The Physical Intelligence of Elizabeth Taylor

Posted on April 4, 2011 by


After Elizabeth Taylor died, Salon called up their founding contributor Camille Paglia for her eulogy. Paglia—a lifelong devotee of Taylor—took the interview as an opportunity to talk about what’s wrong with Hollywood actresses today:

To me, Elizabeth Taylor’s importance as an actress was that she represented a kind of womanliness that is now completely impossible to find on the U.S. or U.K. screen. It was rooted in hormonal reality — the vitality of nature. She was single-handedly a living rebuke to postmodernism and post-structuralism, which maintain that gender is merely a social construct. Let me give you an example. Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” is a truly wonderful film, but Julianne Moore and Annette Bening — who is fabulous in it and should have won the Oscar for her portrayal of a prototypical contemporary American career woman — were painfully scrawny to look at on the screen. This is the standard starvation look that is now projected by Hollywood women stars — a skeletal, Pilates-honed, anorexic silhouette, which has nothing to do with females as most of the world understands them. There’s something almost android about the depictions of women currently being projected by Hollywood.


The era of the great movie queens is certainly over. Sharon Stone did have her solar moment in “Basic Instinct.” Not just in the famous interrogation scene in the police station but everywhere in that film, she was commanding sex and commanding the camera. It was a spectacular performance — and then the movie kind of self-destructs. But I had a brief moment of hope there — I thought, is Hollywood sex finally coming back? But no, they never could come up with anything that good for Sharon Stone again, and the moment faded.

Paglia makes some good points, and she’s touched on an issue that goes far beyond Elizabeth Taylor and Hollywood actresses. Essentially, she’s talking about gendered power in the physical body—something Elizabeth Taylor exemplifies, and something that’s strangely undervalued by today’s Hollywood.

People of my generation grew up with Elizabeth Taylor as a strange, vague character—a bejeweled Liza Minnelli-lookalike who hawked perfume and partied with Michael Jackson. But if you watch Butterfield 8 (1960) or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) or Giant (1956)—you’ll see the Elizabeth Taylor that Paglia’s talking about.

Here’s Taylor with Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof:

Elizabeth Taylor was fantastic to watch—and it wasn’t because she was shockingly beautiful (which she was) or because she was sexy (which she definitely was); it was something else.

Elizabeth Taylor was feminine in the same way archetypal American male movie stars are masculine—that is, her femininity was a kind of aggressive power. She wasn’t like Lauren Bacall, who was powerful on screen in part because her sharp angles and deep voice gave her a kind of masculine edge; and she wasn’t like Marilyn Monroe, whose giggling femininity was a kind of drag performance.  Elizabeth Taylor didn’t project feminine sexual energy; she was feminine sexual energy, personified.  She moved into a scene and the dynamics of the scene shifted before she even spoke. It wasn’t her looks—Hollywood is fully-stocked with beautiful women. It was the way she walked; the way she stood; the way she looked at other people. She wasn’t a sexual object; she was a sexual subject. She was supremely aware of herself and her effect on everyone around her.

But Taylor wasn’t unique. From the 1930s up until today, there have been a number of actresses and actors who had extraordinary instinctive awareness of their gendered physicality.

For me, the classic male example is Clint Eastwood. People make fun of the way Eastwood talks in movies—he whispers, he mutters, he barely opens his mouth—but really, he hardly needs to talk. He has an easy and complete sense of his physical self—a kind of bodily masculine grace (most evident in his youth) that gives him incredible power over the emotional direction of a scene.

The best scene in Dirty Harry (1971) isn’t the “Do you feel lucky?” exchange; it’s that shot of Eastwood standing on the bridge toward the end of the movie, when the killer thinks he’s getting away—until he sees Eastwood:

The entire film at this point—its plot; its mood; its direction—relies on the simple lines of Eastwood’s supra-masculine figure: the angle of his leg, the way he holds his arms at his sides, the slight angle of his head. He’s telling you how the movie’s going to end—without raising a gun, without saying a word.

There are still some male actors in Hollywood who have a supreme kind of masculine self-awareness—-but not quite like Eastwood’s, not at a level where they can change the direction of the film just by they’re standing. And actresses with that kind of sexualized physical intelligence are even more rare today than their male counterparts. Hollywood is filled with actresses who look like Victoria Secret models and actors who look like they’ve stepped out of GQ photospreads—but not many of them have the ability to act with their bodies. If anything, today’s Hollywood seems to encourage actors and actresses to act apart from their bodies—to gain weight for roles, to don disguises, to slip into characters who are utterly desexualized.

Why? Have we as a society lost some of our respect for that kind of bodily self-awareness? Is it—as Paglia suggests—the unfortunate byproduct of the social campaign to make gender less important, less visible? Did progressive feminism really drive the Elizabeth Taylors of America from our movie screens? Can we re-learn to value that kind of Aristotlelian physical intelligence without re-adopting an antiquated understanding of natural gender roles?