Pete Hammond Recalls Elizabeth Taylor's Complicated Dance With Oscar

The list of Oscar intrigue goes on and on and Academy history is full of stories. But hearing of Elizabeth Taylor’s death this morning (R.I.P. Elizabeth Taylor), I started to think about her own history with Oscar. There are many stars who have had a complex relationship with the award over its 83-year history, largely because they never won and only got their shot when the Academy decided to rectify the outlandish situation by giving them an Honorary Award. Like Peter O’Toole who was nominated  eight times but always came up short even for such brilliant performances  in Lawrence Of Arabia, The Lion In Winter and Becket. Or the late and great six-time losing Deborah Kerr. Or Edward G. Robinson who was never even nominated until the Academy gave him that special lifetime achievement consolation prize (he actually died two months before the 1973 ceremony so never got to hold it). Some egregiously overlooked  stars  like Paul Newman or Henry Fonda received Honorary Award only to win an Oscar in competition the very next year. Then there was Katharine Hepburn, nominated 12 times as Best Actress  but who never attended the show to accept any of them — including the record 4 that she actually won.

Taylor was the star of stars. There will never be another like her. She didn’t need an Oscar to prove this but certainly the Academy did not fail to recognize her talent.  But they  basically  ignored  her acting career except for  one remarkable decade of a 60-year span in front of the cameras (her debut came in 1942 with There’s One Born Every Minute). There was no Taylor recognition for 1951’s A Place In The Sun or 1956’s Giant as I think there should have been. But clearly the Academy tried to make up for those oversights. Between 1957 and 1966 she received five best actress nominations, including a remarkable streak of four in a row:  Raintree County (1957), Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958), Suddenly Last Summer (1959), and Butterfield 8 (1960). At least two of those, Cat and Summer represent some of her finest screen work. But she lost until Butterfield 8, a glossy MGM potboiler based on John O’Hara’s 1935 novel about a call girl who falls for a wealthy married man (Laurence Harvey).

It came out in 1960 and turned this three-time Oscar loser into a winner. It is generally considered one of the weakest movies ever to spawn a major Oscar winning performance. Taylor was terrific in it though, and the movie is a guilty pleasure now (although the presence of her then-hubby  Eddie Fisher didn’t help). She often said she wasn’t fond  (I believe “loathed” was a word used often) of the script or the finished film. In fact, when I was a producer on The Arsenio Hall Show, Taylor guested in June 1992 (only her second ever late night show appearance ever and she wore a really cool-looking black motorcycle jacket) and I lobbied Arsenio to ask her about that Oscar performance. She sloughed it off by saying “I only won it because I almost died.” That’s probably true.

In the months leading up to that year’s Oscar show, headlines carried the news that  Taylor was at death’s door due to a grave bout with pneumonia. She had a tracheotomy. And there was even one report that she had died. All of this was irresistible for the Academy, and Oscar night, April 17, 1961, would be her first public appearance since her illness. All the drama probably insured a win, even though she had lost the Golden Globe in January to Greer Garson (Sunrise At Campobello). I believe without all the ‘death’s door’ drama Shirley MacLaine would actually have triumphed as Best Actress in that year’s Best Picture winner, The Apartment. Nevertheless Taylor won and made her way  to the stage with Fisher’s help. Her tracheotomy scar was even still visible. She accepted by saying, “I don’t really know how to express my gratitude for this and for everything. All I can say is thank you, thank you with all my heart.”

This came as Taylor’s infamous Cleopatra saga was taking place in Rome where her affair with Richard Burton was about to unfold. Cleopatra was a colossal financial disaster that almost sank 20th Century Fox. But when it came to Oscars, it actually did quite well, winning four technical awards out of nine nominations that also included a 1963 Best Picture nod. Taylor, however, was completely overlooked.

Her final Oscar nomination would not come until 1966’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? in which she starred opposite Burton. It’s a drama that still packs a wallop even by today’s standard. For my money, it is Taylor’s performance of a lifetime, especially considering she was only 34 when she made it. Even though she had won just six years earlier, there was no way she could rightfully lose the Oscar although her competition was formidable. Fellow nominee Anouk Aimee in A Man And A Woman actually beat her for the Golden Globe and, although Taylor won the New York Film Critics Award, she tied with another nominee (and Globe winner) Lynn Redgrave who had made big waves in Georgy Girl.

Still Taylor declined to fly in from Europe to attend the Academy Awards, and Anne Bancroft had to accept for her. Liz was so mad that co-star Burton failed to win, too (on his fifth try, losing to A Man For All Season’s Paul Scofield) that she didn’t even offer a ‘thank you’ to the Academy afterwards. She finally agreed to receive it weeks later at the BAFTA awards where she also won. It didn’t matter. This was the Oscar she richly deserved. It is still an indelible performance, and I know she was damn proud of it as her character Martha might have said.

Virginia Woolf was the peak of her screen career and her final nomination. She was good in The Taming Of The Shrew (1967), again opposite Burton, and decent in The Comedians (1967), The Only Game In Town (1970)  and X, Y and Zee (1972). But her only future brushes with Oscar would be as a Best Picture presenter, notably in 1970 when she was again hoping Burton would finally win for Anne Of The Thousand Days (he lost to John Wayne), and in 1974 when she followed the infamous nude streaker on stage.

But the Academy had one more honor in store for her. In 1993 she, along with the late Audrey Hepburn, both received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Taylor had her third statuette, this one for her leadership in the fight against AIDS. Taylor launched a second career as an AIDS activist in 1985 when she organized APLA’s first “Commitment to Life” event, which would go on to become the biggest AIDS fundraiser in history. In 1986, she co-founded The American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) and testified before a U.S. Senate Committee in support of federal funding for HIV care and treatment. and in 1991, she launched The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation, which continues to provide funding for HIV and AIDS programs globally, including those at Aids Project Los Angeles.

This role would be perhaps her greatest and it was so fitting that the Academy acknowledged it. Just as she did when she won her first for Butterfield 8 some three decades earlier, Taylor received a roaring standing ovation and ended her heartfelt remarks by saying, “At the end of each of our lives, we can look back and be proud that we have treated others with the kindness, dignity and respect that every human being deserves.” (more…)

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