Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes (2024)


Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes

Elizabeth Taylor became a star at age 11, so she spent most of her life practicing public relations. There are few confessions in Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes, an elegantly constructed documentary by Nanette Burstein that contains mostly her own words and some illuminating archival footage. But it works as a lively piece of film history about movie stardom during the tumultuous 1960s as the studio system was fading and the media exploding.

The film which premiered at Cannes in the Cannes Classics sidebar is based on 40 hours of recently rediscovered audiotapes, recordings Taylor made for a ghost-written memoir (long out of print) in the mid-’60s. It was the height of her fame frenzy, just after all that Cleopatra scandal with paparazzi. She recounts four marriages when these were recorded, since she was in the middle of two to Richard Burton and sums up her career from Lassie Come Home (1943), when she started out as a child, to her Oscar-winning turn in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

Burstein stays out of Taylor’s way here too, as she did with Hillary and The Kid Stays in the Picture (about Robert Evans’ autobiography). Her voice is girlishly playful; occasionally blunt but more often cautiously aware it’s being recorded. At times you hear questions from Life magazine reporter Richard Meryman doing the interviewing, but she’s very much in charge on top.

Underneath you can feel how beautifully Burstein and her editor and co-writer, Tal Ben-David, shaped it visually. More than what Taylor says from shots of Londoners packing streets to catch a glimpse on day of second wedding; to actor Michael Wilding; to film of her in mourning black at third husband Mike Todd’s producer-funeral after he died in a plane crash the archival photos and news clips provide a telling background of images and sound bites. Martinis are a recurring visual, too, but that’s just the clichéd, old-fashioned establishing shots of an old-fashioned reel to reel tape recorder.

Chronologically moving forward, Taylor starts with her childhood desire to act. Photos from that time remind you she was stunningly beautiful even then. These early sections are fine but bland; she was too young to be married the first time (Nicky Hilton), and the second marriage just didn’t work out. George Stevens gave her subtle direction and bolstered her confidence when she made A Place in the Sun (1951); five years later with him on Giant he berated her for being just a movie star and not an actress, a charge that often dogged her.

As the film progresses, Taylor becomes more biting at random intervals, exhibiting a sharp-tongued sense of humor and personality. This holds especially true when she speaks about her marriage to Eddie Fisher, her first husband who she left for Richard Burton, which created her first scandal in the tabloids. It was public knowledge that Fisher and his wife Debbie Reynolds were Taylor’s best friends. “I can’t say anything against Debbie,” says Taylor sweetly on the tape without pausing for breath and goes on: “But she put on such an act, with the pigtails and the diaper pins.” Of Fisher, she says: “I don’t remember too much about my marriage to him except it was one big frigging awful mistake.”

Burstein includes some interesting sidebars from this period. A news clip shows the just-married couple surrounded by reporters on the steps of a plane; one asks Fisher about his bride, “Can she cook?” Even as a joke who would dare say that now?

That was nothing compared with Cleopatra (1963), now famous as the movie so over-budget it almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox, and where Taylor met Burton each married to other people — and they indiscreetly sparked to each other from day one on set. The Vatican newspaper weighed in on their affair, disapprovingly. Taylor reports that her own father called her “a whore.” In one of the movie’s more self-aware scenes, she says of their affair: “Richard and I we tried to be what is considered ‘good,’ but it didn’t work” a comment that at once plays into and resists moralistic language. These glimpses of Taylor’s astute understanding of herself as a public figure are the film’s most interesting if scattered moments.

The movie also shows how hounded they were by paparazzi at a turning point in celebrity culture. Occasionally other voices are heard in archival audio, and here George Hamilton says of the press, “They were not going for glamour anymore. They were going for the destruction of glamour” — a longing for the old pre-packaged studio publicity days but Taylor is never heard to complain herself: A realist, she made hiding from the paparazzi into a game for her children so they wouldn’t be frightened.

The tapes end with her assuring Meryman that she and Burton would be together 50 years. The movie then races through her later life rehab at Betty Ford Center, AIDS fund-raising. But Taylor should have had the last word. There is a private Elizabeth, she says. “The other Elizabeth, the famous one, really has no depth or meaning to me. It is a commodity that makes money.” The movie-star Elizabeth is more often present in this film, but that’s quite engaging enough.

Watch Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes For Free On Gomovies.

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