Elizabeth Taylor at 17: A Vintage Portrait

Elizabeth Taylor: Star Rising

TIME, Monday, Aug. 22, 1949

Hollywood, which has a special logic of its own, has a ready answer for one kind of criticism: If entertaining the public and breaking box-office records isn’t art, what is?

Beset by choking labor costs, the critical prestige of imported films, the competition of radio and the threat of TV, and public apathy toward many of its tried & true stars, Hollywood has given more than passing thought to art and even culture during the past few years. Actually, some gains have been made in the direction of adult screen fare (Boomerang!, Treasure, of Sierra Madre, The Big Clock, The Snake Pit, Sitting Pretty).

Yet the fact remains that Hollywood’s taste buds, like those of any industry, are necessarily conditioned by earnings & profits. For these, the cinemoguls insist, glamor in the well-known shapes of male & female stars is basic, fundamental, utterly essential and sometimes colossal.

Over the Top. The trouble is: sex appeal has a way of being repealed by the passing years. Joan Crawford, for instance, who is reportedly 41, has a gem-hard glamour that has worn pretty well for 20 years; now her line is a sophisticated fortyishness, and the public is not clamoring to buy.* Nor is the well-preserved charm of Claudette Colbert, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis or Marlene Dietrich causing the box-office stampedes that it could set off ten, or even five years ago.

It is the same with the male animal — even with such solid 40-plus examples as Clark Gable (a big star since 1932), Humphrey Bogart, Spencer Tracy, Jimmy Cagney, Gary Cooper. These veterans are still expert performers, but their days as high-voltage box-office attractions are numbered.

Finding replacements for this generation of stars is, Hollywood thinks, its top-priority problem. In other days, that might have meant turning loose an army of assistant producers (and relatives) to scout the nation’s soda fountains for blondes. Today’s need is great enough to warrant a more elaborate approach.

Over the Land. For the big job a fumbling, talent-hunting monster has been let loose in the land. It is, of course, only a Walt Disney kind of animated monster — immense, awesome, full of old air, essentially harmless and monstrously inefficient. Its eyes are rolling cameras; it has a kidney-shaped swimming pool for a mouth, talent scouts for teeth, and a broad backside armor-plated with thousand-dollar bills. The overall effect is that of a dredge.

This week the animated dredge is digging harder than at any time since 1927, when soundtracks shattered the silent movies and Hollywood had to line up a whole new team of movie stars overnight. Every day the maw takes a bite or two of common clay, lugs it off to Hollywood’s casting mills. There it is sifted for the sapphires that men sometimes find in common clay.

A Floating Rose. One studio that is less desperate than most is Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; that is partly because M-G-M has already turned up a jewel of great price, a true star sapphire. She is Elizabeth Taylor.

At 17, 5 ft. 4½ in., 112 Ibs., Elizabeth Taylor is a great beauty. She is a perfect type of the Black Irish. She has heavy black hair and brows that are also black and thick, but not a whit too thick to frame her large, luxuriantly lashed blue eyes, which darken into violet in the least shadow. Her complexion has been described by an ecstatic publicity man as “a bowl of cream with a rose floating in it.” Cameramen have paid her Hollywood’s ultimate compliment to beauty: “She doesn’t have a bad angle.”

A Burning Glass. In Hollywood, which has long since proved its theory that even a flea can be taught to act a little, Elizabeth Taylor is a sure star of the future. Never has there been a time of such opportunity. For as age has dulled dozens of bright stars, custom has staled scores more. The public — though still attentive to such screen personalities as Robert Taylor, Hedy Lamarr, Errol Flynn, Irene Dunne, Greer Garson, Myrna Loy, Walter Pidgeon, Mickey Rooney, Loretta Young — no longer rushes by the millions to see a picture merely because one of them is in it.

There is, of course, a big nucleus of still-bright stars like Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Betty Grable, Gregory Peck, Esther Williams, Linda Darnell, Tyrone Power, Jimmy Stewart, Olivia de Havilland, Joan Fontaine. But the public, according to experienced Hollywoodsmen, is scanning the marquees for new names.

Twentieth Century-Fox’s Darryl Zanuck recently decreed that they want good stories, too. In the last few years, many studios have tried hard to get better screen stories, and the result has been surprising. Moviegoers, the exhibitors contend, have noticed that the stories are better, but they have reacted far more strongly to the performers. Many of these actors were young not-too-hopefuls who got their parts mainly because movie business was bad last year and the studios were glad to use inexpensive-talent. Suddenly the public gaze converged on them like sunlight through a burning glass, and their names blazed into lights.

Hot Rocks. One of the likeliest of these newcomers is Montgomery Clift, sometimes called “the hottest thing in Hollywood.” Clift, 28, earned fine reviews on Broadway in The Skin of Our Teeth and The Searching Wind before he went to Hollywood. There he refused long-term contracts, picked scripts shrewdly. Last year, in his first two pictures — M-G-M’s The Search and Howard Hawks’s Red River — his good acting and good looks clicked immediately.

