It’s a Friday afternoon in March and Elizabeth Taylor’s white Rolls Royce is stuck in Fort Lauderdale’s rush hour traffic. Ms. Taylor is on her way to a rehearsal of The Little Foxes, the Lillian Hellman classic which had just opened its pre-Broadway run at Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse.
“What’s with the traffic?” she moans to her chauffeur, who clearly shares her restiveness. “It’s so unprofessional to be late and I need all the work on my role I can get. Doing this play has probably been the most important decision of my professional life.”
It is not a hyperbolic statement. In a career spanning 40 years and more than 50 films, her appearance in this play (which opened in Florida the week before her 49th birthday) marked the first time she had ever acted onstage before an audience and the critics.
“I really wasn’t as nervous on opening night as I might have been,” she says. “In fact, Anthony Zerbe, who plays one of my brothers, says he heard me humming as I waited for my cue. Actually, I had a feeling of enormous excitement. I couldn’t depend on retakes like in the movies. It was sink-or-swim and there was nothing to do but get on with it. The theatre is like a Polaroid photo—instant gratification.”
The role of Regina Giddens, which Taylor has chosen for her stage debut, is one of the nastiest women in contemporary drama. A 1939 creation by Lillian Hellman, Regina is a viperish Southerner, so corroded by greed that she abets her husband’s death to insure her financial future. As portrayed originally on Broadway by Tallulah Bankhead and on film by Bette Davis (1941), Regina was relentlessly ruthless. But Taylor, who has already explored Southern womanhood in such films as Raintree County, Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly, Last Summer, is playing Regina with measured coquetry—coating the cyanide with sugar, covering the iron fist with the proverbial velvet glove.
Having seen no previous productions of The Little Foxes, Taylor says she developed her character by “reading the play, loving it, and reading it again. I’d heard Regina described as this calculating killer, who just strikes, strikes, but I found in the writing different ways to shade and modulate her. Regina is a flirt, she panics, and, of course, she is deadly and calculating. But she’s also vulnerable. As an actress, you delve into your own resources to find emotion, which you then translate into the character’s emotion…but, oh I hope there’s nothing of Regina in me.”
Although Liz Taylor admits “I always wanted to try the stage,” her involvement with The Little Foxes came about almost by accident. At the Washington opening of Brigadoon, she was seated next to producer Zev Bufman and accepted his invitation to the cast party. At the party, Bufman commented that since she was obviously having such a good time being with theatre people she might enjoy doing a play. “Why don’t we talk about it,” responded Taylor.
As it turned out, the timing was perfect. Elizabeth’s husband, Senator John Warner of Virginia, was busy with the new administration and Liz had already been chatting with Burt Reynolds about acting at his Florida dinner theatre. Bufman quickly dissuaded her from what seemed to him a half measure—“If you’re going to do it,” he said, “why not do it in New York instead?”
And, says Taylor, “I thought, Why not? If I’m going to get skinned for a cat, I might as well get skinned in a big way.”
This decision is typical of Taylor. Wittingly or not, extremes have been one of her trademarks. During a life sometimes described as epic, she has had six husbands and seven marriages (wedding Richard Burton twice). She suffered a broken back; widowhood in her 20s; and near death from pneumonia. Some scribes have lauded her as the world’s most beautiful woman and others have colored her scarlet. In her heyday she commanded filmdom’s highest salaries. She’s also adorned herself with 33- and 69-carat diamonds. With a fame that began with National Velvet in 1944 when she was 12 years old, hers is one of the longest reigns of any superstar.
Yet backstage in her Florida dressing room, there is little that is larger than life about the now-slender, 5’4” actress. She is enveloped in an oversized flowered caftan; wears no make-up and, except for a gold wedding band, no jewelry. The scars from her tracheotomy are still visible. She laughs at her clumsiness as she trips over a bedspread corner; borrows an emery board for the short, unpainted nails she is trying to coax to length; occasionally sips from a glass of iced coffee.
Her entourage consists only of an executive assistant with a terrible cold, who tries vainly to shoo away the germs, and producer Zev Bufman’s representative, who strolls about in her bathing suit. There is talk of the yacht on which Taylor will take the cast and stage crew sailing on their day off. But it is not her own yacht, she has rented it.
Reputed to be witty, mischievous and earthy, this afternoon she is mellow.
“I’m not some strange kind of coiled person,” she says, referring to frequent press descriptions. “I guess interviewers need a handle and for some reason—don’t ask me why—they like to make me sound off-putting. But I learned very, very young that the minute you start believing your own publicity, you’re in a world of trouble. So I take the hubbub surrounding my life with a dose of salts, a big dose.”
Taylor credits her father, an art historian and dealer, and her mother, an actress, with molding her attitude. “They were wonderful parents,” she declares, “and when I was going through puberty and people decided that I was pretty, they made very sure that I was aware that beauty was not an exterior thing, but an interior one. The problem is that the media have made my life out to lack dignity by not allowing me the privacy I require and by fabrication.”
The actress’ response has been to guard carefully those facets of her existence she can still shield. She acknowledges that she enjoys being the mother of grown children—two sons by Michael Wilding, one daughter by Mike Todd, and a daughter adopted with Richard Burton. But she declines to speak of them except to say, “the children are very private and I respect their sense of identity.”
Her only comment on her adherence to the Jewish faith, which she embraced between her marriages to Todd (killed in 1958 in a private plane crash) and Eddie Fisher, is that—“It was born of a deep need after Mike’s death. It has continued to fulfill this, and I couldn’t give it up.”
Of her extensive travels, she says simply, “I love to go back to places. It would break my heart if I thought I would never see Venice again.”
Taylor has a host of good works to her credit—two clinics in Botswana; fundraising for the children’s wings of The Variety Club’s International Hospitals; continued efforts on behalf of Jewish and Israeli causes. And, since her marriage to Sen. Warner in December 1979, she has discovered that she enjoys politicking—“getting close to strangers and dealing with them in one-to-one relationships. I’ve always tried to keep in my life a non-show business element,” she says, “because I find the world and its interests and problems vastly more interesting than show business.”
Nonetheless, Taylor is aghast at the thought of retirement. “I’m well enough off not to have to work. No one has a gun at my head. But I act because I like it.” In fact, after all these years, Taylor admits she harbors a desire to be taken seriously as an actress, not just a movie star, though she denies that was the reason for undertaking The Little Foxes. “I have a very sound ego, I think. I don’t have to go out fighting windmills or trying to prove things. Certainly not to other people. That would be a waste of energy.
“I’m doing this play for myself,” she explains. “Perhaps in the beginning before the work began and the unknown was fraught with danger, I was to a very small degree trying to prove something. But not anymore. I now feel very secure. Everyone around me has been most supportive. The cast is really a family working with and for each other. There’s a wonderful gemutlich feeling.”
As the actress stalks back and forth across the stage in a collection of beautiful costumes, she is without a question a stunner. But this not the effect she most hopes to achieve. She will be happiest if her acting enables audiences to forget they are watching Elizabeth Taylor. “That accomplishment,” she says, “would be the best of all.”