Since her death in 2011, Elizabeth Taylor’s legendary life, her activism, and the career highs of the 1950s and early 60s show no sign of disappearing from our collective consciousness. But what of the films she made between her Oscar-winning ‘comeback’ opposite great love Richard Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966) and her last major big-screen role in 1980, in the enjoyably hammy Agatha Christie adaptation The Mirror Crack’d? (No, we’re not counting her appearance as Pearl Slaghoople in 1994’s The Flintstones.)
Once free of her despised MGM contract, Taylor indulged her maverick streak with an increasingly eccentric series of roles. Coupled with an ever more turbulent and flamboyant lifestyle, this put her out of step with the movie business – and with audiences – as the 1970s wore on. She contributed her star power to a number of Burton’s pet projects, including a silent cameo as Helen of Troy in Doctor Faustus (1967) and a turn as Rosie Probert in Under Milk Wood (1972). Two films she made with Joseph Losey during this period get an occasional airing: Secret Ceremony (1967), with Mia Farrow, and the demented Tennessee Williams adaptation Boom! (1968), which has gained a certain cult cachet.
Yet most of the 10 films highlighted here are currently unavailable on UK DVD or Blu-ray, while theatrical screenings are rare to non-existent. There is much to rediscover and enjoy given the chance – not just for connoisseurs of high camp, but for anyone fascinated by those big-budget star vehicles lost in the shadows of cinema history.
Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967)
Director John Huston
John Huston’s fruity version of Carson McCullers’ 1941 novel “stars the Elizabeth Taylor who showed the world what a woman really is … the kind of woman anyone can have – except her husband”. The dysfunctional marriage of Taylor and Marlon Brando, who took on the role following Montgomery Clift’s death, is the eye of the storm in this study of sexual repression set on a Deep South military base during the 1930s. Their masochistic relationship reaches its nadir as Taylor horse-whips Brando in front of party guests. Initial release prints were saturated with a golden hue, an aesthetic flourish apparently not appreciated by audiences.
The Comedians (1967)
Director Peter Glenville
The West African Republic of Dahomey stood in for Haiti in Peter Glenville’s neglected adaptation of the Graham Greene novel, set during the terrifying regime of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier. Adapted by Greene himself, the film starred Taylor opposite then husband Richard Burton and Peter Ustinov, with Alec Guinness and silent cinema legend Lillian Gish leading an equally prestigious supporting cast. Despite the big names and impressive locations, the critics were dismissive, but Taylor’s performance as the German-born lover of Burton’s jaded hotelier is among her warmest and most underrated.
The Only Game in Town (1970)
Director George Stevens
Taylor re-teamed with George Stevens, her director on A Place in the Sun (1951) and Giant (1956), for this ill-fated romantic comedy, adapted by Pulitzer Prize-winner Frank D. Gilroy from his stage play about two Las Vegas losers finding love. Taylor plays an ageing chorus girl who forms a bond with Warren Beatty’s charming young cad. Her insistence that the film be shot in Paris so that she could be near Richard Burton (there filming the similarly doomed Staircase) saw the budget balloon to $11m. Stung by the film’s critical and commercial failure, Stevens retired from directing.
Zee and Co. (1971)
Director Brian G. Hutton
Adapted by Edna O’Brien from her novel, Zee and Co. ended up as an unashamedly trashy younger sibling to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Taylor has a hoot playing the histrionic, permanently soused London socialite Zee Blakely opposite Michael Caine as her bemused, at times brutish, architect husband, whose wandering eye alights on Susannah York’s drippy boutique owner. The sparring matches might not quite match up to those Taylor enjoyed with Burton, and what O’Brien made of the finished film is anyone’s guess, but this remains a guilty pleasure of the best kind.
Hammersmith Is Out (1972)
Director Peter Ustinov
Taylor won the Silver Bear for best actress at Berlin for her role as blonde waitress Jimmie Jean Jackson in this bizarre curio, directed by Peter Ustinov. Riffing off the legend of Faust, it follows Beau Bridges’ psychiatric hospital orderly, who finds himself going up in the world under the malevolent tutorship of sociopathic escapee Hammersmith (Richard Burton); Taylor’s Jimmie Jean comes along for the ride, exerting a magnetic pull on both men. While it hasn’t aged well, it exudes a certain baleful allure as the film that hammered the final nail in the coffin of the Taylor-Burtons as a bankable double act.
Ash Wednesday (1973)
Director Larry Peerce
Presaging today’s morbid fascination with cosmetic surgery, this diamond- and fur-strewn melodrama sees Taylor’s fiftysomething wife (she was actually 41) succumb to full-body plastic surgery in a Swiss clinic, in a final attempt to save her marriage to Henry Fonda’s high-powered attorney. Awaiting Fonda in a plush ski resort, her newfound confidence propels her into a fling with Helmut Berger’s younger playboy. Playing like an expensive daytime soap with added (surprisingly graphic) surgical interludes, the film beguiled some usually harsh critics thanks to Taylor’s luminous presence.
Night Watch (1973)
Director Brian G. Hutton
Decked out in a sumptuous array of Valentino kaftans, Taylor ventured into Grand Guignol territory with this London-set thriller, about a woman recovering from a mental breakdown who may or may not have glimpsed a murder in the deserted house opposite. Laurence Harvey, her co-star in 1960’s BUtterfield 8 (a film she hated but for which she won her first Oscar), played her husband, with the late Billie Whitelaw as the friend who may or may not have her best interests at heart…
The Driver’s Seat (1974)
Director Giuseppe Patroni Griffi
Also known as Identikit, this Italian adaptation of Muriel Spark’s 1970 novella is the holy grail for late Liz fans. Never even released in the UK, it was Taylor’s first film with no US backing, and boasts her most extraordinary – yet least seen – performance. As the disturbed Lise, flying south to Rome in search of the “perfect boyfriend”, her portrayal of a psyche fracturing against a backdrop of immense social change is remarkably true to Spark’s vision, but was met with howls of disbelief before sinking with barely a trace. A cult classic in the making, it features Andy Warhol in a dubbed cameo as an English lord.
The Blue Bird (1976)
Director George Cukor
The first American-Soviet co-production, this disastrous adaptation of Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1908 fantasy L’Oiseau bleu saw Hollywood royalty decamp to Leningrad. Veteran director George Cukor struggled to wrangle cast and crew as filming conditions became almost intolerable. Suffering from dysentery, Taylor coped admirably with no less than four roles (Queen of Light, Mother, Witch and Maternal Love), alongside Jane Fonda (as Night), Ava Gardner (as Luxury), dancers from the Bolshoi ballet, and a seven-year-old Patsy Kensit as peasant girl Mytyl. The result is a fascinating mess, a real curate’s egg of 1970s cinema.
A Little Night Music (1977)
Director Harold Prince
Taylor appeared as famous actress Desirée Armfeldt in this poorly received version of Stephen Sondheim’s stage musical, adapted for the screen by the man himself. Theatre purists and musical mavens attacked Taylor’s casting, and her fluctuating weight drew snide remarks from critics. While some of her songs were dubbed, Taylor’s halting but heartfelt performance of ‘Send in the Clowns’ suggests she didn’t deserve quite the 360-degree drubbing she received. A swansong of sorts, for a star already looking beyond the cinema to a new life as the 1980s beckoned.