Saturday, March 26, 2011
Simply Not Possessable
I wonder if I’m the only person who thought to reread some of Steve Erickson’s excellent novel “Zeroville” on the day news broke of the death of Elizabeth Taylor. The lead character of that book has a giant tattoo on his shaved head of Taylor and Montgomery Clift in A PLACE IN THE SUN and, describing them as “the two most beautiful people in the history of the movies” (the history of the world, it may as well be to the book’s lead Vikram), “Zeroville” essentially presents them as a particular vision of everything Hollywood, along with the movies themselves, represents in the end. And I suppose A PLACE IN THE SUN really is the one film of hers I would choose to watch over and over if given the choice. Of course, much of Taylor’s stardom that I ever experienced firsthand had to do with her as a tabloid figure over the past three decades and that one film aside which probably fascinates me about her more than anything is the period in the 60s when she hooked up with Richard Burton on the legendary production of CLEOPATRA, causing a veritable firestorm throughout the world that never fully subsided. It seems like roughly the following decade for them was spent jetting all around the world making movies, some together and some not, as well as presumably spending lots of time in far off villas in places like islands off the Amalfi coast presumably lounging around with various other multi-national celebrities of the day. I’ve seen very few of the actual films, the sheer number of which surprise me when looking them up, but my interest in all this is really more about what went on during the actual productions and reading an article about what went on during the making of THE V.I.P.’S, to name one, makes me want to enter a time machine so I can go back to hobnob with them, joining in on a few of those many bottles of vodka and Dom Pérignon they consumed daily. It would certainly be preferable than actually watching THE V.I.P.’S, which is frankly a pretty excruciating experience and, honest admission, there are a few well-regarded titles of hers I still need to finally get to but at least I’ve seen GIANT and CLEOPATRA, both of which take up a lot of time. The HERE’S LUCY that guest-starred the pair sounds pretty good as well. And there are titles Taylor starred in through the years that haven’t been mentioned at all in these obits, they’ve just been lost to time and interest, with no late show to run them anymore. People love those films too. Sometimes those films that people love for their own reasons are the ones that mean the most of all.
And right now, as I think of Elizabeth Taylor, I think of a certain girl. I never had a chance with her, I suppose. I mean, I hoped I did. I dreamed I did. But I guess I really didn’t. Of course, there’s no way you can see that when you’re in the middle of it. But she’s gone now, moved in with some guy as of the first of this year so that as they say is that. I don’t know exactly where they moved to and though it’s apparently right nearby she could just as well have moved to Santa Monica. Or Canada. Or Florida. Or Outer Mongolia. Because it doesn’t seem like she’s talking to me anymore. I’ve known her off and on for almost ten years and though it’s always been clear that she’s a little…eccentric in her thinking, both inside and out she’s just about the most beautiful person I’ve ever known. She’s smarter than I am, extremely caring and yet…well, she drives me crazy. Now that I think about it, she actually looks kind of like Elizabeth Taylor. Well, maybe that’s not really true beyond how they’re both brunette, have beautiful eyes and a smile unlike any ever seen before. But maybe that resemblance is enough. Boy, is she pretty. And even now I still don’t feel I know what she ever really thought of me. Sure, she was the one who came and met me for dinner the night I was laid off and through the years we spent much time talking about all sorts of things in life but even now I still wonder if I was just a joke to her, the way it probably sometimes seemed like certain men were just jokes to Elizabeth Taylor. I still can’t quite decide. And I still want to know how, when I used a quote from THE SATANIC RITES OF DRACULA as the status on my Facebook page that time she was the first person to chime in with a response just a few minutes later indicating that she got the reference. I really don’t get that. She also replied, “Captain Howdy said no” when I quoted from a certain other more famous film but that wasn’t as much of a surprise. But she knew a lot about many other things as well, about books, music, art, the world and she certainly knew how to send my mind to places I could never possibly predict. And come to think of it, she never did give me back that DVD of ROMANCING THE STONE I lent her. Sure, I sort of said she could keep it but I thought we were just kidding. I didn’t know that she’d really move away with it maybe because I thought that as the Audrey Hepburn in this scenario I’d concocted she would eventually realize that I was the George Peppard in all this, the writer who lived in the same building that was always ready to talk at all hours and she’d finally come to this conclusion in an alley in the middle of a rainstorm. Or something like that. But these romantic comedies in real life never do seem to end well, do they. I can’t bring myself to fully express what I think of her here. Or maybe there just doesn’t seem to be much point anymore. I mention all this because like it seems to happen with people sometimes there was one movie that she mentioned she would like to find that was a favorite, namely the 1954 Elizabeth Taylor vehicle RHAPSODY. She never said why and while it’s possible she was just kidding about it I don’t think so. And now I’ve seen the movie, spending every single scene trying to figure out whatever sort of connection she might have made to it and even now, I’m still wondering.
