Friday, April 1, 2011

The Legacy of Elizabeth Regina

The death of Elizabeth Taylor, a genuine queen of Hollywood, has had us all scrambling for adjectives and anecdotes. So many people seem to have had close encounters of the Liz kind, but I don’t claim that I’ve ever been caught in her violet-eyed gaze. I’ve admired some of her performances (A Place in the Sun, Giant, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and guffawed at others. Does anyone beside me remember her as a bohemian free spirit taking the starch out of Richard Burton’s clerical collar in an overblown passion-play called The Sandpiper?

As a student of the Sixties, I’m fascinated by Cleopatra—the film that made Taylor the first female star to command a $1 million payday—and the dent it made on Hollywood. I grew up in the shadow of Twentieth Century-Fox, the studio that nearly went bust in the wake of the Cleopatra debacle. Undone by the film’s lavish budget, Fox chose to sell off much of its back lot to developers linked to Alcoa Aluminum. Soon there arose a sleek new cluster of high-rises known as Century City, complete with a trendy shopping mall that played a major part in my growing-up years.

But Fox’s real salvation was The Sound of Music. When Maria danced down the Alps with a gaggle of moppets in lederhosen, the sweet sound of ringing cash registers convinced Fox that its future lay in big-budget musicals. Fox’s subsequent choices were hardly inspired. The hopelessly inept Doctor Dolittle, trying to blend the whimsy of Mary Poppins with the sophistication of My Fair Lady, succeeded only in making Rex Harrison and his human co-stars look ridiculous. Star!, a film biography of Gertrude Lawrence, could boast Julie Andrews in the leading role, but the sweetheart of Sound of Music was now playing a character it was impossible to like.

Then there was the elephantine Hello, Dolly! The stage version, a light-hearted musical romp, had been a Broadway hit, but the Fox execs felt the need to hedge their bets by tricking it out with elaborate period sets and casting Hollywood’s newest star, Barbra Streisand, in a role for which she was much too young. But my whole neighborhood buzzed with excitement when the film was shot, because its gargantuan parade scene required literally thousands of extras. My mother, my sister, and my future mother-in-law are all somewhere in that crowd of parade-watchers, and my trumpet-playing husband-to-be (a proud member of the UCLA marching band) can actually be spotted in front of the big bass drum. Even with all that local talent, Hello, Dolly! failed to earn enough to cover its massive budget. So much for musicals as money-makers!

Fortunately for Fox, it did manage one unexpected hit film in that era. Would you believe Planet of the Apes?


  1. That whole decade - and all of the ins and outs and ups and downs and trials and travails of all of the studios and the whole industry - is truly fascinating stuff - I can understand why you study those ten years with such verve. I mean, one movie's costs causing the end of an entire backlot? Bizarre! And the studio finally finding some cash by letting John Chambers slather latex ape faces on actors? - one of my fave franchises, by the way - Mind boggling! Great post, Ms. Gray!

  2. More on Planet of the Apes to come, as you'll eventually see!