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Meeting Miss Taylor

Features
by Leonard Maltin
March 23, 2011 6:55 AM
12 Comments
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I don’t usually get flustered before an interview, but I did when Entertainment Tonight told me I’d be talking to Elizabeth Taylor. The year was 1989, and she was promoting a new TV version of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth she had made with Mark Harmon. I didn’t want to squander this opportunity, and I didn’t know what it would be like talking to the famously press-shy star. So I called her longtime friend Roddy McDowall, who’d been very kind to me on a number of occasions, and asked if there was anything Miss Taylor was fond of that people didn’t tend to ask her about.

He discouraged my line of thinking, saying,—

—“You won’t need to play any tricks with her. She’s very forthright, and I’m sure she’ll respond to you.”

Knowing the star’s reputation for lateness, my crew and I had brought reading matter to the Beverly Hills Hotel suite where the interview was to take place—and we were told that we got off relatively easy when Miss Taylor showed up two hours past our appointed time.

From the moment she walked in the room she was graciousness personified. I asked the obligatory questions about Sweet Bird, her costars, and Tennessee Williams. She admitted that she didn’t watch the 1962 movie because “Geraldine Page is such a brilliant actress. I’m a natural-born mimic; I didn’t want to pick up anything. It would have been easy for me; I can’t help it; I mimic. It would have intimidated me enormously.”

Elizabeth Taylor became a published author back in 1946, at the age of 13, when she wrote and illustrated a charming book about her pet chipmunk!

Then I got to the things I was interested in. Was it true that MGM was thinking of testing her brother back in the 1940s? “Yes,” she replied. “He didn’t want to be a child actor. He was supposed to be tested for a Western, so he stopped by a barber and had his head shaved. I loved it.”

She told me she regarded A Place in the Sun as the first real milestone in her career, calling it “the first conscious time I thought about acting… George (Stevens) and Monty (Clift) made me aware of the thought process. It was really the first time I observed, and probably really listened, because mainly before I had been playing myself, with horses and dogs. This time it was with people.

“I never had an acting lesson in my life, so really my school of acting is from watching other people.”

To my surprise, she told me she was highly self-critical, which made it difficult for her to watch her own films. “I don’t like my voice. I don’t like the way I look, I don’t like the way I move, I don’t like the way I act, I mean period!” I asked if there were any exceptions, and she said, “I think the only one I thought (well of)—and probably because it was a character part—was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I changed my voice, I wore padding and rubber on my face, so it was almost like watching someone else, I guess.”

Then I asked about two of her most memorable films. She called National Velvet “a great experience for me because it was an extension of myself. It was no great work, or performance for me, it was just kind of being me. I even chose the horse. The studio gave me the horse and I had him with me till he died, so that was great. I was 12 and it was just like being told, “live your fantasy.”

And I asked about Father of the Bride, in particular her costar. She replied, “I think Spencer Tracy is probably the greatest screen actor that ever lived. It was incredible working, just watching him. He was wonderful man; I loved him dearly. We kept in contact with each other for years, and he was Pops and I was Kitten until the day he died.”

All of these answers were interesting, of course, and well expressed, but at the end of each response was a big “period,” rather than a sense of give-and-take. I felt flop sweat on my neck because I had to keep the conversation flowing, inch by inch. Our star couldn’t have been more professional, but she was not forthcoming. I guess she’d been burned too many times, over too many years, by the press.

Then something interesting happened. In one of its penny-pinching moves, ET had only sent one camera crew that day, so we couldn’t shoot me during the interview. My director asked Miss Taylor if she would mind staying a few extra minutes while he re-set the camera to get an over-the-shoulder shot of me asking some of my questions. To our great surprise, she said she didn’t mind at all.

This procedure is one of the most embarrassing in television journalism, but sometimes it has to be done. The director then explained to Miss Taylor that it no longer mattered what she said since they were only recording me. At that, she flashed a smile and began teasing me, making offhanded wisecracks as we went along… but the sound man had removed her microphone!

This was the real Elizabeth Taylor, the one I’d hoped to capture on camera. I’m sorry that didn’t come to pass, but at least I was afforded a glimpse.

