Breakouts and Outbreaks: Elizabeth Taylor in ‘National Velvet’

As I am sure you have all read at this point, legendary actress Elizabeth Taylor passed away this week. She was the star of countless classics including Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Father of the Bride. She was, for decades, a celebrity and a movie star in the true definition of the status. She was a talented actress with a public image to serve her. She adopted humanitarian issues publicly by standing up for Michael Jackson and being one of the first advocates to spread education on AIDS. She is also one of the most attractive people ever to grace their presence on celluloid. She was an all-around success story that captured the attention of a nation for multiple decades. She was 79 years old.

Although mostly quiet for the past few decades, her early career was crowded. She was picked up by Universal and made her debut in the very wan There’s One Born Every Minute. As a child star there isn’t much to note about this particular performance other than it being her first. She then became the property of MGM which gave her Lassie Comes Home and loaned her to Fox for a supporting role in Jane Eyre. While one could certainly argue that her true breakout performance came at a later stage in her career, I argue that the role earned by her own strong-willed stubbornness is what made her. And that would be National Velvet in 1943. She was 12 years old.

National Velvet is a horse movie. In fact, it might be the horse movie of all time. It is the story of a twelve year-old’s persistence overcoming all odds and raising a horse to win the Grand National steeplechase. It put Taylor across from Mickey Rooney in an adaptation of a very successful novel. It was poised to be a hit, and it delivered in finances and stardom. Although Taylor’s immediate stardom was not merely a result of her involvement with a financially successful film. Her reputation was warranted. Her performance is one of sincerity that captures adolescence (and the heart of the audience). It may be the most considerable child performance outside of the work of Shirley Temple.

She was also twelve years old, which meant that she was on the verge of growing into her stardom. I am quite certain that the MGM executives were not oblivious to this and likely began to view her as a potential sex symbol. This was a self-fulfilling prophecy as Taylor carries a reputation as one of the most beautiful movie stars ever and can be listed alongside James Cameron in the five-times-married department. She had the press and the popularity with a personality large enough to handle it all. There simply are no icons of such status in today’s cinema. Such a person is no longer possible.

National Velvet put her on the map to be given lead roles, although she remained in the confines of MGM for far too long. Her eventual escape led her to an Oscar with Butterfield 8 in 1960 and another in one of cinema’s finest performances in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966. This performance gave Taylor a chance to reach a more intellectual audience. The dialogue of this film cannot be praised enough. But delivery is of equal importance, and Elizabeth Taylor is more than capable at such.

With more than fifty films to her credit, Taylor is something of an established individual in terms of acting. But Taylor was more than an actress, she was a star. She possesses a rare charisma that graced her a social and sexual reputation during the many decades that the press fawned over her. Studies at the box office of modern cinema determine rather conclusively that the movie star is indeed dead. People will not selectively see a Tom Cruise film just to see Tom Cruise. This was the case and more with Elizabeth Taylor. That is why there will quite definitively and measurably never be a star such as herself again.

Although she has mostly refrained from both the cinematic world and the general press for the last few decades of her life, her stardom has barely dimmed. She is a historical pop culture icon that began as a stubborn twelve year-old that wanted to star in a horse flick. Like the underdog co-star of her breakout film, Elizabeth Taylor emerged from being just a fortunate child in L. A. to movie stardom and humanitarianism. In the Elizabeth Taylor section of David Thompson’ The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, he says that he wishes to see her appear in future films to end her long silence. His wish will go tragically unfulfilled. She will be sorely missed.

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  • Great column, Davin. I have not seen ‘National Velvet,’ but your recommendation has got me wanting to.

  • William L

    Leonard Maltin wrote that “Taylor is irresistible, Rooney was never better, & they’re surrounded by a perfect supporting cast.” Anne Revere won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. Later, Revere was blacklisted under the McCarthy witchhunts.
    We watched “The Taming of the Shrew,” again. It is an excellent pairing of Taylor & Burton, but it was overlooked in the obituaries I saw.

  • William L

    One report of her death asserted that Taylor made few good films. However, he did not mention “The Taming of the Shrew” & “Secret Ceremony,” both of which Leonard Maltin rates 3.5 of 4 stars. TCM will show “Secret Ceremony” on April 1st at 11 p.m. Pacific Time.

  • Those are both pretty good, and she made many great films; but she was also known (for better or for worse) as an icon of pop culture and a celebrity. Also, the press tends to be suaded towards the Oscar roles and films of hers that earned a little more recognition.

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