Elizabeth Taylor was, of course, a gay icon. And for many reasons.
The legendary actress, who died of congestive heart failure last week at 79, was one of our few remaining ties to old Hollywood, the contract system era that has captured gay imaginations for decades with larger-than-life stars like Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Judy Garland and Joan Crawford. Taylor, a generation behind that top tier, is part of that pantheon because she started so young. She was only 10 when she made her first movie in 1942.
Her close friendships with her gay and bi costars have been well documented — Montgomery Clift, Rock Hudson and James Dean. And whatever Michael Jackson’s true sexual orientation was, he and Taylor clearly had some kind of “Will & Grace” thing happening.
Her AIDS activism, too, has also been widely covered.
But one of the curious Taylor gay recurring themes, especially considering the era in which she made most of her films, was how many of their storylines are gay. In two of the best — 1958’s “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and 1959’s “Suddenly Last Summer,” that’s largely because gay playwright Tennessee Williams penned the source material.
In “Cat,” Taylor plays Maggie to Paul Newman’s depressed, alcoholic Brick, who’s uninterested in his gorgeous wife sexually. His relationship with pal Skipper, who committed suicide, is left somewhat vague in the film adaptation but only the most naive movie fans wouldn’t have been perplexed — and thus cued — that any man not interested in the ’50s-era Taylor, a strikingly beautiful woman widely considered among the most lustrous ever to grace the screen, had to have some homo issues lurking.
A lot of it is coded of course, as was common for the time. Homosexuality on the screen could only be alluded too but considering how many of filmdom’s participants were gay — both men and women, in front of and behind the camera — it’s not surprising queer sensibilities are lurking widely in the Tinseltown product of the day. For more on this topic, check out gay author William J. Mann’s brilliant 2001 book “Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood.”
Much gayer — and campier — is Taylor’s next film, “Summer,” a sordid-but-fascinating Joe Mankiewicz (“All About Eve”)-directed Williams adaptation that tells, in a roundabout way, of Catherine’s (Taylor) close friendship with her gay cousin Sebastian (whom we only see in flashback). While on holiday, he uses her, in a scandalous white bathing suit, to lure young local men for sex. They turn on him and kill him in a gruesome attack. Taylor spends much of the film trying to avoid a lobotomy. Sebastian’s mother, a domineering and possessive woman played masterfully by Katharine Hepburn (she and Taylor were both nominated for the film), refuses to address her son’s homosexuality. Hepburn’s long opening scene, in which she shows Clift her Venus Fly Traps and rambles on about her closeness with Sebastian and his supposed encounters with the divine, is a delight. She plays the Oedipal grace notes of the text perfectly, never hitting you over the head with its seamier components.
Taylor would do Williams again — 1968’s “Boom!” is an adaptation of his play “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore.” It’s worth seeing as a curiosity piece, but Taylor and then-husband Richard Burton are both wildly miscast. The film mostly just made me yearn some record existed of what Tallulah Bankhead and gay actor Tab Hunter did with the material during a very short Broadway run.
Gayer still — but sadly, not nearly as good a film — is 1967’s “Reflections in a Golden Eye,” a tawdry and sensational John Huston-directed piece that finds Marlon Brando, in a wildly over-the-top performance, as a closeted, sadistic Army Major married to Taylor and, like Newman in “Cat,” not the least bit interested in her sexually.
I have the film on VHS but only watched it once, years ago. It wasn’t particularly memorable but researching this piece, I came upon the trailer on the film’s IMDB page. For the curious, that’s probably all you need. It’s a nice, compact two-minute, unintentional laugh-a-thon as Taylor purrs in a southern accent that her horse, “Firebird is a stallion” and Brando threatens to kill her during a scenery-chewing stairway confrontation.
Brian Hutton’s “X, Y and Zee” has a passing lesbian angle — bickering couple Taylor and Michael Cain, in a pale echo of “Virginia Woolf,” play a bickering married couple. He has an affair with a quiet, bisexual boutique shop owner.
As the ostensible gay characters and themes in Taylor’s work dried up, some of her later work still exhibited gay sensibilities. Definitely worth seeing is a hilarious bitchfest Taylor made in 1980 with Kim Novak and, again, old pal Hudson. The Agatha Christie adaption finds Novak in deliciously rare form as a conniving actress co-starring with rival Taylor in a costume epic.
And then there’s Taylor’s swan song, the 2001 TV movie “These Old Broads,” in which she co-starred with Joan Collins, Shirley MacLaine and old rival-turned-pal Debbie Reynolds. It’s another Hollywood-set backstory that, sadly, is not nearly as much fun as it sounds.