NEAL CONAN, host: Well, it's time to say goodbye to the TOTN summer movie festival this year. But don't worry. We're going out with a legend. Back in March, Hollywood lost one of its brightest Hollywood stars, so we've decided to dedicate our final summer movies installment to Elizabeth Taylor. She began her film career in the classic "National Velvet."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NATIONAL VELVET")
ELIZABETH TAYLOR: (as Velvet Brown) He's a gentle one. I will just call him Pie. Oh, you're a pretty one, Pie. You didn't mean to run away.
REGINALD OWEN: (as Farmer Ede) You are a wizard, Velvet.
TAYLOR: (as Velvet Brown) May I ride him, Mr. Ede?
OWEN: (as Farmer Ede) Ride this horse?
TAYLOR: (as Velvet Brown) Oh, please, let me ride him.
CONAN: And ride him she did - all the way to stardom. She became one of the few child stars to find even more success as an adult. She won two Oscars and played everything from Maggie the Cat to Cleopatra. What's the Liz Taylor film or part you love the most? The number: 800-989-8255. Email: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And, of course, joining us to extol Ms. Taylor's many virtues - oh, those violet eyes - is the man himself, NPR's - TALK OF THE NATION's favorite movie buff Murray Horwitz, back with us here in Studio 3A. Hey, Murray.
MURRAY HORWITZ: Hey, Neal. Thank you, and thanks for this topic. What a pleasure to just - to see these movies again.
CONAN: Does Elizabeth Taylor - it's interesting, drawing a distinction sometimes between her favorite film and her favorite part because some of those films...
HORWITZ: No, it's true. It's interesting. Some of the films - you look at one that is a favorite of mine, is a Tennessee Williams - it's an adaptation of his late play "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore," and it's this film with Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Noel Coward.
HORWITZ: It's called "Boom!" right? It's a Joseph Losey directed film. Not a great film, but she's remarkable in it. It's just so weird. It's, you know - so sometimes - you're right. She's doing a remarkable job, and the film's just, I don't know - it's got problems.
CONAN: In "Boom!" she plays a wealthy dying woman on a secluded island.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BOOM!")
TAYLOR: (as Flora "Sissy" Goforth) Now tell them to bring the table over here so I can put my chair in the shadow when I want it in the shadow. My skin is too delicate to be in the sun for more than half-hour intervals. Now tell him what I want put on the table: a cold bottle of mineral water, suntan lotion, cigarettes, codeine tabs, a bucket of ice, a glass, a bottle of brandy, my newspapers, the Paris Trib, the Rome Daily American, the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Daily Express.
CONAN: And I'll have your liver for lunch.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HORWITZ: With some fava beans and a nice Chianti - no, she - and that's it about her. You know, she took on these amazingly challenging roles. I was talking to the film scholar Sammy Wasson about this, and he said, well, you know, her acting sometimes - and to me, the index of it are these almost impossible roles she took on. I mean, "Cleopatra," and, you know, in "Suddenly, Last Summer" and all these Tennessee Williams females. What woman would do that to herself, to take on these impossible roles?
CONAN: And we forget also a star - a star...
HORWITZ: I mean, the biggest...
CONAN: ...every step of the way.
HORWITZ: A huge star. I mean, people forget how huge, how long she was number one and how very number one she was. She was nominated for best actress something like four years in a row. She won twice. She also - let's not forget her humanitarian work and one of the first important stars to speak out about AIDS and government inaction about AIDS. And so she got the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Oscar in 1993. She was it, Jack. I mean, in the late '50s and early '60s, she was number one for a very long time. And because she had grown up in the studio system, she knew from a very early age that she was going to be a big movie star. And she was the best Elizabeth Taylor you could imagine.
CONAN: You mentioned her work with AIDS in part due to her friend - friendship with Rock Hudson.
CONAN: And in "Giant" she played the wife of the wealthy Texan rancher, who begins to care about the poor Mexican-Americans who live on their ranch.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GIANT")
TAYLOR: (as Leslie Benedict) Jordan, that place is a scandal. Dr. Guerra threw his hands up in horror.
ROCK HUDSON: (as Jordan 'Bick' Benedict Jr.) That's his problem.