Wealthy and beautiful Louise “Lulu” Durant (Elizabeth Taylor) is living a carefree life of luxury with her father Nicholas (Louis Calhern) in the South of France when she impulsively announces to him that she has fallen in love with promising violinist Paul Bronte (Vittorio Gassman) and that she will be going off with him to the conservatory in Zurich where he studies, joining him as she studies piano for herself but really her main goal is to marry him. Her father, while not forbidding her action, expresses skepticism that she knows what she is doing which seems to be confirmed when she finds that things in Zurich don’t go quite as she planned with Paul spending most of his time practicing and not paying attention to her. She is determined to make things work however but as Paul’s star begins to rise and pianist James Guest (John Ericson) expresses interest as well Louise needs to decide what really matters to her in this world.
It’s kind of sweet that this girl I knew seemed to like this film so much and maybe in some kind of FAHRENHEIT 451 sort of way it’s nice to imagine someone out there who feels passion for every single one of those movies that have been forgotten about, with only some scattered VHS copies out there to confirm they really exist. And maybe she’s not even the only one who feels this way since one comment left where the trailer can be found on Youtube is from someone who calls it “The best film I have ever seen!” That said, even the lengthiest Taylor bios written seem to dispense with RHAPSODY in less than a page, pretty much lumping it in with other such vehicles MGM crammed her into around this time and the actress herself wasn’t all that fond of the film either. And though I’m really no expert on this particular type of MGM romance filmed in glorious Technicolor the basic formula seems apparent enough that there probably isn’t all that much to RHAPSODY that would cause it to stand out from the pack aside from all that music, of which there is quite a bit of (“Melodic interludes bolster soaper” declares Maltin in his two-and-a-half star review). In its broad strokes, the melodrama is fairly standard and it’s certainly not the sort of Douglas Sirk-type approach that would come a few years later and take full advantage of toying with expectations or even doing something interesting with its leading lady. But then again, that’s really not what RHAPSODY is trying to do anyway.
With a screenplay by Fay and Michael Kanin (Adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, on the novel “Maurice Guest” by Henry Handel Richardson), the film was directed by Charles Vidor, also at the helm of many other Golden Age titles—the most famous of those might be GILDA which come to think of it is a favorite of the girl in question as well (what to make of this particular connection, I really don’t know). On the one hand it’s a film about all the classical music (by Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff and others) performed by both the violinist and pianist battling for Louise’s hand who figure into the plot and for long stretches that’s all you can really focus on, particularly during some concert sequences (one for each of the men) that go on so long it’s as if the movie has forgotten about its story which may be just as well since at certain points you can pretty much see where it’s going anyway. On the other hand, it’s of course about Taylor’s character. When there’s a close-up of her it’s about what she’s feeling. When there’s a close-up of someone else it’s about what they’re feeling about her. And as much as anything it’s about her character’s own attempts to reconcile what this music does to the men in her life and how she can somehow be a part of that world and them as well. As she forgoes the luxury of the Paris she knows for the small city of Zurich where this violinist she’s fallen for is practically a king among those who already know him she discovers almost instantly that her undeniable glamour will keep people interested in her for only so long, especially when she has no particular talent for music herself. Thinking about all this and continually watching these long, loving close-ups of Elizabeth Taylor—there must have been miles of footage shot of her shot, long, dreamy close-ups of her watching the men she loves perform, playing massive emotions to the hilt sitting there during some of these concerts—I continually found myself wondering about the uncommon beauty in my own life who professed to love this film and maybe how she related to it. Was it because of her own insecurities, her own dilemma of trying to figure out what she should focus on in life? Did she identify with worrying that her own beauty wouldn’t be enough to keep people’s interest, possibly refusing to consider what she might have to offer on her own? I can make a few guesses but while a few possible similarities come to mind between her and the character of Louise (as well as the legendary actress playing her) I think I’ll keep certain things to myself. But as for my own connection to this girl I suppose I kept picturing myself as the equivalent of the piano player who falls for Louise, a humorless block of wood with zero self esteem and who dreams one day of being good enough for her. Things haven’t worked out quite as well for me. I’ve written at least one script about her in the past and there’s always the fear I’ll write another, but there isn’t the same sort of MGM to fit these dreams into. And as of now, there’s no longer an Elizabeth Taylor either. Everything ends.
