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  1. #1
    Senior Member Country: England Maurice's Avatar
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    by William J. Mann, published 20 October

    His article, 'Elizabeth Taylor: the star who wrote the style book' , is now at Times Online.

    The biography was reviewed, in The Sunday Times (04/10/09), by Bee Wilson.

  2. #2
    Senior Member Country: England darrenburnfan's Avatar
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    From The Sunday Times

    October 4, 2009

    How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood by William J Mann

    Sunday Times review by Bee Wilson

    �You have bosoms! Stick them out!� shouted the photographer Philippe Halsman to a teenage Elizabeth Taylor during a photoshoot for Life magazine. �So she did,� writes William J Mann in this latest biography of Dame Liz, �and all around the world men fell like dominos.�

    Along with her famous �violet� eyes (really blue), the multiple marriages (eight, twice to Richard Burton), the illnesses, the tantrums and the beauty spot (real), those extraordinary bosoms were a crucial part of the Elizabeth Taylor story. The main point of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) is surely the breathtaking sight of Taylor�s upper torso in a tight white slip. According to Burton, who fell for her on the set of Cleopatra, �Her breasts would topple empires before they withered.� Joseph L Mankiewicz�s costume department clearly agreed, putting Taylor�s Cleopatra in a preposterous collection of plunging dresses. In the arms of Rex Harrison�s Julius Caesar, she was required to utter the line, �My breasts are filled with love and life!�, which was a low point, even by the hammy standards of the rest of the script.

    Mann recounts how she sprouted aged 13 on the set of National Velvet (1944), her first great hit. Taylor�s pushy mother Sara (herself an actress who had enjoyed a single stage hit in 1922) had been desperately campaigning for young Elizabeth to get the part of Velvet Brown. Elizabeth already had an MGM contract, having appeared in Lassie Come Home (1943), but was competing with a host of other precocious studio starlets for the big parts. Eventually, through sheer annoying persistence, Sara and Elizabeth convinced director Clarence Brown to give her the part of Velvet. But the producer felt Elizabeth was too short and demanded that she grow three inches. The child went on a summer-long growing campaign, eating two �farm breakfasts� a day (hamburgers, fried eggs, hash browns and pancakes). Miraculously, it worked. The story of growing three inches through sheer willpower became part of the Taylor legend: the determination! The destiny!

    And it wasn�t just upwards that she grew that summer. An MGM publicist remembered lunching in the studio cafeteria one day during the shoot of National Velvet and nearly spilling his chicken soup in his lap as Taylor walked past. �She was 13, but oh boy. You might say she was in the early spring of her physical development.� For the purposes of National Velvet, MGM worked hard to hide her charms under boyish shorts and jodhpurs, pulling out two of her teeth to fit her with a fake orthodontic brace and planting stories of her deep love of animals, especially chipmunks.

    Is there really room for yet another biography of Elizabeth Taylor? Mann, whose previous works include a life of Katharine Hepburn and a history of gay and lesbian Hollywood, wisely eschews the blow-by-blow approach and many of the time-honoured anecdotes about Taylor and Burton, instead �zooming in on key periods�, drawing on new interviews with the star�s colleagues and friends, and meticulous research in the MGM archives. While hardly earth-shattering, what emerges is a richly enjoyable biography. Mann�s early sections on the relationship between Taylor and Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper are particularly good. The book ends in 1981, when Taylor retained some vestige of her studio glamour, and before she descended into the lunacy of the Michael Jackson years. The period Mann is clearly most in awe of in Taylor�s life, though, is the time, a couple of years after National Velvet, when her assets could first be displayed before a lustful public.

    Out went the chipmunks and in came the strapless dresses, worn to stunning effect in A Place in the Sun (1951) with the brooding Montgomery Clift. Like most of her entourage over the years, �Monty� was gay. The American film critic Andrew Sarris called Clift and Taylor in that film �the most beautiful couple in the history of cinema. Those gigantic close-ups of them kissing were unnerving � like gorging on chocolate sundaes�. She never looked better, fiercely glittering. In the final scene, she cradles Monty, urging him, �Tell Momma all!� In real life, she had only kissed a boy for the first time two weeks earlier.

    She was only 17, and it would be downhill all the way, at least as far as film acting was concerned. But it was the beginnings of Elizabeth Taylor the megastar. As the title suggests, Mann tries to use Taylor�s story as a template for movie stardom in general. Certainly, she was a model for the outrageous artifices of the studio system. Aged just 18, she was more or less pushed into a marriage with hotel heir Nicky Hilton because it helped with MGM�s publicity for Father of the Bride (1950) to position her as a bride-to-be. This was no fairy-tale ending: she admitted years afterwards that Hilton hit her, on one occasion hard enough to cause a miscarriage. A few years later, with two more marriages behind her, she would become known as the ultimate home-wrecker when she stole Eddie Fisher from sweet blonde Debbie Reynolds. As always, MGM cashed in, casting her in a sluttish bad-girl role in Butter-field 8 (1960), for which she was rewarded with an Oscar.

    It is Mann�s contention that by navigating this mercenary world so effectively, Taylor would �outshine other greats like Garbo and Monroe, who never knew how to cope except when in front of the cameras�. Despite all her pill-popping and mad binges of both alcohol and food, she had to �refuse to crumble like Judy Garland�. But Mann skirts around the fact that nothing Taylor did on film � not even her kisses with Monty � can hold a candle to the vulnerable charisma of Garland in The Wizard of Oz or Meet Me in St Louis. On film, Taylor�s toughness was unattractively self-regarding. Mann also carefully avoids �the sometimes painful gaucheries of Taylor�s later life�, such as the bizarre marriage to construction worker Larry Fortensky, or the friendship with Jackson, with the odd pair seeming to morph into a single powder-white, whispery-voiced idol. But these embarrassments are surely now as much a part of her fame as any of her movies, which mostly haven�t lasted well.

    Even if his claims for Taylor�s greatness don�t stack up, Mann has some terrific stories to tell of her outlandish diva-ishness. During her marriage to Fisher, she was getting through a pack of cigarettes a day �and never used the same holder�. Her butler had to prepare a special box of holders each day, colour-co-ordinated not just with her outfits but with any tablecloths she might come into contact with. When she and Burton were in Mexico, she flew in the wife of her London chauffeur just to cook them a couple of meals of roast pork. Her hypochondria was stupendous. She once called in sick complaining of a severe injury caused by wearing tight breeches. She consumed jewels as casually as cups of coffee and thought nothing of asking a friend to fly to Switzerland to buy her a house, before summarily calling him back to play cards with her: �Just buy the damn thing so you can get back here and we can play f***ing hearts!�

    She milked her charms, as well as her marriages and her illnesses, �for every last dollar of their commercial value�, Mann writes. It is sad to look back and think that this weird being was once a sweet-faced girl, who didn�t particularly want to be an actress, but consented to have every part of her body sold, from eyes to bosom, to please her ambitious mother.

    How to Be a Movie Star by William J Mann

    Faber �20 pp484

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