Liz Taylor: A Leading Lady For Life From her multiple marriages to her diamond collecting, a new biography by William Mann — aptly titled How to Be a Movie Star — details the dramatic life of one of Hollywood's all-time leading ladies. "Elizabeth always loved living large, and it served her very well," he says.
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Liz Taylor: A Leading Lady For Life

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Liz Taylor: A Leading Lady For Life

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Elizabeth Taylor is, without a doubt, one of Hollywood's all-time leading ladies.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CLEOPATRA")

NORRIS: (As Cleopatra) We must not disappoint them, mighty Caesar. The Romans tell fabulous tales of my bath and handmaidens and my morals.

NORRIS: Taylor's larger-than-life celebrity has just as much to do with her dramas off the screen: her multiple marriages, her diamond-collecting, her yo-yo dieting.

A: She knew what she had. She knew how to use it. And just when people were ready to cast her as a has-been, she knew how to reinvent herself. Oh, and one other thing - William Mann says Taylor mastered the well-timed malady.

NORRIS: The classic case is the one in London when she had pneumonia and she had a tracheotomy. It was very real. There was the scar on her throat to prove that she had a tracheotomy, but what her people around her, her agents and her managers, with her compliance, did was they used that to keep the interest in her alive.

And so, in this case, there were hourly bulletins issued from the hospital. And publicists rounded up people to gather in the streets so that we suddenly had this mob surrounding the hospital waiting for word on Elizabeth Taylor. Suddenly a rumor spreads that she may have died. And the whole world is waiting, you know, on tiptoes to find out what happened to Elizabeth. And, of course, she emerged fine the next day with a new hairdo.

And they were really playing not just to the world audience, but they were playing to a very specific audience in Los Angeles, the Academy voters who were voting on Best Actress, and no surprise, Elizabeth won for "Butterfield 8" that year.

NORRIS: Let's see what we can learn about Elizabeth Taylor from looking at a few of her big movies. "Cleopatra," where her divadom, if I can make up a word there, was on full display.

NORRIS: Right.

NORRIS: She was amazingly demanding. The thing that jumped out to me is this demand that she have a different cigarette holder for each cigarette and it could not clash with anything around her.

NORRIS: Right. They were all color-coordinated with her outfits, as well as the tablecloth for the dinner that evening. You know, part of it was Elizabeth always loved living large and it served her very well because I think the public loved those kinds of stories because it fit. You know, this was her image. She was the woman swathed in mink and ermine and dripping with diamonds and emeralds, and that was her image, and it really wasn't born out of any arrogance. It was coming from a sense of this is how a movie star lives.

NORRIS: Elizabeth Taylor played a series of on-screen sirens in "Suddenly, Last Summer" and "Butterfield 8" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." And these films were made at a moment when Hollywood was at a real crossroads in terms of dealing with sexual content onscreen. How much did she personally push the envelope?

NORRIS: She was always pushing the envelope, ever since she was a young girl. She started off very naïve, very innocent during her first marriage to Nicky Hilton, who was the great granduncle of Paris Hilton. That marriage woke her up, and she realized, wow, you know, there's a real world outside of the MGM lot. And then she became very sophisticated in terms of sex and in terms of relationships not only in her films, but also in her personal life.

When she fell in love with Richard Burton in Rome, you know, 10 years earlier, Ingrid Bergman had been banished for having a child with a man to whom she was not married. Here's Elizabeth Taylor married to Eddie Fisher, here's Richard Burton married to his wife, and they begin this affair very publicly.

Rather than apologize for this, she stood up and honestly said, this is what happens. Life sometimes is messy. We're sorry if we've hurt anybody, but we can't deny the fact that we're in love. And instead of pushing the public away, I think it nudged them along a little bit in their own understanding of sex and relationships.

NORRIS: I want to ask you about "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" the film. One of the things that stands out in reading about the filming is that Elizabeth Taylor was a much more precise and accomplished actress than she's often given credit for.

NORRIS: When she had the right director, when she had good material, she could more than rise to the occasion. It happened with George Stevens during "A Place in the Sun" when she was only 17 years old. It happened again with Stevens during "Giant." It happened with Richard Brooks with "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." And it certainly happened with Mike Nichols on Virginia Woolf.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?")

NORRIS: (As Martha) Like hell I will. You see, George didn't have much push. He wasn't particularly aggressive. In fact, he was sort of a flop, a great, big, fat flop.

NORRIS: (As George) (Unintelligible) I said stop it, Martha.

NORRIS: (As Martha) I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You can't afford to waste good liquor, not on your salary, not on an associate professor's salary.

NORRIS: She just really explodes on the screen. And what's so extraordinary about her performance in Virginia Woolf is that Martha, her character, she's loud, and she's vulgar, and she's crass, and she's mean, and she's cruel, but she's also sympathetic. We never dislike her. We get frustrated with her, but we also have great compassion for her and that's remarkable acting. You know, that's a remarkable achievement for a woman who had never had an acting class.

NORRIS: One scene that you actually describe, it's actually multiple takes. In the third take, where she has to go and get made up again and have this breakdown on the film, where she's crying and really sort of falling apart before the cameras, at a key moment, she pauses and someone snores up above her.

NORRIS: Yes, it's wonderful. It's a wonderful story and really kind of gives the insight into her heart and soul. She had been so worried about this scene. There was a series of technical glitches where they had to stop and do it over again.

Finally, on the scene where she had - she was just magnificent, this stagehand above in one of the rafters starts snoring. And, you know, there's nothing Mike Nichols can do except call cut. And right on top of his word cut, he said Elizabeth was saying to him, don't fire him, don't fire him. And, you know, she identified with these, you know, blue-collar workers who were working there. They had been her family ever since she had been a little girl, you know, all of the technicians on the set. So she didn't want this poor guy fired. And yet, when she did the scene again, Nichols says she was fantastic.

NORRIS: And Nichols did not fire him.

NORRIS: No, he did not fire him. You're right.

NORRIS: It's clear that you have great affection for this actress. What do you say to the critics who are already saying that you've dealt with her with a gloved hand, that you have seemed to be almost intoxicated by some of the fairy dust that surrounded her life?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: Well, yes. They say that I've fallen in love with my subject. I think in some ways you have to fall in love with your subject if you're really going to get inside them. There are lots of things that I would say are in the book that are critical, that look at the pettiness, perhaps, of stardom, the smallness of stardom.

But for me, when I look at my subject, I try to, on balance, is this someone that I admire? Is this someone that I respect, or is this someone that, you know, is lacking in some of those qualities? I think Elizabeth really deserves a lot of that respect and accolades. But I think there were moments where I certainly was critical of her narcissism as well.

NORRIS: How is she doing now?

NORRIS: You know, she just had heart surgery, and she, you know, tweeted that she feels like she has a new ticker.

NORRIS: Hold on, you used an important verb there because this is one of the things that I thought - that I found so fascinating.

NORRIS: Right.

NORRIS: She tweets. She's on Twitter all the time.

NORRIS: She is indeed. The people around her are brilliant. They know how to keep her name in the public, and so she's actually been tweeting. You know, here I am going into the operating room, here I am coming out of the operating room, you know.

NORRIS: But there are also strange things, like today I'm enjoying brie on a baguette.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: And she probably is. And by doing that, you know, she gets people talking about her, which, after all, is the whole point of the game.

NORRIS: The book is called "How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood." The author is William Mann. William, thank you very much.

NORRIS: Thank you.

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