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12 Comments

  • Jeremy Arnold | April 12, 2011 3:24 AMReply

    Very nice piece, Leonard!

  • Adam W. | March 30, 2011 6:35 AMReply

    Leonard this was awesome. Everything you say is pure gold. Guess that's how you got your job. Elizabeth Taylor will be missed. She was an extraordinary acting talent bested only by few, in my opinion. Thanks for sharing!

  • Publius | March 29, 2011 10:17 AMReply

    Dear Mr. Maltin:

    NIce to see you on your new blog!!!
    OF course, we all have to go some time, and your memories of Taylor lend us your qualities as well as hers. Wouldn't it be great if Laurel and Hardy were still here, and we could interview them on nearly every subject?
    Liz Taylor was never one of my favorites, yet, my heart goes out to her shen she helped so many people who were down on their luck.

  • Kay Noske | March 25, 2011 12:38 PMReply

    Thanks so much for sharing this story. So much has been said about Dame Elizabeth, but this very human moment is one of the most interesting I've read. You've been blessed, haven't you, by being able to meet so many wonderful actors and they respond to you because you're not surface-y and slick. Thanks for being you, Leonard...it's why I love to watch your reports and why I wish you got more airtime on Entertainment Tonight, rather than the latest Sheen-nanighans! Warmly, Kay Noske (Can't wait to meet you at the TCM FIlm Festival!)

  • Ken Barnes | March 25, 2011 12:29 PMReply

    Thanks, Leonard for your really nice article on Elizabeth Taylor. It was more informative than the usual "on the outside looking in" view of this fabulous lady.

    Congratulations, also, on your regular newsletter which is always welcome and fun to read.

    Keep up the good work

    Ken Barnes Friday, March 25, 2011.

  • Ron Merk | March 25, 2011 2:47 AMReply

    I met, or should I say encountered Elizabeth Taylor on one very brief but memorable occasion. I was meeting someone at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and as I was entering, Miss Taylor was exiting. I immediately recognized her and smiled. She paused briefly, nodded her head in a sweet way, and flashed those amazing violet eyes and a smile in my directions. It was like time stood still for a moment, one which I will treasure for the rest of my life. Elizabeth Taylor was a force of nature, one which will not pass this way again. We are so lucky to have her films to rekindle that fire which burned in her eyes. There are very few actors whose passing has touched me personally, but Liz was that exception. I will miss knowing that somewhere those amazing eyes are looking at and touching someone in this world they way they touched me.

  • Tom Meyers | March 24, 2011 9:14 AMReply

    Great piece Leonard -I too am so interested in Ms. Taylor's role as a member of the MGM family and there aren't many left who can recall first hand people such as Louis B. Mayer and Sam Marx.

  • Steve Rubin | March 24, 2011 7:46 AMReply

    Thanks for that historical treat, Leonard. What a wonderful experience - so few left from that era. And losing Elizabeth Taylor is a big loss. But, as is always said, we will never lose her - she's there on screen forever!

  • Gordon Raisley | March 24, 2011 2:40 AMReply

    How many stars did you give "Limitless"?

  • Robert | March 24, 2011 1:25 AMReply

    Wonderful story Mr. Maltin. I was incredibly saddened to hear about Ms. Taylors passing. She was one teriffic actress throughout her entire career (even in her underrated minor role in The Flintstones movie).

  • Jacqueline Zimowski | March 23, 2011 12:51 PMReply

    Leonard, thank you for expressing with dignity, love and grace what so many of us feel when losing a star in our sky.

  • SydneyLevine | March 23, 2011 8:54 AMReply

    Thank you Leonard for this. I enjoyed it as I always enjoy your writing. I don't usually read obits except when they're printed in front of me but Elizabeth Taylor was royalty. When I was 10 I'd stand outside MGM and collect autographs and I remember her driving into the studio in a chaffeur driven Cadillac, deigning to open the window and give us her autograph, which i still have. Following her in another chaffeur driven Cadillac was her husband of the moment, MIchael Wilding, who was much more gracious. Later that day we also got Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. She was wearing her Susan Slept Here outfit and they were standing at the gate when we rushed up to them. They epitomized American informality while the Wildings were the epitome of British royalty to my mind then. I'll always remember that day.

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