Book Review: Elizabeth Taylor, 'The Accidental Feminist'

BUtterfield 8

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."

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Accidental Feminist cover
Lord, who teaches in the Professional Writing program at USC, has served as a regular contributor to The New York Times Book Review and the Times' Arts & Leisure section, and is the author of Forever Barbie: The Unauthorized Biography of a Real Doll, says that she came to this realization after spending a weekend with younger friends in Palm Springs watching selected titles from the actress' body of work. What she thought would be an evening of camp turned into a group epiphany as the women watched in awe as Taylor battled gender discrimination, addressed abortion, reveled in her own sexual desire and critiqued the institution of marriage. Many of Taylor's films, argues Lord, have "ahead-of-the-curve messages that made people squirm."

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.

A Place in the Sun
The book also cheerfully chronicles a history of Hollywood cinema, describing an array of poor decisions by MGM, for example; the studio had Taylor under contract for the first part of her career and repeatedly cast her in terrible films.

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."

Lord also weaves through a history of feminist thought, citing thinkers as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Betty Friedan and bell hooks. However, she never pushes her thesis too far. Writing about Taylor's 1963 film Cleopatra, for example, she notes, "Cleopatra is neither a great movie nor a feminist one," adding, "But it had the potential to be both."

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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