Friday, March 23, 2012

Elizabeth Taylor, Accidental Feminist

OVER here at The Misread City, we've been fans of writer M.G. Lord since her book Forever Barbie. An insightful critic of gender, pop culture and the culture of science -- check out her slim, sharp volume Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, set in and around JPL -- Lord has recently turned her hand to actress Elizabeth Taylor. 

Lord's cover essay in an issue of The Hollywood Reporter last year convinced us that we had to keep our eye on this project. So here -- on the one-year anniversary of Taylor's death -- is a Q-and-A with the author of The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice.

TMC: Your argument is that under the surface, Elizabeth Taylor was a kind of fighter for women’s rights or at least a woman's point of view. When did it first strike you that there was more to her than met the eye?

MGL: I never planned to write a book about Elizabeth Taylor.  But several Memorial Days ago, I ended up renting a house in Palm Springs with a bunch of friends, most of whom were younger than I am. (I was born at the end of the baby boom; my friends are Gen x and Gen y). I had a vague recollection of Elizabeth at the height of her career but my friends knew her mostly as the butt of Joan Rivers' 1980's fat jokes (the Gen x friends) or as a gay icon and AIDS philanthropist (the Gen y ones).  So when I proposed that we watch some boxed sets of Taylor DVDs that I had been given as a present, we all expected an evening of guilty, campy pleasure.

Instead, we were gobsmacked -- first by the quality of Taylor's performances, then by the unrelenting feminist messages in film after film.
Take her first important film, National Velvet, for example.  In it, she plays a girl who challenges gender discrimination in sports.  Barred by her gender from racing in the Grand National Sweepstakes, she poses as a male jockey...and wins, espousing the unjustified bigotry of excluding women.

Her next big movie, A Place in the Sun, is an abortion rights movie. It tells the story of a working-class man (Montgomery Clift) who goes to work in his rich uncle's factory. He is forbidden to socialize with fellow factory workers but also excluded from his uncle's social world.  Lonely, he befriends and accidentally impregnates an assembly-line colleague (Shelley Winters) before falling in love with the woman of his dreams (Elizabeth Taylor) who happens to be rich. The movie was adapted from Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy. Two earlier such adaptations had failed disastrously because they were simple-minded, anti-capitalist parables: the man was a social-climber; the working-class girl was sweet; the rich girl was only attractive because of her money.

To make audiences see the hero as a man in love rather than a man on the make, director George Stevens needed someone to play the rich girl who could convince viewers that the man loved the woman for herself --rather than for her bank account. He only wanted one actress for this role -- Elizabeth Taylor.

Guided by Stevens, Taylor turned Dreiser's agitprop into a multi-Kleenex blockbuster. And despite the earnestness of the Production Code Office (censors who controlled all American movie content between 1934 and 1967), to delete mentions of abortion, the critics and the public all understood that without the mistress' unplanned pregnancy, there would have been no tragedy. The characters, about whom we come to care deeply, might all have had a shot at happily ever after.

Today, as all around us we witness an exploding war on women, I cannot help but see BUtterfield 8 as one of her most important films. In it, her character isn't censured because she is a prostitute, but because SHE CHOOSES THE MEN WITH WHOM SHE'LL SLEEP.  She controls her sexuality, a core third-wave feminist tenet -- and one that was especially galling to physically gross, evil, misogynistic men (along the lines of that former Oxycontin addict who today dares to brand educated women "sluts") who desired her but whom she refused -- no matter how much money they threw at her.
In one great scene, she impales Laurence Harvey's foot with her spike heel until he realizes that she will not be bought (like a wife) or rented (like a hooker): "Now I get it," he says.  "You pick the man. He doesn't pick you."

To which she sarcastically adds: "Finally! Why I'm not teaching logic at Columbia I'll never know."

By my childhood, Taylor seemed to be this over-the-hill celebrity who could not stop getting married. But ideology, or political subtext, works in complicated ways, doesn’t it?

Actors both bring things to their parts and take things away with them. I think directors like George Stevens saw qualities of great strength in Elizabeth when she was too young and too scattered to have noticed them herself. In later life, and especially when she began her work as a fundraiser for AIDS, she would locate and draw upon these very qualities.

Elizabeth's films were a kind of university for her; George Stevens was a mentor who seemingly had great impact. In Giant, (1956), Taylor plays Leslie Benedict, an educated Eastern woman who marries Bick Benedict, a rich Texas cattle baron (Rock Hudson) and moves into his harsh, racist, misogynistic universe--which she slowly and slyly manages to change.  