TAYLOR: (as Leslie Benedict) You've been a big, powerful, rich Texan for 100 years. Why don't you do something about it?
HUDSON: (as Jordan 'Bick' Benedict Jr.) I'm not the Red Cross. I'm a cowman.
TAYLOR: (as Leslie Benedict) Well, if you won't, I will.
CONAN: Oh, if he won't, James Dean will. Actually, James Dean won't.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HORWITZ: Well, that's a George Stevens film. And another index of a great actor is whom she works with and who chooses to work with her. I mentioned Joseph Losey, George Stevens, Vincente Minnelli, Richard Brooks, I mean just some extraordinary directors who wanted her because she delivered for them. She would try anything. I think she was a very, very courageous actress.
CONAN: Let's see if we get some callers in on the conversation. 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org. And let's see if we can begin with Sherry(ph). And Sherry's with us on the line from Canyon Lake in California.
SHERRY: She was my favorite for all time. And I have to say I admire her most for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" because what she was going through in her personal life - her husband at the time was killed in a horrible plane crash, and she didn't go because she wasn't feeling well and she had just had a baby. I think all the things she's going through, and she's just so wonderful. Of course, watching her with Paul Newman on the screen was the one and only time I - it was just - it was a wonderful experience to see over and over again.
CONAN: This is, again, one of those Tennessee Williams roles. And, of course, not just Paul Newman but Burl Ives and - well, anyway, let's listen to Elizabeth Taylor as Maggie the Cat.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF")
TAYLOR: (as Maggie Pollitt) I love you. And that's worth fighting for. Not Skipper. Skipper was no good.
PAUL NEWMAN: (as Brick Pollitt) Maggie...
TAYLOR: (as Maggie Pollitt) Maybe I'm no good either. Nobody is good. But Brick, Skipper is dead, and I'm alive.
NEWMAN: (as Brick Pollitt) Maggie.
TAYLOR: (as Maggie Pollitt) Maggie the Cat is alive. I'm alive. Why are you afraid of the truth?
CONAN: Well, of course he couldn't handle the truth.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HORWITZ: That's a different movie. But, you know, Sherry points out something really important, this kind of conflation of her - which is what you want from your movie stars, after all, isn't it - of her personal life and her onscreen work. She - as I said, she with the multiple marriages and the tragedies and the...
CONAN: That particular husband was Mike Todd, the producer.
HORWITZ: Right. Exactly. The producer Michael Todd. And, you know, in the scandals with Eddie Fisher and Richard Burton and this and that. And so that when she does this long series of movies beginning in the 1960s with Richard Burton, she doesn't do any films without him for a long time, even appeared as an extra in a couple of his films just so they could say they did it, it's - as I say, this combination of her private life and her personal life that - personal life, rather, and her professional life that she played to the hilt, and we went right along with her.
CONAN: Sherry, an emailer by the name of Tom shares your opinion: I've seen "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" about a dozen times. Truly remarkable cast. It's also - I think of all of her pictures, well, "Cleopatra" is special, but - or - well, it's sui generis, shall we say.
HORWITZ: With the emphasis on the sui.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: Chop suey. But the good ones, that's the best, I think.
SHERRY: I had also heard one other thing I wanted to share, that she was at - she was in such a state after the Mike Todd crash that she was actually starving herself. And if you remember the scene early on in the movie, the ice cream scene, they kept - the director kept shooting it on and on because she wasn't eating and he wanted to get some, you know, sugar in her. And she was really in a bad state during that film.
CONAN: Another email on "Cat" from Paul in Los Angeles: When I was eight years old, my parents decided I was old enough to go to a movie by myself and let me pick the film. I immediately said "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at the age of eight. They looked at me in stunned silence. Did I know what this movie was about? No. Then why did I want to see it? Elizabeth Taylor, I said. I was fascinated by her conversion to Judaism and wanted to see this. They let me. I didn't understand most of it, but really loved watching her on the screen.
Years later, when I had correspondence with the great actor Larry Gates(ph), who played Doc, all he would do is talk about the wonderful experience appearing opposite Elizabeth Taylor. Sherry, thanks very much for the call.
SHERRY: OK. Bye.