Along with being about endless close-ups of its star, RHAPSODY acknowledges the balance an artist needs to find when it comes to achieving what they want. Sometimes all you need is the glory that you achieve for yourself. But sometimes the only way you can express yourself is to be doing it with someone else in mind as well. And maybe the middle ground in all that, according to where the film goes, is where the most passionate kind of expression of all can emerge from. The emotional dilemma is appropriately earnest for this type of soapy film, the journey of a gorgeous young woman who is willing to give everything up for a man because she ‘needs to be needed’, but quickly realizes that to stay with him means she’s going to be nothing more than an appendage. And it’s all done in that patented MGM house style, obviously never leaving the backlot in Culver City, with exquisite camerawork, everyone including the extras looking perfect and the single room rented by the leads in a boarding house that looks to be the size of a hotel suite. And of course the star of the film, the reason it exists, is always made up to the nines, always looking as beautiful as she could possibly be. There are considerable flaws in the script including how it can’t seem to think of anything else for her to do other than provide inspiration to one of these men, even if putting aside her own self-interests accomplishes more than just having lunches with her father in St. Moritz, and when the pianist James begins to play a greater role in her life after she’s been rejected by Paul during the second half it’s not all that clear why he turns to booze in lieu of his music or anything else—is it just bitterness over how she still loves Paul? Is it his own fears of not being as good as him? Maybe it’s some combination, I guess, but it feels muddied and ultimately causes where the plot goes to not be as satisfying as it should be since he barely seems to have earned Louise’s attention. RHAPSODY is kind of lumpy and unfocused so I can imagine how after making something like A PLACE IN THE SUN with Montgomery Clift and George Stevens there probably wasn’t much at all here to challenge Taylor as an actress. Still, it has a certain amount of old Hollywood charm to its Technicolor lushness and over-the-top emotions so it isn’t really doing anyone any harm. If somebody I’ve been lucky to know in my life has a certain attachment to this film for whatever reason I can’t bring myself to dislike it all that much.
It’s Elizabeth Taylor’s film and she knows how to sell every emotion of this spoiled rich girl trying to find a place for her among these men but who ultimately proves herself to be stronger than either of the two men in her life basically because she’s Elizabeth Taylor. She’s very much a movie star here and she's certainly more interesting than those men ever are—Vittorio Gassmann sells his Mediteranian charisma as well as the ultimate self-interest of his character while John Ericson’s stiffness may be appropriate at times but still doesn’t make for the most charismatic personality to root for. Let’s just say that Taylor had better chemistry with a number of other actors she worked with over the years and, if anything, both actors certainly sell the illusion that they’re actually performing this music which turns out to be the most impressive part of both their performances. As Louise’s father, Louis Calhern is aided by a script that makes him much more sympathetic that the strict patriarch usually seen in this sort of film and the actor is good enough that I don’t automatically think of him as Trentino in DUCK SOUP every time he comes on. That will be what I always remember him from, though, but there’s nothing really wrong with that.
For the record, RHAPSODY is now available at the Warner Archive (I think I may have once told her this) and it also turns up on TCM occasionally but, no surprise, it’s not included in the day long tribute that they have scheduled. But the legend of Elizabeth Taylor will live on, even if most people never hear of this film. A film that I would never have thought to see if not for her, if RHAPSODY says anything it’s that certain women in our lives are worth loving, just as much as loving whatever it is that we do. And if we lose them, well, that’s one type of The End filmed in Hollywood, USA that’s no fun at all. There are more films I would have liked to have shown this girl, more things in life I would have liked to have told her. More I would have liked her to have told me. I was going through some stuff the other day when I found a copy of “Where The Wild Things Are” that she once gave to me as a gift. Inside she inscribed my name adding, “Never grow up! Thank you for being so incredible!” I pretty much sat there for the next hour or so just staring at that. The book is still sitting beside me as I write this now and it’ll probably remain there for the time being, maybe for as long as I’ll wonder if it’s her whenever I see a black VW bug drive by. You don’t forget about such a woman, whether it’s Elizabeth Taylor at her most beautiful or someone you’ve been fortunate to know in real life, forever remembering what it was like to have her look at you and smile. If you have that, I suppose you know what it’s really like to be alive.