Elizabeth Taylor 1932-2011


Like many great artists,  Elizabeth Taylor, who died today at the age of 79, peaked at the age of 12. Her first lead performance in National Velvet (1944) inspired the critic James Agee to pen a rhapsodic paean that nowadays might warrant him charges of pedophilia. He starts his review "choked with the peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school." But then he recovers his aplomb and his acumen:

"So far as I can see on an exceedingly cloudy day, I wouldn't say she is particularly gifted as an actress. She seems, rather, to turn things off and on, much as she is told, with perhaps a fair amount of natural grace and of a natural-born female's sleepwalking sort of guile, but without much, if any, of an artist's intuition, perception, or resource. She strikes me, however, if I may resort to conservative statement, as being rapturously beautiful. I think she also has a talent, of a sort, in the particular things she can turn on: which are most conspicuously a mock-pastoral kind of simplicity, and two or three speeds of semi-hysterical emotion, such as ecstasy, an odd sort of pre-specific sentience, and the anguish of an overstrained hope, imagination, and faith. Since these are precisely the things she needs for her role in National Velvet - which is a few-toned-scale semi-fairy story about a twelve-year-old girl in love with a horse-and since I think it is the most hopeful business of movies to find the perfect people rather than the perfect artists, I think she and the picture are wonderful, and I hardly know or care whether she can act or not."

I think the jury might still be out on that last question. But limited though Taylor's virtues might be, they have proven rare, if not inimitable. Agee's virtues as a critic and writer are also legendary, and we will probably never see his like again.

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