Saturday, May 01, 2010

Actress Files: Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor, Raintree County
★ ★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1957 Best Actress Oscar to Joanne Woodward for The Three Faces of Eve)

Why I Waited: This film has had a PR problem for more than fifty years, which probably explains its continued absence on DVD.

The Performance: What is Elizabeth Taylor doing in Raintree County? Is she acting, per se? Are we to trust the implication of this first in four consecutive Best Actress nominations that she is acting well? The questions of Liz's talent and taste never really resolve themselves. Sure, there's Woolf, but if as consistently hamstrung a screen presence as Hilary Swank can yield a Boys Don't Cry, there is no telling what any dubiously equipped but diligent actress might attain in the right circumstances. One wants to believe that Liz can act, even more so after Raintree earned her (alone, among everyone involved) some strong notices and bagged her this nod. What's on the screen, though, is hard to parse into categories like "good" and "bad," though there are interludes when it's pretty unambiguously bad, or when it's such high-calorie camp that it tastes indefensibly good.

Indeed, the tension between coveted ideals and plain facts is a poignant sticking-point for the whole film, which yearns so evidently to be the next Gone with the Wind, to salvage a capsized and smashed Monty Clift, to harvest a whole trawling-net of Oscars despite its profound failures of dramatics and workmanship. A viewer might be forgiven for feeling sentimentally sorry for such a lush, tacky, manifestly broken project. Maybe the affects of the antebellum South are contagious, since as with Old Dixie itself, I don't find any nostalgic foothold in Raintree County; its "glamor" looks pretty threadbare and calculated to me, yet its lush craving to be thought of as glamorous yields a peculiar pitying quality, a willingness to go along with the lie. Like Blanche DuBois, the film begs you to find it fetching, and its dreams for itself are touching even as, or maybe because, it seems suffused with self-consciousness that it wouldn't stand up to the faintest ray of direct light. In many ways, Liz's performance as the vixen Susanna Drake, the amoral wife with a secret, represents both an apotheosis of this quandary, this plea for esteem from a piece of obviously bruised fruit, but it's also the one element of the movie for which anything like a defense could plausibly, with heavy caveats, be mounted.

She doesn't appear until 30 minutes into the movie, though if you paused the film at that juncture, you'd be hard-pressed to recount anything that's really happened yet. Director Edward Dmytryk seems stymied by the bozo story, the hollow romanticism, and the mandate to frame as much of the MGM production design and the natural backdrops as possible in any given shot. Clift seems half-present even in the scenes where he doesn't look more materially impaired, and Eva Marie Saint is pure skim milk as a woman who will obviously be thrust aside once some generically inevitable, gutsy and enticing brunette shows up. But if sultry, forward, manipulative Susanna is pure convention, Liz remains sui generis. After who knows how much practice in real life, she fuses coy girlishness and undisguised libido with the best of them. "Are you a fast runner?" Susanna asks Clift's flummoxed and awed John Shawnessy, as they discuss an upcoming race in which John is to take part. "I'm a pretty fast runner myself," she supplies, with the kind of deadlocked gaze that, in a bar, always leads to a quick demand for the check. Exercising her Dixieland right to brazen hypocrisy as a social nicety, she apologizes instantly for her unladylike behavior. John immediately responds, "I like un-ladies." We know, Monty, we know.

Fixating on Clift's torments, Taylor's compassion for human wrecks, and the voluminous press about her being his nurturer on set and his protector among the higher-ups can feel like an unbecoming, extra-textual fixation, especially when Raintree County proves so bulging yet empty that thinking about almost anything else becomes tempting. Really, though, the translucency of the Monty-Liz narrative just beneath the John-Susanna affair redeems the movie on a key emotional plane. As written, there's no reason for him to put up with her, and nothing but dimestore neurosis, pathologized sensuality, and incipient Gothic madness underneath her naughty-doll carapace. (Dolls trail the character everywhere in the mise-en-scène, which eventually figures as a plot point.) As embodied by these two, Monty's gravitation toward her tenderness is as palpable as Liz's is toward his hurt and beauty. All of which leads to some profound dissonance with the unstable, unprincipled conniver and the stalwart teacher-soldier-politician that they're meant to be playing, but Raintree's script can stand to be sidelined. You almost wonder if Dmytryk and his team knew they were getting more from the celebrity melodrama à clef than from the ostensible scenario.

For the most part, Clift looks too helpless to exert any agency over the strange, unsutured double-film that Raintree becomes, but Liz, who's always got at least one set of wits about her (and usually more), seems to thrive on the chance to embellish both halves of her offscreen persona, the sexual mercenary and the maternal shoulder to cry on. She sinks her teeth into the ruthlessness and then the hysteria of Susanna, with something like the ragged, barely dignified verve of Suddenly, Last Summer, and secure that she needn't play up to this tawdry material, in the way she did for the following year's Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, at some cost to her basic charisma. As I said recently about Ann-Margret in Tommy, Liz's willingness to Go There on behalf of a loony picture turns out to be a key asset. The kind of carnal and despondent raving she does on her funereal slab of a four-poster bad, her frazzled apostrophes about the vileness of Negro blood, the way she shuts her eyes and clamps her throat around the Nasty Truth of What Happened in the Past—she isn't the kind of actress who can make you believe any of this hornswoggle, which isn't to be believed in any case, but her tremendous capacity for taking it seriously as something to be effigied in the name of entertainment makes for some good spectacle. She utters the phrase "Find the raintree!" in exactly the beatific way she would later say "White diamonds!" but the movie needs that kind of credulous commitment. Something approaching a character, defined by her own excesses, actually comes into view, as does a saucy little essay about Americans who cleave so tightly to their myths, their guilty secrets, the literal and figurative toys of their childhoods that they'll mortgage their adulthoods and those of others in defense of these playthings. That she (Susanna) can fume and flail in these ways against her disbelieving husband (John), while projecting at the same time that she (Liz) is somehow sustaining and solacing him (Monty) through these very tirades of corrupt but earnest emotion makes the performance and the movie more senseless but also temporarily galvanizing. Co-dependency has rarely been so exposed in all of its reciprocal sickness, nor shown to be such a genuine balm between unlikely intimates.