HORWITZ: Well, the emailer points something out, and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" is an example of it. And this has to do - maybe I'm going too far with this one, but I love going too far - with her cultural importance. We think of the 1960s as the time of the sexual revolution. She really - after the decency code of the early 1930s, she was the first person to embody sex a generation later in the 1950s and infuse it with a kid of humanity. I mean, a girl who would have sex outside of marriage was a tramp, was - and it was usually some temptress like May West or it was some foreigner like Marlene Dietrich or something.
But it's kind of like Nixon in China. It took somebody with impeccable girl-next-door credentials. You know, she was the kid in "National Velvet," as you point out. She was the daughter of the "Father of the Bride." So she could do "A Place in the Sun" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" and "Butterfield 8" and get people to accept her. She was a real flesh and blood woman who was sexy.
CONAN: This email from Laura in San Antonio: "The Taming of the Shrew" is my favorite. Miss Taylor had a wonderful comic talent. Seeing up close her pretending to be that docile beauty then morphing into that strong-willed Kate in a matter of second was priceless.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE TAMING OF THE SHREW")
TAYLOR: (as Katharina) If I be waspish, best beware my sting.
RICHARD BURTON: (as Petruchio) My remedy then is then to pluck it out.
TAYLOR: (as Katharina) Ay, if the fool could find where it lies.
BURTON: (as Petruchio) Who knows not where a wasp doth wear his sting. In his tail.
TAYLOR: (as Katharina) In his tongue.
BURTON: (as Petruchio) Whose tongue?
TAYLOR: (as Katharina) Yours, if you talk of tales, and so farewell.
CONAN: Talk about working with playwrights. That's a pretty good one.
HORWITZ: Pretty good playwright there. And interestingly, she either - I know she was nominated. She might have won the British Academy for best actress for that. So if you win a - American doing Shakespeare wins an award in England, that's pretty good. And I'm glad you mentioned that film, because it's Franco Zeffirelli. I think it was a follow up to his "Romeo and Juliet," and it's really a very satisfying Shakespearean film.
CONAN: And willing to take her husband on in his ballpark.
HORWITZ: Right, absolutely. Very good point. A very good point.
CONAN: Yeah. Let's go to Charles, and Charles with us from Portland. Charles, are you there?
CONAN: You're on the air. Go ahead.
CHARLES: My favorite is just her cameo on her very last movie as Fred Flinstone's mother-in-law. She was on the scene for about two minutes and stole the movie, I thought.
CONAN: Well, that's - that wasn't that difficult a movie to steal.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CHARLES: That's true too.
HORWITZ: Some disagree with you. I notice she won some, I don't know, turkey award or something, Michael Medved award for like the worst - or somebody's award for like the worst performance of the year in that movie. But she was - she did a lot of TV work at the end.
One of my favorite turns that she does is in the movie in 1977 of "A Little Night Music" where she plays a faded starlet, you know, or not starlet, but an aged star. And she was not afraid to do that, to be herself in a way, a has-been.
CONAN: Charles, thanks very much. Appreciate it. An unusual nomination. We're talking about the films of Elizabeth Taylor, the late Elizabeth Taylor, with Murray Horwitz, TALK OF THE NATION'S favorite film buff, the last in our series of Summer Movie Festival programs.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR dot from NPR News. That's where it's from.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
CONAN: And we mentioned earlier "Cleopatra." This is - I think minute by minute still maybe the most expensive picture ever made. It almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox, giving Taylor the Guinness Award for most costume changes in a movie and, of course, the Taylor-Burton romance. Here she is as the pharaoh of the Nile.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CLEOPATRA")
TAYLOR: (as Cleopatra) While they were digging the foundation of my tomb, the workers found an old wall. Someone had scratched on it hundreds of years ago - you were not here last night, and I could not sleep. Will you be here tonight? Do you suppose they ever met again?
CONAN: She could not only change costumes. She could read hieroglyphics.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
HORWITZ: It was - well, you almost had to to do that script. No. I'm sorry. It's unfair and catty of me. But she, you know, I mean, this is - you're right. This is a famous disaster, this film. It's - when you watch it now, and I must confess I haven't watched the whole thing straight through in quite a long time, but it just...
CONAN: She dies at the end.
