Saturday, February 15, 2014

Curling into Artifice

Elizabeth Taylor in black and white is a mystical experience.  With her pale skin and dark eyes, her sad but vibrant neediness, she is a spectacular vision that transcends real life without losing the overwhelming essence of it, the abundance of tragedy, the music of surviving every fall.  She doesn't really act as much as experiences things loudly, but with a stinging intensity that passes through the air without sound.  And in the silvery-gray confines of black and white, she blurs into goddesses right before your eyes.  In A Place in the Sun, from 1950, she's pure porcelain American royalty, moving through mansions with grace and confidence and finding out how to be alive by falling in love with someone she knows is trouble, but also knows can save her from her own kind (Montgomery Clift's nervous, beautiful working-class outlier).  In 1965's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she's a Medusa snarling and crying and laughing her way through a dark night of the soul.  The meanness mixes in with vulnerability, though, and the cinema-verite stew on one night boils over onto a linoleum floor in a college town nobody wants to live in.  She's somehow both grotesque and gorgeous here, ensconced in the artifice of a playwright's overwrought language and scenes that seem to fester into fevers over and over.  And yet she's also regal in her bitchiness, to the point the movie allows her to recapture that innocence she had fifteen years before.   But it's the cinematography that captures what she's best at:  performing beauty unraveling from its majesty.  In both these brilliant movies, she finds ways to portray characters who exist in the real world while curling into artifice when it matters most.