Another sizzling hot rock is Kirk Douglas, who began his theatrical career as a carnival wrestler, moved on to Broadway before he went to Hollywood in 1945. In his eighth picture, Champion, Douglas was poisonously perfect in the cobra-cold title role. Warner promptly signed him to a seven-year contract for nine pictures at about $125,000 a picture.

Temporarily at least, Clift and Douglas have run away from such other promising newcomers as Arthur Kennedy, Richard Basehart, Robert Ryan, John Lund, Farley Granger, Louis Jourdan, Ricardo Montalban and Christopher Kent. One who has not been left behind is Melchor Ferrer (no kin to Broadway’s Jose), an experienced actor. His performance in Lost Boundaries, as the Negro doctor who secretly crosses the color line, is one of the year’s best. Scarcely a newcomer, but definitely a comer, is Richard Widmark. It took two years and three pictures for 20th Century-Fox to dilute the Widmark venom into the milk of human kindness; in Down to the Sea in Ships, the public lapped the milk up eagerly. Slattery’s Hurricane, Widmark’s latest picture, will feed them some more.

Knees & Yeast. What all the most promising new cinemactors have in common is acting ability. “What these new girl starlets have in common,” cracked one Hollywood whip last week, “is that they all bend their legs at the knee as they walk.” Few of Hollywood’s young actresses seem to have the yeast it takes to rise into the big dough. That yeast, says MGM’s Casting Director Billy Grady, is a compound of “beauty and bitchiness.” A pinch of acting ability can help, too.

Ava Gardner, 26-year-old ex-student of stenography who married & divorced Mickey Rooney and Artie Shaw on the way up, has a B-and-B quality that makes M-G-M hope she will become a screaming siren by the time Lana Turner begins to run down.

RKO’s Jane Greer projects the sort of high-frequency sex that can shatter a glass eye at 50 paces, but she seems to be more interested in home and family than in becoming a big star. Audrey Totter, on the other hand, is burning with ambition, and has some acting talent too.

Ruth Roman and Shelley Winters are among the few starlets recently dredged who are suspected of harboring real ability. Ruth first showed her stuff in The Window, an RKO sleeper, and in Champion scored a smash to go with Kirk Douglas’ haymaker. Warner signed her along with Douglas, is rumored to be grooming her as Bette Davis’ successor.

Another good bet is Shelley Winters, the tidiest little actress to come Hollywood’s way in years. In A Double LifeLarceny and The Great Gatsby she played the kind of chippie-off-the-block whom men inevitably fall for and (in the movies) just as inevitably murder. She brought to her few short scenes a cheap-cologne breath of real life that lingers on. However, at present Shelley’s charms, encased in her typecast, do not appear to the best advantage.

School & Sodas. Eye-filling Elizabeth Taylor is no such problem. In fact, she is no problem at all. Elizabeth has only a little temperament and almost no side; she pretends to no more learning than she needs, reads little besides movie magazines, hates school, loves ice-cream sodas, convertibles and swimming pools, and admires big strong men.

Elizabeth’s womanly beauty usually makes strangers forget that she is, after all, only a youngster, but her behavior quickly reminds them of it. Beneath her breath-taking façade there is scarcely a symptom of sophistication. But Elizabeth, for all her youngish ways, is a purposeful girl in a way that Hollywood admires: she is feverishly ambitious to make a success in pictures.

The reason for this driving ambition baffles many a jaded Hollywood operative. Elizabeth has had just about everything that a moderately prosperous family with good connections could give her. Her father, Illinois-born Francis Taylor,* is an art dealer who used to be a European buyer for his uncle’s art business, Howard Young Galleries. Her mother, Sara Sothern Taylor, once had a good part in a 1922 Broadway production of Channing Pollock’s The Fool. Elizabeth grew up to seven in a handsome London house, and in a 15th Century lodge in Kent. Her family got around in art, literary and political circles.

Lassie & Velvet. With the war coming on, the Taylors returned to the U.S. and settled in Beverly Hills, where father Taylor opened an art gallery. Cinemagnate J. Cheever Cowdin, a friend of the Taylors, wanted to sign eight-year-old Elizabeth for Universal almost as soon as he laid eyes on her. The Taylors said no. Elizabeth said yes, and carried her point.

After an almost idle year under contract to Universal, Elizabeth switched to M-G-M where she played opposite Roddy McDowall in Lassie Come HomeNational Velvet followed a year later. For three years of “awkward age” she had only minor roles, went to the studio school, rode horses, and played with her turtles, fish, mice, rabbits, cats, dogs, ducks and chipmunks. She wrote a little story about one of the chipmunks, called Nibbles and Me, which was published under her name but shows the toothmarks of some careful editorial nibbling.

Biology Wins. Then one day a Metro photographer walked up to Elizabeth and said: “I thought you’d like to know that the boys have voted you the most beautiful woman they have ever photographed.” “Mother!” gasped Elizabeth, “did you hear what he said? He called me a woman!”

