The 2017 TCM Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: My Top Five Picks for Elizabeth Taylor’s Tribute

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Good morning, everyone! Today is a bittersweet day, as it’s the final day of my favorite time of the year on Turner Classic Movies, Summer Under the Stars. If you’re not familiar with how this special programming works or didn’t get the chance to check out my recommendations for Rod Taylor’s day, every year Summer Under the Stars honors a different classic film star during each day in August by showing a twenty-four hour marathon of his or her films. Despite not seeing as many of the films as I would like, I couldn’t be more excited to finish the month of great tributes to great actors with a salute to perhaps one of the greatest actresses of them all, Elizabeth Taylor. I’d like to thank Kristen of Journeys in Classic Film from the bottom of my heart once again for making the 2017 Summer Under the Stars Blogathon one to remember, and I definitely can’t wait to participate again next year with even more recommendations!

5. National Velvet (1944) on TCM at 6am EST

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Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney in a scene from National Velvet (1944).

I’m no stranger to making top five lists; in fact, if you’ve been following me for some time you’ve likely found that they’re commonplace around here. Even though I found that narrowing down five great performances given by Elizabeth Taylor was among the most difficult of all of the lists that I’ve ever compiled, it was a no brainer for me to include her breakout picture, National Velvet (1944). Based on the bestselling novel by Enid Bagnold, Velvet Brown (Taylor) becomes the owner of an unruly horse that she calls “The Pie”. Velvet sees a great deal of potential in him as a racehorse, however, and with the help of former jockey Mi Taylor (Mickey Rooney) and with the support of her family, she trains The Pie to compete in England’s Grand National race. First turned down by MGM for appearing “too boyish” for the leading role (likely the only time she was ever told such a thing in her life), 12 year-old Elizabeth trained relentlessly for three months and ate steak every day in order to become the type of lady that the script required and prove the studio wrong about how right she was for the part. For her efforts alone, she ended up earning the role. While normally I don’t care for athletics or films about them, it’s nearly impossible to deny that the acting abilities and striking beauty that Elizabeth Taylor posessed for her age makes this movie a standout that’s head and shoulders above other films of its kind. If you find yourself awake this early in the morning and want to catch a delightful film starring Elizabeth at her most adorable, I highly recommend seeing National Velvet (1944) while her marathon gets off to the races!

4. The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) on TCM at 2pm EST

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Elizabeth Taylor in a scene from The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954).

I couldn’t be more excited that Turner Classic Movies is airing this captivating romantic drama during its salute to Elizabeth Taylor. Told in flashback by the leading man himself, The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) is about Charles Wills (Van Johnson), a lieutenant during World War II but a level-headed aspiring author at heart who meets Helen Ellswirth (Elizabeth Taylor) on the day that the war ends on the European front. Helen is a vivacious and carefree woman who comes from a family that’s used to being wealthy, and despite their opposing backgrounds, the two wed. But will Charles and Helen find a way to make their marriage work when unemployment, a daughter, Helen’s extravagant lifestyle, and other suitors come into the mix? This film, which is loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisted” published in 1931, was originally meant for Cary Grant with Shirley Temple in the role of his daughter, but I couldn’t imagine a better film being made with anyone other than this exceptional cast that also includes Walter Pidgeon, Donna Reed, Eva Gabor, and Roger Moore in his first American film. It’s a beautiful and realistic picture overall that I don’t think was given a fair break after its release. Due to an error with the roman numeral copyright notice number, the film’s copyright began in 1944 rather than its actual release date in 1954, and due to MGM believing that The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) had another ten years under copyright, it was never renewed and fell into the public domain in 1972. Normally the film becoming available to everyone would be a good thing, but because there are an astronomical number of copies in circulation, it’s nearly impossible to find the movie in a good quality. For these reasons and more, I recommend that you watch it now more than ever, as Turner Classic Movies does not show this marvelous film often and I highly doubt that you can find a better quality version of it anywhere else.

3. Elizabeth Taylor: An Intimate Portrait (1975) on TCM at 4:45am EST

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Elizabeth Taylor on the set of Giant (1956).

I always adore it when TCM shows a documentary during Summer Under the Stars. There’s no better way to give insight and shed light onto the on and offscreen life of the actor or actress that the channel is saluting, and more often than not the documentary being shown is a rare and engrossing one that won’t be found anywhere else. Such is the case with Elizabeth Taylor: An Intimate Portrait (1975), an hour-long tribute to one of the most preeminent and talented actresses of all time. So much has been said and written about Elizabeth Taylor that it’s sometimes difficult to discern the truth from the legend, but luckily this film is made up of interviews with the people who knew her best, including but not limited to the narrarator of the documentary and four-time costar of Elizabeth’s, Peter Lawford, close friend and Giant (1956) costar Rock Hudson, and in a very special and rare interview, Elizabeth’s own mother Sara Taylor. The special allows the audience to develop a deeper understanding of both Elizabeth’s life as well as her films, as context from nearly every aspect of her life is prominently displayed and discussed. Of course it’s a real treat to hear Sara Taylor talk about her perception of Elizabeth and her opinion of how she’s been shown to the public, but the conversation that surprisingly captivated me the most was with Richard Brooks, her director on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). During filming, Elizabeth’s third husband, producer Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash that left her devastated and unsure if she would ever find love or ever make another film again. Not much information had been given about her emotions and actions in the days following his passing, but Brooks gives a fascinating firsthand account of that and how she courageously completed the picture despite her hardships. All in all, if you’re an fan of Elizabeth and have the opportunity to check out this documentary out, I couldn’t advise a better way to conclude Summer Under the Stars.

2. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) on TCM at 10pm EST

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Elizabeth Taylor in a publicity photo for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958).

In my humble opinion, if you haven’t seen Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), you simply haven’t seen an Elizabeth Taylor movie. Taylor turns a fantastic play by Tennessee Williams into a classic film as she takes on the role of Maggie “The Cat” Pollitt, the neglected wife of Brick Pollitt (Paul Newman), a Southern ex-football hero who injured his leg jumping hurdles at his old high school in a drunken attempt to relive his glory days. Brick has taken to the bottle ever since the suicide of his confidant and fellow football player, Skipper, and has not only forsaken his wife but also his family, including his wealthy father Big Daddy (Burl Ives) who is dying of cancer. With the exception of his own wife Big Momma (Judith Anderson), most of the mogul’s family is more concerned with what will become of his fortune after he passes on, especially Brick’s brother Goober (Jack Carson), his shrill wife (Madeleine Sherwood), and their army of bratty children. As I mentioned before, Elizabeth Taylor was going through a substantial amount of heartache during the production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), with costar Paul Newman saying of her preserverance, “She was extraordinary. Her determination was stunning.”; Elizabeth later returned the sentiment: “Paul Newman is one of the sweetest men I know. He was so unbelievably supportive with his kind words and just being there for me. He helped me through an enormously difficult time in my life, and I will always be grateful.” To me, the sheer fact that Elizabeth was able to complete the film at all is a testament to her resilience, but even more praiseworthy is the brilliant performance that she gave in spite of her personal struggles. This might be saying a lot, but Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) has always been near the top of my list of what are objectively the greatest films of all time, right behind Gone With the Wind (1939). Its inegnious dialogue and superior cinematography lend to this honor the most in my eyes, but there’s no denying that this film would be a fraction of what it is today without the efforts of Elizabeth Taylor.

1. BUtterfield 8 (1960) on TCM at 8pm EST

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Elizabeth Taylor shown with her Best Actress Oscar for BUtterfield 8 (1960) at the 33rd Annual Academy Awards in 1961.

Virtually all of the films on this list have received critical acclaim over the years, with my number one pick being no exception, but I must admit that I’ve put BUtterfield 8 (1960) at the top mostly because it’s my personal favorite picture starring the iconic actress that we’re celebrating today. The film is about Gloria Wandrous (Elizabeth Taylor), a model who has a reuputation in New York City when it comes to the opposite sex. She leans on Steve Carpenter for support (played by Eddie Fisher, Elizabeth’s husband at the time), who is a composer and her close friend, while setting her sights on Weston Liggett (Laurence Harvey), a married man who has time and money to burn as he’s married to an heiress (Dina Merrill) and has been given a job with a title and no actual work involved. After a series of complications and misunderstandings, Gloria and Weston begin a torrid love affair, but will Gloria’s desire to become a respectable woman complicate their relationship even further? Will Weston be able to see her as anything other than what others see? Elizabeth Taylor had intended for Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) to be her final screen appearance, as she wanted to retire and begin a peaceful life with husband Mike Todd. Todd made a verbal agreement about this with MGM, but after his death, the studio forced Taylor to make this film and fulfill the terms of her studio contract for the meager sum of $125,000 (for comparison, Taylor’s next film, Cleopatra (1963), led to her becoming the first actor to ever earn $1 million for a single picture). Elizabeth hated the film as a result, and to make matters even worse, while filming she survived a near-fatal bout of pneumonia that required a tracheotomy, and was even pronounced dead for a brief time during the ordeal. The star ended up winning her first and only Academy Award for Best Actress for BUtterfield 8 (1960), which she considered merely a sympathy Oscar given to her because of her recent health problems. I respectfully disagree with her assumption and I couldn’t commend her performance more. Elizabeth is absolutely dynamite in BUtterfield 8 (1960), and if you’re looking for a primetime walk on the wild side and an engaging two hours with Elizabeth Taylor today, this is the film for you.

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Rest in Peace, Dina Merrill (1923-2017)

73I was so incredibly saddened to learn last night about the passing of Dina Merrill at the age of 93. She was without a doubt among my favorite living actresses, and her generosity and warmth touched so many lives. I’ll always cherish her wonderful performances in films like BUtterfield 8 (1960), Desk Set (1957), and Operation Petticoat (1959), and for the last few hours in particular I’ve been consoling myself by watching her delightful appearances in a number of game shows like What’s My Line?, To Tell the Truth, and Password. If you’re feeling down today like I am, this particular episode of Password that also features Allen Ludden and Tony Perkins will surely lift your spirits. Dina was a treasure to us all, and a wonderful advocate for Lewy Body dementia, the disease which ultimately took her life. She will most certainly be missed.