Authors: William J. Mann
How to Be a Movie Star
Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood
William J. Mann
Table of Contents
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT
BOSTON • NEW YORK
Copyright © 2009 by William J. Mann
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
For information about permission
to reproduce selections from this book, write to
Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company,
215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Mann, William J.
How to be a movie star : Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood /
William J. Mann.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
1. Taylor, Elizabeth, 1932– 2. Motion picture actors
and actresses—United States—Biography. I. Title.
Book design by Linda Lockowitz
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Timothy Huber
I don't pretend to be
an ordinary housewife.
Prologue: How to Be a Movie Star
1. When in Rome
2. Educating a Movie Star
3. The Most Exciting Girl
4. Acting Out
5. Over the Top
6. Protecting Interests
7. A Second Chance on Life
8. No Deodorant Like Success
9. Rewriting the Rules
Epilogue: How to Stay a Movie Star
How to Be a Movie Star
OR ONCE THE SUN
overhead was the brightest object around. On a warm morning in September 2006, Elizabeth Taylor, seventy-four, left the diamonds at home and boarded a sightseeing boat, the
off Oahu's North Shore. Wearing a baggy white T-shirt over a one-piece bathing suit, she gripped the arms of her black wheelchair tightly as the craft zipped out of Haleiwa Harbor. Slapping against the waves of the Pacific, the thirty-two–foot
was a far cry from the
the floating palace with six cabins and two staterooms on which Taylor had once navigated the world. But a leisurely cruise was not what the two-time Academy Award winner had in mind.
Three miles out to sea, the
arrived at what its captain called "the shark grounds." On another excursion not long before, Elizabeth had sat forlornly while her friends dropped off the side of the boat in a Plexiglas cage to swim with Galapagos sharks. Alone on deck, she'd stewed; the sidelines had never been for her. So she'd insisted on another trip—and this time no one was going to stop her from going down.
In the months leading up to this day, the papers had been filled with tales of Elizabeth Taylor being "near death" or half-mad from Alzheimer's. She'd gone on
Larry King Live
to dispel the rumors, but she knew there were ways of making the point a bit more vividly. So, slowly and determinedly, she rose from that damn chair. Handed a mask, she followed the instructions to spit into it so that the plastic wouldn't fog up underwater. Then she slipped the thing on and bit down on the snorkel. Pushing aides aside, she stepped into the ten-by-six-foot cage. Lured by the engine, the sharks were already circling. With the pull of a lever and a wave from the star, the cage slid below the surface of the ocean.
Of course, this wasn't the first time Elizabeth Taylor had gone head-to-head with sharks. She'd tangled with lots of them: demanding studio heads, overbearing directors, bluenose columnists, greedy husbands. And she'd done so with a shrewdness and a keen understanding of just how a star went about getting what she wanted. "She was always in control," said her friend, photographer Gianni Bozzachi. "She did not seek fame but she knew how to use it. She was very smart. People don't know how smart." Some chroniclers, perhaps too dazzled by the violet eyes and the glittery melodrama of her life, have missed that salient point. Long before our own celebrity age, Elizabeth Taylor carved the template for how to be a movie star. So many of the tricks of the trade can be traced right back to her.
When the cage finally resurfaced, Taylor smiled at the photographer who was there to record the moment. Her scarlet nails, still perfectly manicured, sparkled in the sun. Getting into that shark cage, she later told columnist Liz Smith, was "the most exciting thing" she'd done—which, given her life, was saying a lot. "To be in that cage and watch the sharks get closer and closer," she told Ingrid Sischy in
"I had no sense of fear." Of course not; sitting across from Louis B. Mayer had been far more unnerving. Within a short time, the photos and news of her adventure had zoomed around the world. Soon there was buzz about an eighth marriage and a possible lead in the film version of the musical
So much for death's door, baby.
Movie stars—like automobiles, airplanes, and apple pies—are quintessentially American commodities. When we measure what we've given the world, the product of Personality—used to inspire, entertain, endorse, titillate, preach, stoke the flames of our imaginations, and sell, sell, sell—may prove more influential than even the Model T. Elizabeth Taylor—for her performances both good and bad, for her innocence, sexiness, rebellion, honesty, and sheer life force—has been called the greatest movie star of all. She has become a cultural artifact that transcends temporal value judgments and the hectoring of the moralists who plagued her career. Her life was made into art, soap opera, scandal, tragedy, and even a bit of myth—a transformation begun by the starmakers at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the studio that launched her when she was twelve, and continued by agents and publicists like Kurt Frings, Bill Doll, John Springer, and Chen Sam, and given its final patina by the media, with which Taylor has always had a symbiotic relationship. A creature of newspaper headlines and telephoto images, Elizabeth enjoyed an unprecedented celebrity that made her into an icon of desire, of gusto, of appetites passionately sated, of candor, of courage, of never saying no to big bad life.