Biologically, she was — and biology is good enough for Hollywood any time. Elizabeth soon got her first screen kiss in Julia Misbehaves and returned it charmingly; her fan mail climbed. Some Annapolis midshipmen were suddenly moved to vote her “The Girl We’d Abandon Ship For.” Some Harvard boys added: “The Girl We’ll Never Lampoon.”

As Elizabeth ripened, M-G-M ripened her roles. In Conspirator, not yet released, Robert Taylor (no kin) made love to Elizabeth so fiercely (said Hedda Hopper) that one of her vertebrae was dislocated. Next year Elizabeth will get an even juicier part in Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. She will co-star with Montgomery Clift.

Mother Watches. Metro’s publicity men have not missed many bets. In July of last year, West Point’s All-America Glenn Davis was brought by some friends to the Taylors’ house at Malibu Beach. When Infantryman Davis appeared, Elizabeth looked up “and I thought: O ye gods, no! … He was so wonderful!”

Cinema columnists duly reported the state of Elizabeth’s wonder, followed the romance play by play. Glenn gave her his gold football, his All-America sweater and finally, Elizabeth said, his troth, effective in three years, some time after his tour of duty in the Orient.

For months there was nobody quite like Glenn. Even Prince Philip, whom Elizabeth met in London, could not undo the gift-wrapping on her heart. “English girls think he’s so good-looking,” hummed Elizabeth. “I guess our standards are just different.”

Suddenly it was all over and Glenn was gone, deftly recovering his fumbled gold football. It seemed to friends of the family that Elizabeth’s mother felt no pain.

Mother is paid to watch things closely. To fortify her natural inclinations to protect her child, M-G-M pays Sara Taylor $250 a month (the usual fee for “movie mothers”) to guard its property, which one M-G-Magnate has spaciously valued at “$50,000,000, maybe even $100,000,000.” Elizabeth herself makes only $1,000 a week, which is raisins to the plums she should soon be getting. Next year her salary goes up to $1,500 under the present contract, which has three years to run. Bonuses may add to her take.

Mother goes to work with Elizabeth every day, sits quietly in a corner of the sound stage and instructs her daughter with nods and hand signals. Says she: “Elizabeth and I are so close, we practically think as one person. Elizabeth is now mature enough to make any important decisions herself, and I want her to do so, and when she does make a decision I always find it’s the same thing I would have done . . . We always seem to agree on everything.”

Bill Instructs. Mother & daughter agreed on William D. Pawley Jr., the 28-year-old son of the transit magnate and former ambassador to Brazil. Elizabeth met Bill last March in Miami while she and Glenn were still doing their gossip-column hitch. Every afternoon for a week Bill gave her driving lessons, every night he took her to a party. During the Easter holidays he flew to the Coast. Last June, after school was out, mother & daughter flew to Miami to stay at the Pawleys’. There Elizabeth and Bill announced their engagement.

Back in Hollywood, Elizabeth has refused to let a little thing like a continent come between them. She writes Bill every day and has little long-distance chats with him almost as often. Cost of one recent call: $145. At first they vowed to have no other dates, but Elizabeth felt like such a wallflower at one of Cobina Wright’s parties she had that rule made a little more flexible.

Elizabeth says she is quite certain that she and Bill will be married — someday. She refuses to be depressed by the fact that he is the vice president of a bus line in Florida, while her career is in Hollywood. They have not decided where to live, she says, but Bill is looking for a house in Miami, while she is scouting around California. “I’ve seen several houses,” she chirps, “and they’re all just the darlingest things.” Mother smiles, and watches.

“Oh, Brother!” The day is coming soon, say some Hollywood seers, when Elizabeth may get fed up with being watched. They already see signs that she is trying her wings: she is tired of her Cadillac and wants another; she wants a mink stole; in Paris last winter she went on a clothes-buying spree and overdrew her checking account; in London she snapped back at her teacher, “Wouldn’t it be nice if Miss Anderson dropped right through the floor!”

When Elizabeth talks about her future in the movies, her eyes flash sapphire sparks. “What I’d really like to play,” she gasps excitedly, “is a monster — a hellion.” MGM’s Billy Grady thinks she has the temperament as well as the beauty to become a great star — “And when she begins to show it — Oh, Brother!”

* To find the age of a star, a Hollywood press-agent takes the year of her (or his) birth, subtracts it from itself, and burns the paper the numbers were written on; then adds last week’s fan mail to the box-office receipts from the star’s last picture, subtracts her salary, divides the remainder by the number of pressagents assigned to care for her career, subtracts the number of her marriages, adds three months for every child she has had (things grow fast in the sub tropics), and knocks off ten years just for gallantry. If the age is still higher than the one the boss ordered, he works in slight mathematical errors until the answer comes out right. * No kin to Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Director Francis Henry Taylor.

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