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‘Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes’ Review: Nanette Burstein’s HBO Doc

‘Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes’ Review: Nanette Burstein’s HBO Doc

A celebrity from the age of 11, Elizabeth Taylor was practiced at public relations for almost all her life, so there aren’t many personal revelations in Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes. But Nanette Burstein‘s elegantly constructed documentary, mostly in Taylor’s own words backed by illuminating archival images, works as a lively bit of film history about movie stardom in the volatile 1960s as the studio system was fading and the media exploding.

The film — which premiered at Cannes in the Cannes Classics sidebar — is based on 40 hours of recently rediscovered audiotapes, recordings Taylor made in the mid-1960s for a ghost-written memoir (long out of print). It was the most frenzied moment of her fame, when she was coming off the paparazzi-fueled scandal that was Cleopatra. Taylor, who died in 2011, recalls her many marriages — four when she made these recordings, since she was on the first of two to Richard Burton — and her career, from her start as a child in Lassie Come Home (1943) through her Oscar-winning performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes

The Bottom Line

An entertaining if unsurprising time capsule.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor
Director: Nanette Burstein
Writers: Nanette Burstein, Tal Ben-David

1 hour 41 minutes

As she did in Hillary, about Hillary Clinton, and The Kid Stays in the Picture, based on Robert Evans’ autobiography, Burstein stays out of her celebrity subject’s way. Taylor’s voice is playful, almost girlish. Occasionally she is blunt, but more often seems cautiously aware of being recorded. Richard Meryman, the Life magazine reporter doing the interviews, is heard asking questions at times, but Taylor is firmly in control, at least on the surface.

Beneath that you can tell how beautifully Burstein and her editor and co-writer, Tal Ben-David, shaped the visuals. The archival photos and news clips offer a telling backdrop of images and sound bites, often more informative than what Taylor says — from shots of crowds filling the streets of London to see her on the day of her second wedding, to the actor Michael Wilding, to film of her in mourning black at the funeral of her beloved third husband, the producer Mike Todd, who died in a plane crash. The visual exceptions are the clichéd, recurring establishing shots of an old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder, next to a martini glass.

Moving chronologically, Taylor begins with her desire to act even as a child. Photos from that time offer a reminder that she was always astonishingly beautiful. These early sections are fine but bland. She was too young to be married the first time, to Nicky Hilton, she says, and the second marriage just didn’t work out. George Stevens gave her subtle direction and bolstered her confidence when she made A Place in the Sun (1951). When she made Giant with him five years later, he berated her, telling her she was just a movie star and not an actress, a charge that often dogged her.

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Taylor becomes sporadically more biting as the film goes on, displaying a sharp-tongued wit and personality. That is particularly true when she talks about her marriage to Eddie Fisher, the first of her marital scandals, covered endlessly in tabloids. It was public knowledge that Fisher and his wife, Debbie Reynolds, were the Todds’ best friends. Shortly after Mike Todd’s death, Fisher left his wife, whose image was always cheery and wholesome, for Taylor. “I can’t say anything against Debbie,” Taylor sweetly says on the tape, and without taking a breath goes on, “But she put on such an act, with the pigtails and the diaper pins.” She says of Fisher, “I don’t remember too much about my marriage to him except it was one big frigging awful mistake.”

Burstein includes some enlightening sidelights from that period. A news clip of the recently married couple has them surrounded by journalists on the steps of a plane, with one reporter asking Fisher about his bride, “Can she cook?” Even as a tease, who would dare say that now?

That fuss was nothing next to Cleopatra (1963), now notorious as the film so over-budget it almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox, and the set on which Taylor and Burton, each married to other people, indiscreetly sparked to each other from the start. The Vatican newspaper weighed in on the affair, disapprovingly. Taylor says her own father called her “a whore.” In one of the film’s more telling scenes, she says of their affair, “Richard and I, we tried to be what is considered ‘good,’ but it didn’t work,” a comment that at once plays into the moralistic language of her day and resists it. These signs of Taylor’s savvy awareness of herself as a public personality are the film’s most intriguing, if scattershot, moments.

The film also shows how besieged the couple was by the paparazzi, at a turning point in celebrity culture. Occasionally other voices are heard in archival audio, and in this section George Hamilton says of the press, “They were not going for glamour anymore. They were going for the destruction of glamour,” suggesting a longing for the old pre-packaged studio publicity days. But Taylor herself is never heard complaining. A realist, she made hiding from the paparazzi into a game for her children so they wouldn’t be frightened.

The recordings end at the point where she is assuring Meryman that she and Burton would be together for 50 years. The film then takes a quick trot through the rest of her days, including rehab at the Betty Ford Center and raising money for AIDS research. But the last word should have been Taylor’s. There is a private Elizabeth, she says. “The other Elizabeth, the famous one, really has no depth or meaning to me. It is a commodity that makes money.” The movie star Taylor is the one who most often comes through in the film, but that is engaging enough.

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