In 1964 I was looking over a wall in a suburb of Atlantic City, watching a man quietly getting soaked in his backyard. It was Eddie Fisher heartbroken over Elizabeth Taylor.
Interesting, life is.
They buried Elizabeth Taylor on Thursday a short distance from where I live today.
The movie I enjoyed and remember Ms. Taylor in, is Brian G. Hutton’s Nightwatch, hence the title of this post. I enjoy this film for multiple reasons. First, and foremost, it’s a thriller and I love a good thriller with an unexpected twist ending. The film also stars the late, great Laurence Harvey who had previously appeared with Taylor in the Oscar winning melodrama Butterfield 8 and I enjoy watching Taylor and Harvey together. Not only do they provide some incredible eye-candy, but they also have an interesting chemistry on screen. Taylor deliveres one of her most unusual and unexpected performances in Night Watch that clearly mocks some of her previous roles, while playing smartly with audience expectations. And lastly, Night Watch evokes many of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films.
Elizabeth Taylor came of age on screen in “A Place In the Sun,” based on Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” Notice how the Studio changed the title to something more upbeat than a “tragedy.” However, when that decision was made to change it, the value of Taylor’s name and public image in selling the film was as important as, if not more important than the title of the film (which often ran under the name of the star).
These matters explain the differences between a movie star today versus a Movie Star like Elizabeth Taylor. In the days of the Studio system, stars were products, or as we would say today: brands. This has been borne out with Taylor in the longstanding popularity of her fragrance White Diamonds, which has been a top seller for two decades. They were buying Elizabeth Taylor, the brand. Thank you Mr. Mayer.
The studios had their own brands, with their own looks. And MGM, where Elizabeth Taylor became star was the Tiffany of the Studios. In their heyday, when almost half the population of the country went to the movies every week, people went to see a Bogart picture, or Pickford or Gable and Lombard, or Errol Flynn on a Saturday matinee. They knew what an MGM picture looked like, versus a Warner Brothers, or 20th Century-Fox. They knew the stars attached to those studios. The stars' images and studios cross-referenced each other with these “star brands,” adding prestige and box-office. Elizabeth Taylor was quintessential in the process it is one reason why she ended up rich, admired, and adored.
It was a business model that went out of fashion like a lot of business models over the past century. In the days of the Studio movie, for example, a star or an aspiring star never left the house unless he or she looked like their screen image. It was only after the Studio system dispersed with contract players that the public began to see their stars looking like “real” people, unshaven, stressed out and indifferent to how he or she looks. A Star knew never to do that. They knew they were a “brand,” that they were “marketable.” They knew that looking good was money in the bank. Hollywood was a business, not a fantasy. In Hollywood, public life was always an audtion: you had to do your best. Or lose out. Women like Taylor knew the score when it came to business, right down to how to light themselves for the best results on film. They were pros, and working for a living.
It’s a strange life. Its reality is based on illusion and lighting. Movie stars get a kind of attention that three-year-olds get, except the Stars get it 24/7 for as long as they can stay in the public eye. It goes with the territory. The attention they attract and even create could drive most ordinary people crazy because it is often by its nature intrusive.
I once had a conversation about this with a woman who had grown up in the film industry. We were talking about an old friend of hers, a famous star who later in her life drew speculation that she was a lesbian because she always had a female companion wherever she traveled. And one of those longtime companions happened to be Sapphic by nature. She liked the dishiness of the speculation but didn’t believe it. “You have to understand darling,” she said to me, “she is a movie star. Movie stars need that attention. They’re used to it.”
This is especially true of the female stars who wear their egos often with more charm (like accessories) than do the men. It explains why they often marry men who take advantage of them: they need that male presence, as if to assure their position in the “community.”
Elizabeth Taylor was surely one of those women. She bore many of the traits and characteristics of this category of person.
Meanwhile, if we wish, we can and will always be able to enjoy her in roles the woman played, and played out herself for us to know.
drawing Al Hirschfeld