Bick, for example, forbids Leslie to visit the run-down community where his Mexican workers live.  She defies him, and in one of the battered shacks, she finds a sick Mexican baby. Instead of pushing the baby away, she embraces him -- just as in later life she would embrace her gay male friends with HIV. She doesn't recoil. She returns to the privileged white ranching community and demands that its physician treat the sick baby. "He don't tend those people," her husband thunders.  But she doesn't back down. She forces the mainstream community -- and its doctors -- to acknowledge the humanity of the marginalized community. She forces them to acknowledge their suffering. Her character's courage in this film anticipates her own courage in later life. 

You write about one of her lesser-known films, The Sandpiper, which has some spectacular footage of Big Sur but also seemed like one of the studios lame attempts to capture the ‘60s counterculture. What else is going on?

One big antagonist in this book -- and in Elizabeth's life -- was the Roman Catholic Church. It at first took the form of the Production Code Administration. Although the Hays office, which oversaw the code was nominally secular, its chief enforcer, Joseph I. Breen, was a rabid lay Catholic. The code itself was written by Father Daniel Lord, a Jesuit. Lord's goal was to prevent challenges in film to the underpinnings of authoritarian society: the church, government, and the nuclear family.  

Significantly, he didn't care about enforcing "standards" in books or plays; he felt that any person educated enough to find a book with challenging ideas or attend a challenging Broadway play was already a lost cause -- on his or her way to the profound evil of intellectual autonomy. The code wasn't just about banishing sex from movies; it also enshrined the crudest prejudices of its time, forbidding, for instance, depictions of so-called "miscegenation," which is to say, interracial marriage.

After Elizabeth had left her fourth husband, Eddie Fisher, for Richard Burton, while filming Cleopatra in Italy, she wanted to adopt another child.   She had made arrangements to adopt a German baby with severe birth defects -- problems so severe that the little girl would need hundreds of thousands of dollars of surgery to correct them. At this time, because Taylor had left Fisher for Burton, the Vatican decided to pronounce her an "erotic vagrant" and to try to thwart the adoption. This wasn't just some guy hanging around the Vatican, it was the Vatican's official radio station and weekly newspaper. Despite the vicious slander, Elizabeth prevailed. She adopted the daughter, whose surgery went so well that she became a model when she grew up.
The Sandpiper can be read as a film in which Elizabeth's character -- an agnostic, with sympathy toward goddess-centered paganism --triumphs over the arid, Judeo-Christian monotheism that has tried to suffocate freethinking women like her through out history.

Elizabeth's character has an affair with an Episcopal Minister, played by Richard Burton. It isn't a one-note sexual affair where they walk off at film's end into the beautiful Big Sur sunset. It is about complicated issues: where will he go if his faith -- and irrelevant idea of family -- has failed him? The movie was written by distinguished, once-black-listed writer Dalton Trumbo. Because Richard and Elizabeth were such big stars at the time the film was made, I think audiences only saw their real-life personas, rather than the characters they played. This caused viewers to miss the story as a story -- with an important metaphorical underpinning. I hope people will view it again and find these things.

Do you have a favorite film or role of hers?

I love so many of these movies, but I think the exchange in BUtterfield 8 where she explains her sexual autonomy to Laurence Harvey is my favorite. Her character has lots of terrific one-liners.  

Of course the censors insisted that she be portrayed as "sick" and that she meet a painful, hideous death at the end of the movie.  But no one remembers those details. They remember Elizabeth--and her character--proud and in defiant control of her own body. 

What would the liberated Liz make of Rush Limbaugh’s recent behavior?
Rush Limbaugh is the sort of physically revolting lot who might have tried to purchase Gloria Wandrous, her character in BUtterfield 8. I'm sure both she -- and the character -- would have delighted in saying no to him. In 2008, before Barack Obama was the clear Democratic frontrunner, Elizabeth gave money to Hillary Clinton's campaign. Although I'm not sure whether she liked her clothes to speak for her, I can nevertheless imagine her in one of those buttons that says, "Sluts vote." 

How do you see her fitting into your larger project– which you’ve pursued in Forever Barbie and Astroturf – of exploring about the complications of gender?

I'm very interested in mid-century gender roles -- the damage they once caused and the way they have evolved. I miss doing science writing (a big part of Astro Turf) and I also miss drawing; I was Newsday's political cartoonist for the first 12 years of my career, right after I graduated from Yale.
For my next project, I am collaborating with Dr. Indre Viskontas, a UCLA neuroscientist who is also an opera singer, on a graphic novel that deals with the brain.

We are working together on the book's story -- it will have, we hope, a page-turning plot -- and I plan to do all the drawings.  I'm learning Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator, which did not exist when I left the profession in the early 1990s. I'm also learning to draw on a Wacom Cintiq, a tablet/monitor that functions like a traditional paper sketchbook. I have a tutor for this device and, I must admit, the learning curve is very steep.  But Indre tells me this is good, from a neuroscientific standpoint: learning challenging new skills keeps the brain young.

1 comment:

Gregory said...

Look forward to the next book, indeed. Had no idea about the cartooning career, either.

Gregory Benford