Which isn't to say that Taylor's Susanna is a creation one dreams of seeing on an Oscar ballot. It's all so overblown, so rendered in crayon: the stay in the boobyhouse, the kudzu accent ("THHIS iz ware ah LEE-uv!"), the weepy collapses, the uproarious martyr complex. But there's a canniness, even a sort of breathtaking ambition to Liz's schtick, which wouldn't come through in any one scene but congeals across the three hours. (Something ought to.) Proud and catlike, she seems to know that she's doing four things at once: giving a fitfully witty but under-trained and sometimes embarrassing dramatic performance; furnishing a lewd, sparkling stripe of invulnerable movie-star charisma to a project in dire need; not competing with so much as constituting part of a parti-colored mise-en-scène that swallows up everybody else, except for Monty, so long as he's with her; and, as far as that goes, keeping her friend alive and at work, whether or not that's ultimately what's best for him. None of this constitutes a recipe that could or should be easily repeated, but bigger rewards have been conferred on lesser exertions. Given that Oscar often seems like just as much of a cheap-brass, ignobly sustained, self-flattering dream as Raintree County, or as pre-war Mississippi gentility, Taylor's nomination, a head-scratcher in many ways, makes its own kind of compelling sense.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 32 to Go

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Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

quoth he:

"'I like un-ladies.' We know, Monty, we know."

best line ever!

7:41 AM, May 01, 2010  
Blogger Colin Low said...

Brilliant reading, as always. I've never really been impressed by Liz Taylor (at least in the two Williams adaptations you've mentioned, especially when she gets figuratively trampled by Hepburn in Summer), though she's potent and energetic in Woolf, but you're right that she's the kind of celebrity that one wants to believe can act. And you write about this movie so generously that I want to watch it to see what you mean (and to rewatch and reconsider my reaction to Leigh in Streetcar, too).

Plus, seconding Nathaniel: "We know, Monty, we know." Unimpeachable.

11:46 AM, May 01, 2010  
Blogger James T said...

This might be your best piece of the last, I don't know, two months?

I LOVE La Liz ever since I saw Cleopatra! I do think good acting doesn't come very naturally to her but I would say that overall she is a fine actress.

I haven't seen this movie but I thought she was good in both "Cat on.." (though I don't really remember the performance) and "Suddenly, Last Summer" which I saw recently. I was constantly afraid she would get over the top but I thought she was adequately, if not impressively, controlled.

And I think she might have the second most beautiful face I've seen in the movies after Grace Kelly's. (Whisper: Winslet's face is my favorite but I don't want to sound like I think she's the most perfect thing ever, even if I do :p)

12:45 PM, May 01, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

I love la Liz so i don't like to hear so much doubt about her abilities. I don't even remember her being bad in BUtterfield 8 which everyone says she's bad in (including I think Liz?)

she's such a movie star. In the best possible way.

and i also think she's sensational in A Place in the Sun

2:20 PM, May 01, 2010  
Blogger Michael Shetina said...

My Liz problem is that I started with Woolf?, then A Place in the Sun (the film's failings are George Stevens' and not the brilliant cast), then Suddenly, Last Summer and then Cat on Hot Tin Roof. Essentially I saw all of her performances worth seeing and have been disappointed with every single on since. Raintree is a deferred... pleasure.

8:46 PM, May 01, 2010  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

How crazy is it that I gasped with happiness to see you gave this two stars? I was expecting a one, definitely. I saw this too long ago to be certain how I feel, but I know it's not remembered fondly but I'm too much of a Liz fan to admit it, I suppose. She's not always excellent, but I always find her at least good even when everything working against her (A Little Night Music, yikes) and she's good in performances that people forget (flawless - to me at least - in The Taming of the Shrew.)

12:55 AM, May 02, 2010  
Blogger tim r said...

The only scintilla of dismay for me in reading this was finding not one mention of Secret Ceremony, which is surely where overripe Elizabeth Taylor performances go to die. Otherwise, a total joy!

2:45 AM, May 04, 2010  
Blogger Matt said...

Brilliantly written piece, and with sustained wit. Love the "un-ladies" comment; it conjured up other reviews you should tackle: "The Un-Lady and the Tramp." Or perhaps a re-appraisal of Jill Clayburgh in "An Unmarried Un-Lady."

I'm intrigued by the point you make regarding the dissonance between off-screen dynamics of cast members and the on-screen story. The relationship of actors sometimes creates a subtext that seeps into the film text in inappropriate, but sometimes interesting, ways. In "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner," Katharine Hepburn weeps at the end of Spencer Tracy's final speech, but in terms of the story, there's really no motivation for her to do so; most likely, her reaction is engendered by Tracy's ailing condition--and he, in fact, died, shortly after the film's completion.

I wonder how much acting we see on the screen is determined by the relationships the actors develop with each other. It would be interesting to see, for example, a romantic comedy in which you could tell that the leads couldn't stand each other. The movie would most likely be entertaingly awful.

11:40 PM, July 30, 2010  

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