HORWITZ: Yeah. Right. I know how it ends. The thing I remember most about that film, Neal, by the way, when I saw it, is you remember she had had some near-death experience, and she'd had to have a tracheotomy. And they - there was make-up to try and cover up her scar, but you could still see the scar in her plunging neckline. And why do I remember that?
CONAN: Well, you saw a lot of plunging neckline. I think that's probably why. Let's see if we go next to Christine(ph) . Christine with us from Memphis.
CHRISTINE: Hi. How are you?
CONAN: Very well. Thanks.
CHRISTINE: Good. I have to say my all-time favorite movie has to be "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" For someone who was, to me, one of the most beautiful women in the world, it was a very unglamorous role but played superbly by her and Richard Burton.
CONAN: That was also her second Academy Award for the hard-drinking, foul-mouthed Martha in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?")
TAYLOR: (as Martha) Fix me another drink, lover.
BURTON: (as George) My God, you can swill it down, can't you?
TAYLOR: (as Martha) Well, I'm thirsty.
BURTON: (as George) Oh, Jesus.
TAYLOR: (as Martha) Look, sweetheart. I can drink you under any damn table you want, so don't worry about me.
BURTON: (as George) I gave you the prize years ago, Martha. There isn't an abomination award going that you haven't won.
TAYLOR: (as Martha) I swear if you existed I'd divorce you.
CONAN: Oh. That's...
HORWITZ: I swear if you existed, I'd divorce you. Oh my gosh.
CONAN: That's fantastic stuff, Christine. The film - Sandy Dennis was also in it and...
HORWITZ: George Segal.
CONAN: A young George Segal, before many other movies he was less distinguished in.
CHRISTINE: It was sick. It was twisted. It was funny. It was sad. It just ran the gamut, and to me that was such a superb performance by both her and Richard Burton, who - I just think those two had amazing chemistry in some of their films. I just - I love them both.
HORWITZ: It was - I couldn't agree with you more, Christine. And it was virtuosic. I mean, it was really first-rate acting, first-rate writing, first-rate film directing, cinematography, sound. This film got nominated for an astonishing 13 Academy Awards. And the reason it's astonishing is, it was Mike Nichols's first film, and he gets 13 Oscar nominations. They won five of them, including Oscars for Burton and - not for Burton but for Sandy Dennis and for Elizabeth Taylor. And it's just - it's an incredible, pitch-perfect ensemble performance.
CHRISTINE: Yes, absolutely. I agree.
CONAN: Christine, thanks very much for the call. And...
CHRISTINE: Thank you.
CONAN: ...from that does "Virginia Woolf" take away the Murray?
HORWITZ: Well, you know, put a gun to my head and I'd say yes. I mean, that's - that's her greatest performance, I think. I mean it's just an astonishing performance that holds up for its naturalism, for its range, just everything. But no. The Murray goes - I'm trying to do something off-beat.
HORWITZ: And there was a great discovery that I just happened upon when it came out in 1970, a terrifically unsuccessful film that was, again, directed by the great George Stevens. It's called "The Only Game In Town." It's a Frank Gilroy script. It's a gambling movie, and it's one of my favorites, a Maurice Jarre score. It was supposed to be Frank Sinatra in the male lead, but Elizabeth Taylor got ill and she postponed the shooting, and then Sinatra couldn't do it, so it became Warren Beatty.
And it was really - you'd think of it as off-beat casting, but it was perfect in a way because she plays an aging Las Vegas showgirl. He plays a somewhat younger - or making it somewhat younger - makes it - gives it another dynamic - pianist, lounge pianist in Las Vegas and a compulsive gambler. And I recommend it. It's maybe a little dated, but it's a terrific little show.
CONAN: Name again?
HORWITZ: "The Only Game in Town."
CONAN: Murray, always a pleasure to talk with you as we take a stroll down the Walk of Fame with you, thus sadly ends another TOTN's Summer Movies Festival. We'll of course be back next summer, and we'll take any other opportunities in between. Murray, thanks as always.
HORWITZ: Thanks. Have a good winter.
CONAN: Tomorrow, Canada, already our largest source of oil. Now a Canadian company wants to build a pipeline from Alberta to Houston. Some ranchers along the way protest that this will pollute the land and destroy the water. We'll cover that tomorrow. Stay with us.
This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.