopped hiding. And far from suffering at the box office, she became Hollywood’s highest-paid actress. Not even the vatican could hold her back. When its weekly newspaper, L’Osservatore della Domenica, accused her of “erotic vagrancy,” she blithely quipped, “Can I sue the pope?”
Love that term “erotic vagrancy.” Ultimately this is a highly readable book that made me think–and while I didn’t agree with every statement, the book did bring a richer appreciation of Elizabeth Taylor. And isn’t that the point?
Review copy courtesy of the publisher via Netgalley. Read on the kindle.