2nd Aug 2012
Elizabeth Taylor: The Accidental Feminist by M. G. Lord
M.G. Lord is a cultural critic and journalist. Her previous books include Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science, and Forever Barbie: The Unauthorised Biography of a Real Doll. She is currently writing the libretto for an opera about the 110 Freeway, and teaches writing at the University of Southern California.
The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness (And We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice) was first published in February, almost a year after the death of its subject.
Elizabeth played Velvet Brown, a young girl who loves horses and plans to compete in the all-male Grand National. Disguising herself as a boy, she wins the race. ‘It spoke to all little girls who refused to let their gender compromise their dreams,’ Lord writes.
At first glance, however, it would appear that the glamorous, much-married Elizabeth had little in common with the feminist movement.
In Father of the Bride (1950), the 18-year-old exemplified what Lord describes as ‘the Wedding-Industrial complex’, part of the post-war consumer boom which ‘needed the shimmering myth of romantic love to unload its products.’
In 1951, Taylor played society beauty Angela Vickers in A Place in the Sun, a much darker film which exposed the rigid sexual mores of the era. The love scene in which a protective Elizabeth urges her troubled lover (played by Montgomery Clift) to ‘Tell Mama all’ is now considered one of the most erotic moments in American cinema.
Taylor starred alongside Rock Hudson and James Dean in Giant (1956). Her character, Leslie Benedict, is a refined socialite who marries a Texan oil tycoon. She quickly shows her determined nature by insisting that the sick child of a Mexican employee is treated by the family’s own doctor, and later supports her son’s marriage to an Indian woman.
‘Feminism and social justice have always been closely linked,’ Lord reflects, adding that ‘In the context of the movie, the civil rights struggle is an extension of the feminist struggle.’
However, not all of Taylor’s films were so ground-breaking. Taylor won an Oscar for her role as Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8 (1960), but her sexually liberated character was finally punished for her transgressions. And perhaps her most celebrated role – in Cleopatra (1963) – was overshadowed, onscreen and off, by her much-publicised affair with co-star Richard Burton.
Elizabeth’s greatest triumph came in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), as Martha, the frustrated wife of a university professor. ‘To me, the film’s feminist message could not have been more explicit,’ Lord argues. ‘Patriarchy crushes men and women alike.’
Interestingly, Lord also focuses on some of Taylor’s more neglected movies. Gloria Steinem – journalist and future feminist icon – observed Taylor during filming of Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), and was impressed. ‘What other movie queen would have – or does now – take such un-Hollywood-like chances with her glamour?’ Steinem asked.
As Taylor grew older, she battled weight issues, drug addiction and alcoholism under tabloid scrutiny. But from the 1980s onward, she became a passionate spokeswoman for victims of AIDS.
Lord argues that the feminist subtext of Taylor’s movie career anticipated her personal journey. ‘Actors both shape and are shaped by their parts,’ she concludes.
M.G. Lord has written a short but riveting, if occasionally gushy polemic. The Accidental Feminist is now available from Amazon in hardback for £14.44, or via Kindle at £12.83. It will also be released as a paperback in February 2013.
Recommended for: Non-orthodox feminists and pop culture junkies
Other recommended reading: Taylor’s own memoir, Elizabeth Takes Off;J. Randy Taraborrelli’s 2006 biography, Elizabeth; and a pictorial tribute, Elizabeth Taylor: Her Place in the Sun by Cindy De La Hoz, to be published later this year.