Elizabeth Taylor remembered: Always a star, even on the stage
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In a life that included nearly 50 movies, eight marriages and numerous charitable causes, it’s easy to forget the fact that Elizabeth Taylor essayed a brief career on the stage. Her most notable -- and some would say notorious -- stage role was in a poorly received production of Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives,’ opposite husband No. 5 and 6, Richard Burton.
Taylor, who died Wednesday at 79, took to the stage relatively late in her life after her film career yielded one too many flops for her to be a bankable Hollywood star anymore. She made her belated Broadway debut in 1981 at the age of 49 in Lillian Hellman’s ‘The Little Foxes,’ earning a Tony nomination for her role as Regina Giddens. The revival was directed by Austin Pendleton and costarred Maureen Stapleton.
Pendleton, speaking from New York, said that ‘I never met anyone more generous than she was... She was generous in every way -- emotionally, artistically. She shared every moment on stage with the other actors, she didn’t act like the star, which she was... I never saw her once be difficult with anybody on the whole year we worked on the play.’
The director said Taylor lacked any sort of vanity on stage. He recalled a moment in the first act of ‘The Little Foxes’ when he had the actress face away from the audience in an important scene. ‘I had her turn her back to the audience, and address the actors upstage,’ Pendleton said. ‘How many stars would let you do that? But she loved the idea.’
Later that same year, Taylor reprised her role in ‘The Little Foxes’ at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.
Dan Sullivan, theater critic for The Times, wrote that ‘Taylor doesn’t make a travesty of the play, if that’s what you were worried about (or looking forward to)... Taylor presents a possible Regina Giddens, as seen through the persona of Elizabeth Taylor. There’s some acting in it, as well as some personal display.’ Taylor’s next Broadway role was in 1983 in ‘Private Lives’ -- a notorious production that received nearly unanimously negative reviews but was nevertheless widely covered by the press because it featured the Oscar-winning star alongside Burton, her ex-husband.
‘Private Lives’ toured the country and opened at the former Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills in October 1983. A review in The Times described the show as ‘a flat but acceptable pass at Coward’s comedy... it’s Liz and Dick crassly spoofing themselves in public. It’s part ‘Private Lives’ and private joke.’
Taylor served as a producer on ‘Private Lives’ as well as a 1983 production of ‘The Corn is Green,’ in which she did not appear. But her theatrical production company ultimately faltered.
While her stage career never amounted to much, Taylor owes much of her screen success to the words of playwrights. Some of her biggest film triumphs were adaptations of classic plays -- Tennessee Williams’ ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ and ‘Suddenly Last Summer’; Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’; and Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew.’
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-- David Ng
Photo (top): Elizabeth Taylor receives roses from Richard Burton during curtain call at the Broadway opening of Noel Coward’s ‘Private Lives’ in 1983. Credit: Rene Perez / Associated Press
Photo (middle): Taylor, with Novella Nelson and Ann Talman, in ‘The Little Foxes’ at the Ahmanson Theatre. Credit: Center Theatre Group
Photo (bottom): Taylor and Burton, posing during a rehearsal for the Broadway revival of ‘Private Lives.’ Credit: Associated Press