Elizabeth Taylor: The Complete Divinity, Part Two

Elizabeth Taylor Discusses Some Of Her Film Roles


Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

I understood Maggie immediately--the moment I saw the play; before I even read it. There isn't a woman in the world who doesn't understand the pain of being unable to reach a man she loves. Not a single one. There was doubt on the part of Richard Brooks [the film's director] that it would be believed by audiences that Brick could refuse me as Maggie. But this happens all the time: people may love or like or crave a woman for her looks or her money or her ability to operate a home or give him a family, but there can also be a terrible disconnection between them. So many women, myself included, have been able to attract a man to our looks or our money, but we fail to gain a friend or a soul mate. Or the appeal of the looks fade, and suddenly you're just a joint banking account, and your soul dies.

Maggie has made a terrible pact with so many people: that tough, acquisitive family, all of them bursting with lies and goals; her past, which is dry and poor and right behind, a shadow dancer guessing her every move; with time, which must quickly give her a child bearing the name of Pollitt so that she can be rightly counted as one of them, entitled to that rich land and that house and some comfort.

It's about the race against time and truth, and all of us are in that race.

Richard Brooks is a good director, but he's always more concerned--at least in this situation--with the entire film, with getting it right and getting it done and honoring the budget. This approach leaves little time for discussion or rehearsal or taking care of confused actors. I was lucky to have Paul [Newman, who took on the role of Brick]. Paul was wonderful to work with, and I only had to react to him. All the actors were good, but they were all ready to run and do their work, and I was sort of left to fend for myself. And that was perfect for playing Maggie, because she is a cast-off, a cat you've fed and who now won't leave the back door. It worked. I made it work.

Tennessee wasn't around much for that film, but I had access to him, and he would talk to me. Everyone, he told me, has their moment of confession. Extreme unction and confession all at once. Everyone has a personal death in that film--of flesh or ideals or hope or a future. 

Those weren't cheerful calls with Tennessee, but they were very helpful to me.

Suddenly, Last Summer

I thought I did good work as Catherine. I was certainly stretched in a way I hadn't been as an actress. I drove myself hard in that film. Tennessee would visit the set and he always made time for us, and I never understood why he distanced himself from the play: he left it like an abandoned child in the arms of Gore Vidal, and Gore would just send us back to the text. A circle of confusion that was ideal for me to get lost in, because Catherine has no idea what is real, what is true, what is going to happen. If Catherine wasn't organically insane, she certainly was on the brink of insanity after all that had been done to her, all that she had seen.

I don't think that [Joseph] Mankiewicz understood or cared for the film. I really don't. He was full of energy and adjectives. That's actually a criticism of him from Kate [Hepburn]. We were all eager to be told something, to get some feedback, and he sat there, impassive--an impossible-to-impress father.

He was tough on Kate--he sort of ignored her, and he shot her brutally: He wanted to knock her down a peg or two, I think. He thought her very grand, and he would walk away from her when she was asking questions.

You've heard about the spitting? Well, I guess it's in all the books now, so I can talk about it. The real reason she spit in Joe's face, as she told me, wasn't just because he was rude to her, but because he was brutal to Monty [Clift]. Monty was in terrible shape; terribly sick. It's amazing now that he made it through, and Joe maintained that by being tough on him, he was helping him, getting him in shape, testing him. That may have been true, because Monty kept fighting back, and he finished the film.

Kate thought Joe and Sam [Spiegel, the film's producer] should have just fired Monty, if he was seen as that hopeless, but everyone refused: They wanted Monty.

So Kate waited until every shot, every dub, every publicity photo had been completed, and she walked to Joe, in front of several people, and spat in his face.

That is not my way: I spent that film crying and begging Joe to go easy on Monty, and then I was up all night with Monty, calming him down, running lines. I don't go face to face with people. I retreat.

But everyone gets their due, honey. Trust me. A few years later, Joe directed me in Cleopatra, and if you don't believe in karma, then you weren't there to witness that poor man trying to drive that barge into a welcome harbor. Oh, there's karma. We're on good terms. We're old friends.

Raintree County

I can't tell you a thing about it.

I was like an elegant doll--like the ones I collected and adored when I was little. I would name them and dress them and stick them on these little poles and they would lean slightly and look at me with these perfect faces--of bisque--and unblinking eyes all day and night. Frozen companions; stiff and perfect.

So MGM stuck me on a sort of pole and Walter Plunkett dressed me exquisitely and I looked perfect and leaned slightly forward and went through my motions--a frozen companion.

Mike [Todd] had just died. Then Monty had his awful accident.

I got through it. That is sometimes enough.

Butterfield 8

I thought we were making a soap opera--a slick soap opera--and I think we succeeded. People told me Daniel Mann was a man who led women to awards, and that was apparently true. He left me alone: he told everyone that I was a veteran and knew more than anyone else on the set. What was I? Twenty-six? But I was a veteran. I had over two decades on those film sets, and I did know how they worked. I could look at a set-up and know, within a minute or two, how long it would take. How? You just know. You see the set-up; you see the guys hanging around; you read people. I knew where the lights should be and where the actors should be. I could have been a director, if I were a maniac and wanted that abuse.

They put the camera on me and told me to cut loose. That was the recurring direction. Cut loose. This was a mad and wild and ferociously fertile woman. Cut loose. I cut loose. Then I got sick. Very sick. Then I got an Oscar.

Very good. Very funny 


 Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

It's the best thing I ever did, in every way. I was scared to death, but Richard calmed me. Richard was my director on that, along with Mike [Nichols]. I was only thirty-three years old, almost twenty years younger than Martha is supposed to be, but between Irene Sharaff's genius and my natural tendencies to indulge, I aged myself. There was makeup and there was lighting that I knew was brutal. Remember, I'm the veteran! I know lighting and set-ups. You can see every pimple on Richard's face, every line and pore. You can see every incipient and actual wrinkle and fold on mine. You can see every speck of dirt and mold and dust on that marvelous set. The set even smelled, I tell you. I think there was real garbage in the pails and spoiled food in the fridge.

That film was my crash course in acting, I guess you would say.

I know that people say and believe that Mike directed me down to every blink of the eye and shake of the hips, but that isn't true. I don't dispute that simply to protect me, but to protect Mike: Only a bad director would sit on top of an actress and over-direct her like that. It would have made me rotten in the part. I would have been even worse than a doll on a stick walking through rooms if he had done that. What he did was listen to me and watch me and gently guide me through each scene, each shot. We got each other, you see, and I wanted him. I knew what he meant whatever he said. I trusted him, and when he would say 'You know what's going on here, don't you?' I knew he was about to give me something I could run with, could apply to those many layers Martha had.

I had Richard at home each night working with me. We took the parts home, so I was intensely in rehearsal all the time. I got Martha, and I loved her as you need to love every character. If I were as smart as Martha, I might have gone her way, but I had blind faith in so many things that I knew could help me and get me through. Martha has nothing but cold, hard facts; books in the library; years flipping on a calendar; dreams unfulfilled; empty rooms upstairs; and a dream that gets ripped from her and takes those silly games that keep her alive away from her.

It's a brutal, brilliant play.

Richard was magnificent in it, and it's the film I'm taking from my house if it's on fire.

I did good.



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