Like most cinematic legends who have died in the past several years, I feel embarrassingly underexposed to Elizabeth Taylor’s work. However, two particular performances of hers will forever stick out in my mind as they demonstrate some of the greatest and most powerful acting ever put on film.
The first is her lead performance in the film adaptation of the Tony Award winning musical A Little Night Music. Taylor lead the dream team production that included music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, direction by Harold Prince, and based on a screenplay by none other than Ingmar Bergman. Despite the remarkable cast and crew, it’s not a great film, but Taylor is particularly noteworthy in her touching rendition of “Send in the Clowns” which can be viewed here.
The second is the performance that she most deserves to be remembered by as it stands as one of the greatest performances by an actress ever put to film. Taylor works alongside soon to be ex-husband Richard Burton in a role that apparently reflected the turmoil of her own life. She plays Martha opposite Burton’s George – an aging married couple who use a younger couple to release their emotional anguish towards each other.
Burton and Taylor work beautifully together under the wise hand of director Mike Nichols. The two create a game of one-upsmanship that begins as hilarious but gradually becomes more bitter to the point where it becomes absolutely devastating. Nichols uses his background in improvisational comedy to create a game of “yes, and” where every insult has to agree with and add on to the previous one. This allows Taylor to reach stunning emotional peaks that exhibit the very best of her acting talents.
A great example is the scene below that happens towards the end of the film. Taylor creates another game within the scene as she bounces back and forth like a ping pong player from George to the guest couple with a stronger and harsher insult every time. She acts like a master tennis player whose strokes only get stronger with each return. For one of the first times in the film she actually gets to George and his temperamental reaction is perfectly timed by Burton.
The scene is but a microcosm of the great work that Taylor did throughout here career. To recognize her contribution to film, Turner Classic Movies has already set aside Sunday, April 10th for a 24 hour marathon of Taylor’s movies.
She will be sorely missed.
What is your favorite Elizabeth Taylor movie or scene?