Elizabeth Taylor a feminist?
Yes, insists the charismatic cultural critic M.G. Lord, whose terrific new book The Accidental Feminist (Walker and Company, 2012) explores the ways in which the great actress "surreptitiously brought feminist issues to American audiences held captive by those violet eyes and epic beauty."
Lord takes us through these films decade by decade and film by film, with chapters dedicated to National Velvet, A Place in the Sun, Giant, Suddenly, Last Summer, BUtterfield 8, Cleopatra, The Sandpiper, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Ash Wednesday and The Little Foxes.
Lord also highlights the limitations imposed by the Production Code Administration, showing the struggle of director George Stevens who, in A Place in the Sun, tries to tell a tragic story of unwanted pregnancy and abortion without ever overtly mentioning either. The Production Code would plague Taylor's career, attempting to squelch all hints of sexuality, but in film after film, Taylor managed to subvert its prohibitions.
The book's history of film is deeply woven into Taylor's personal life. For example, Taylor married Mike Todd in 1957, a man who Lord says joined Taylor in wanting to override the logical response of viewers and instead engage our emotions as directly as possible. While Taylor achieved this through sensuous performance, Todd tried to do it through film technologies, investing first in the immersive Cinerama system, and then later in Smell-O-Vision, a technology designed to unite aroma and storytelling. Todd's death in 1958 prevented its success, however; his death also devastated the actress, who described Todd as "the love of my life."
The book concludes by describing Taylor's incredible work in the fight against AIDS; she helped start the American Foundation for AIDS Research, using her glamour and fame to fight the disease, which in the 1980s faced both stigma and critical neglect. Writes Lord, "From 1985 until her death, Taylor fought consciously - not accidentally - for social justice," and notes, "I believe her final role in life was influenced by the movies with feminist content that she starred in as a younger woman."
By the book's conclusion, it's difficult not to agree. Lord fills the book with page-turning stories and anecdotes, some hilarious, some tragic and many entirely gripping. Her writing style is fast-paced, humorous, and often arch, and the result is a book that is a total pleasure - almost a guilty pleasure - to read.
Lord will visit Diesel, A Bookstore in Brentwood on Thursday, February 23, 2012 at 7:00 p.m.
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