I found myself unexpectedly moved by the news of Elizabeth Taylor’s passing. Normally I view the hyperbole around celebrities with little more than a shrug, but for some reason, Taylor’s death meant more to me than I would have expected. I think at least one reason is that by coincidence I watched The Taming of the Shrew recently. Taylor never was more stunning than in that film, made at the peak of her on again/off again relationship with Richard Burton. That director Franco Zeffirelli provided Taylor with a velvety cushion for her ripe peach beauty certainly didn’t hurt. As a result of his efforts and her natural comeliness, I will always think of Taylor first as that nastiest of cats, Katharina Baptista.
Like all of Zeffirelli’s adaptations, the movie is enough to make purists apoplectic. Since I have never cared about that holiest (and hoariest) of literary grails, the “faithful” adaptation of a book or play, however, I’m far more inclined to revel in the film’s sheer voluptuous vivacity. This is what expensive movies can provide more successfully than any other medium and should be enjoyed precisely for their rapturous, ecstatic excess. Profound? No. Subtle? Certainly not. Sensuous to the point of tactile, with a thorough-going lust for life and film’s capacity to express it? Unreservedly, categorically yes.
That Taylor and Burton throw themselves into this with such abandon only adds to the pleasure. Admittedly, some of the business that Zeffirelli imposes on the cast and extras is bumptious, excessive and frequently stagy, as if the director’s idea of “motion pictures” was a loud, crowded traffic jam. And the imagery, sumptuous as it is, cannot substitute for Shakespeare’s language—though whether those images are inferior is a different matter altogether.
Taylor first appears in an extreme close-up of those famous, violet eyes that even a Shakespeare could not equal for sheer lapidary brilliance. It’s a fitting entrance into a movie seemingly calculated to exploit Taylor’s beauty, but also a tease, since we know going into the film that she is the star. The movie flirts throughout with that foreknowledge. A great beauty, yes, but one required to yell at the top of her lungs, to run about with her hair mussed, to fall off a mule into a muddy puddle, to howl in frustration like a scullery maid. (Taylor’s “Amen” over her first dinner at Petruchio’s castle is priceless.) A shrew yes, but one appearing on screen with a partner famous for having “tamed” the actress and brought her to his bed.
It would be a mistake to make more of The Taming of the Shrew than what it is, an expensively prepared soufflé with rich ingredients from a recipe provided by one William Shakespeare. It is neither great film making nor great theater. It is, however, a suitably plush frame for its star at her most beautiful and entrancing, a fitting icon for our memories.