Thursday, June 13, 2013

Liz: Oscar #1

Clad in a form-fitting white slip, she rises from bed, her hair a Sydney Guilaroff–designed fright wig. Out of cigs, she digs in the ashtray for a spurned butt and lights it, inhaling greedily. She picks up a discarded bottle of champagne and guzzles the flat dregs. Beginning to relax, she patrols the elegant Fifth Avenue apartment she is obviously only a guest in. But when she finds a wad of cash on the nighttable next to the bed, she glares in cold fury. She drops the money on the vanity table, picks up a lipstick and scrawls the words “No Sale” on the mirror in a defiant shade of hot pink. Her dress on the floor in tatters, she grabs a fur from the closet, throws it on and slams out the door. Meet Gloria Wandrous, the role that won Elizabeth Taylor her very first Oscar. 

Elizabeth hated making BUtterfield 8 (1960), but she’s damn good in it as the conflicted call girl in love with cold fish Laurence Harvey. It’s a sordid soap opera, served up in glossy Metro-Goldwyn Mayer style, a perfect Sunday afternoon, on-the-couch-eating-a-pint-or-two-of-Haagen Dazs movie.

Taylor had been nominated as Best Actress the preceding three years, for her turn as doomed Southern belle Susannah in Raintree County (1957), her tour de force as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and her complex role as amnesiac trauma survivor Catherine Holly in Suddenly Last Summer (1959). Elizabeth would have deserved the prize for any one of those performances.

No one thought she would win for Gloria Wandrous, least of all Taylor herself, but when the actress contracted a virus and almost died of pneumonia during the Academy voting process, she won the sympathy vote. She barely survived her illness, having to undergo a tracheotomy to do so, and she was frail and vulnerable the night she accepted her Oscar, then-husband (and Butterfield costar)  Eddie Fisher by her side. 

Deserved or not, this would only be the first Oscar win for a legendary actress who possessed at least as much talent and spirit as she did alluring beauty.

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