With her studio-instilled instinct for
(not to mention her refusal to suffer even a moment of boredom), Elizabeth Taylor created the model for stardom and turned it into big business. Before "Liz," the paparazzi were just a bunch of aggressive Italian photographers; because of her, they became a worldwide phenomenon. Part engineering, part instinct, part fate, part simply the pursuit of good times, her fame continues to set the gold standard. Britney may break down; Angelina may steal Brad from Jen; Madonna may reinvent herself as saint, shepherdess, horsewoman, or action figure. But no one has done anything that Elizabeth Taylor didn't do first—and without the excess calculation.
Today's stars concoct their lives for public consumption: Was Britney really that crazy or was it just a quirky twenty-first-century way of staying in the headlines? So much in stars' lives is suspect today. Taylor, by contrast, was brought up to be a star; and while she certainly took advantage of every twist and turn in her epic life, she wasn't constantly configuring and reconfiguring her existence for maximum exposure—the way, for example, her first husband's grandniece, Paris Hilton, would do a couple of generations later. For Taylor, stardom came naturally. She had an affinity for the romance of life. Her fame was a roller coaster of spontaneity and strategy, and all the would-be icons who have followed her have attempted to retrace that pattern, manufacturing the kinds of developments that came to Taylor so extempore and that she (or those who worked for her) used so brilliantly to her advantage.
She also understood that riding the headlines was never enough; she knew that fame should be an exchange with the public. And so, for every cover of
there was a
Suddenly, Last Summer.
After all the hoopla over her affair with Richard Burton, she made sure there was a
Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
"I don't pretend to be an ordinary housewife," Elizabeth once declared, and that, in a simple sentence, is the secret of her appeal. Many of her contemporaries
pretend to be ordinary housewives, succumbing to the dictum that stars should be like the rest of us. But Taylor stood apart, reveling in her ability to fascinate, to scandalize, to provoke. Swathed in mink, sailing aboard yachts, discarding husbands nearly as frequently as she changed her diamond earrings, Elizabeth dominated the headlines for three glittering decades, rewriting the rules as she went along, inverting paradigms, defying conventions, beating expectations, and in the course of it all laying down the yardstick by which celebrity has been measured ever since.
Part of her celebrity, of course, was inherent, magical, and un-quantifiable. "At her best, Elizabeth Taylor simply
" writes Camille Paglia. "An electric, erotic charge vibrates the space between her face and the lens. It is an extrasensory, pagan phenomenon." Richard Burton, admittedly not an unbiased observer, thought that Elizabeth "emanated" something onscreen that he frankly didn't understand—a trait she shared with Brando, Clift, and Garbo.
But an equally large part of it was
Taylor grew up with the camera, after all, both the motion-picture variety and the popping flashcubes of the press corps. By sheer instinct she knew how to position herself in a shot. One of her directors was amazed by her ability to determine the camera's location simply by the heat on her cheeks. She could also be a damn fine actress at times: Hollywood historian Gavin Lambert thought that with the right director, Taylor could "more than rise to the occasion," while Paglia declared her "the greatest actress in film history"—not for any proficiency in technique but for her mastery of the "liquid realm of emotion." That's the point: Of all the lessons Taylor learned so well at MGM, the most valuable had little to do with acting.
Consider this: In 1950, when she was eighteen and making
Father of the Bride,
the studio decided that Elizabeth should take a real-life trip down the aisle for the good of the box office. The marriage was a personal trauma for the sensitive young woman, but it also proved to be an instructive experience in the ways that stardom could be sold—and souls damaged. In such an ambitious and mercenary world, Taylor had to become tough and refuse to crumble like Judy Garland. Her triumph over the studio system meant that she would help lay the foundation for the industry and the ways of doing business that replaced it. She was the first female star to be paid a million dollars a picture
to take a share of the profits. When she was told a few years ago that Julia Roberts was making twenty million a picture, Elizabeth simply smiled and said, "I started it."