Movie Notes: Elizabeth Taylor and Me

by Rich Rubenstein on July 3, 2011 · 2 comments

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I first encountered Elizabeth Taylor (NOT “Liz” — she detested that name) in 1952.  I was 14 years old; she was 20.  We were both double Pisces.  Our meeting place was the Central Theatre in Cedarhurst, Long Island, where she was appearing onscreen as Rebecca, the daughter of Isaac of York, Richard III’s Jewish redeemer in Ivanhoe (book by Sir Walter Scott).

Never was Elizabeth more heartbreakingly beautiful.  Her sexuality was all the more potent for being diffused, repressed, hidden behind the Jewish Maiden’s veil.  And above the veil . . . those eyes!  When I got a little older, I appreciated her differently. But at 14, in the Central Theatre, I met my Queen and surrendered.  For years, my parents had assured me that being Jewish was not a bad thing at all, but a Good Thing.  Now I was sure that they were right.  

Of course, the movie had its annoyances.  Elizabeth/Rebecca had a crush on the handsome Robert Taylor, who played the title role, while he favored the pallid, aristocratic Rowena, played by Joan Fontaine — bad taste all around, in my view.  Why Elizabeth would favor some steely-jawed jock on horseback over a slender, poetic fellow of her own faith — someone, say, like me — escaped me.  But she ended by renouncing him, and he settled for la Fontaine.

Since that memorable afternoon at the Central, I think I’ve seen every Elizabeth Taylor film in the catalog.  The question of her craft — could she really act? — has always seemed unanswerable, possibly because of the difficulty of defining what movie acting is.  It is what happens in the brief interludes of “action” that punctuate the dull chores and endless waiting characteristic of the military and movie businesses.  The camera rolls and you are called on — now!!  — to deliver an emotional jolt in character to the invisible audience

No wonder that so many movie stars essentially play costumed versions of themselves.  In plays-on-film like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf Taylor does a creditable Broadway-style job of emoting.  But in minor masterpieces like Suddenly Last Summer (playing opposite her beloved, doomed friend, Montgomery Clift), it’s impossible to say whether she is playing Elizabeth or  Tennessee Williams’ Catherine Holly, or both.

The same may be said of her Maggie the Cat or — the height of silliness and fun — her Cleopatra.  Elizabeth’s art, if that’s what it was, was to Elizabeth-ify all her roles.  But there was something strangely ego-less about all this.  What she was saying was not “Look at me!  Look at me!” but “Make of me whatever you like.”  What defines our oddly intimate relationship with stars we absolutely do not know is their capacity and willingness — in Elizabeth, developed to the nth degree — to serve as ambiguous, glowing, essentially featureless figures on which we project our own fantastic longings.

Rebecca, violet-eyed daughter of Isaac of York, I will miss you!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Marta Lukowski September 10, 2011 at 7:27 pm

I have a question. An Indian from India that I worked for during 2 weeks had me proof read a book he has published.
The title is “Jihad Genocide” and it deals with a supposed Muslim who converted to Christianity. This author claims it is his life’s story in disguise but his present business of 25 years belies even a remote possiblity.
Would this not be a copyright infringement on the title of your book?
As a retired newspaper reporter, I am curious. Thanks.

Reply

Rich Rubenstein September 11, 2011 at 3:05 am

Marta, “Jihad Genocide” isn’t very close to the title of my book. But, in any case,
there’s no such thing as a copyright in titles — only in the text. If you want to,
you could write a book called “War and Peace” or “Herzog,” and nobody could sue you!
Copyright is a very interesting subject. If you’re interested, the most readable book
about it, in my opinion, is “An Unhurried View of Copyright” by an old teacher of mine,
the great Benjamin Kaplan. It’s available in a 2005 edition from Lexis/Nexus. Thanks
for writing in any case.

Reply

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