Wed, April 16, 2014

Dead Folks 2011: The Icons

A lot of stars, celebrities, heroes, villains, and movers and shakers left us in 2011—and we have their stories.

January 26, 2012

Elizabeth Taylor

As a child film star, an icon of feminine beauty, a sex symbol, the first celebrity tabloid queen, the last reigning queen of Hollywood, and, as film critic Pauline Kael famously pegged her, "a force of nature," Elizabeth Taylor merged the arcs of her screen image and personal life into a single amazing trajectory. Her star of fame zigged and zagged and finally stopped rising, but it has never fallen. With her passing, however, the world may have seen its last authentic movie star.

Elizabeth, first and foremost, was blessed with beauty. Even as she approached the delicate age of seven, adults were struck by her "ladylike" demeanor and physical presence. On the large screen in Technicolor—for example, in National Velvet—the 12-year-old Taylor was a stunning doll with a tender, lilting voice and eyes that quickly welled with tears. The eyes were blue, as a matter of fact, but once the notion of lavender or violet eyes gained momentum, photographers would often process their results to lend a darker cast to what, during the 1950s and early 1960s, were nonetheless regarded as the loveliest peepers on the planet.

Once Taylor was MGM's leading child star, it seemed like mere months before Taylor, an adolescent proper lady in several of MGM's period pictures, suddenly emerged as a leading ingénue with adult roles. The transition was seamless (on screen), but years later Taylor would remark how her ambitious mother and MGM bosses conspired to deprive her of a childhood and treat her as "chattel."

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There was some hint given in 1950, while Taylor was still a teenager, of the sexual dynamo that would arrive later, and observers received more than a clue that perhaps adulthood and stardom had come to the young actress too soon. In A Place in the Sun Opposite Montgomery Clift (with whom she would form a close and lasting friendship), Taylor's society girl Angela Vickers practically glowed and hummed with repressed desire for the incredibly handsome fellow from the wrong side of the tracks. Taylor provided a new image (and notion) for post-war bobbysoxers and 1950s teenagers: sexual energy in a socially acceptable package. Subsequent roles for the now established star, along with a very public and notorious personal life, would rip the bow off of that package.

Taylor married Conrad Hilton in 1950; nine months later Hilton's wild ways led to Taylor's miscarriage and a divorce. Bareley a year later Taylor tied the knot with Michael Wilding; that marriage (to a man twenty years her senior) lasted less than six years. A month after that divorce, Taylor was married to Mike Todd, a stage and film production hustler and all-around guy's guy, and the first man who would hold Taylor's sincere attention.

It was during these marriages and divorces (and two pregnancies) that MGM provided Taylor with almost no decent roles. She was still considered to be the most beautiful woman on the modern screen, and the celebrity press kept her front and center, usually combining mild Hollywood gossip with updates on the actress's domestic bliss. An under-appreciated performance in the Warner Bros. epic Giant had Taylor playing second fiddle, in terms of public attention, to a new teen idol named James Dean. Then in 1958 the world got a dose of Maggie the Cat.

Starring with Paul Newman in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Taylor offered more than mere glimpses of simmering sexuality, doing for silk slips what Marlon Brando did for T-shirts that decade. She was currently the biggest box-office draw in America. Still more attention, of a salacious nature, arrived with Suddenly Last Summer, in which for one memorable scene Taylor rose from the surf in a white bathing suit that was sufficiently soaked to render it, shall we say, less than modest. It was at this time that the screen persona and the real-world image became inseparable.

Michael Todd had perished in a plane crash in the spring of 1958. Todd's buddy, entertainer Eddie Fisher, began to console the distraught widow, and romance blossomed once again for Taylor. The problem was that Fisher was married to one of America's screen sweethearts, Debbie Reynolds. Fisher's subsequent divorce and marriage to Taylor became publicity fodder thus far unmatched in celebrity scandal history. The entire drama, as it played out for years, makes today's Angelina/Brad/Jennifer saga look like a dispute over a parking space at a Beverly Hills restaurant. In any case, the world was just getting a peek at the drama that would emerge in the next decade.

After a much-publicized emergency room adventure involving a tracheotomy (chronic illness would become a feature of the Taylor saga), the semi-notorious home wrecker won an Oscar for her portrayal of a call girl/home wrecker in BUtterfield 8. But authentic scandal was already brewing overseas, where Taylor had taken the lead role in the 20th-Century Fox epic Cleopatra.

By now absolutely irresistible to the press, the sex symbol, home wrecker, and recently $1 million-salaried star was the topic of basically every dispatch from the Cleopatra production. First was the very serious case of pneumonia, resolved by that emergency tracheotomy that many agree earned Taylor sympathy with Oscar voters. After the film's key player returned to the set, the press turned their attention to the chemistry between Taylor and co-star Richard Burton. They were not referring to the daily rushes. Thus commenced the dawn of an epic which would dwarf the historic tale of Egypt's queen: Liz & Dick.

The two married stars carried on a scandalous affair, one so public, audacious, and well-chronicled that the Vatican actually weighed in with disapproval. It wasn't merely a matter of tabloid covers and paparazzi and news reels. Liz & Dick were headlines and top stories with legitimate media. From a strictly Who's Who perspective of the celebrity realm, during the early 1960s there was JFK, Martin Luther King, Jr., The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Truman Capote, and Liz & Dick—not necessarily in that order. When the two finally exchanged vows in the spring of 1964, it was difficult to distinguish between on-screen Liz & Dick and real-world Liz & Dick. They made seven pictures together, none more absurd than The Sandpiper, in which a tormented, married pastor (Burton) has an affair with a Big Sur artist and free spirited single gal (Taylor). It was art imitating—and then shamelessly exploiting—life.

It was around this time that one might reasonably have debated whether Elizabeth Taylor could actually act. The debate was resolved in 1966 when Taylor and Burton conducted a booze-addled, over-the-top, phenomenally caustic, marital grudge match in Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf. Taylor played the volatile Martha, and, long story short, everyone was afraid of her. Taylor took home a second Academy Award for that one.

Taylor's roles during the late 1960s and early 70s are a curious collection. She offered a fine turn opposite Marlon Brando in Reflections in a Golden Eye, a picture only slightly less bizarre than Boom!, Secret Ceremony, or X, Y, and Zee. By the 1980s, no one cared what Taylor was doing, unless some comedian was cruelly mocking the aging actress's weight gain, another marriage, or some awful television appearance.

Yet, being a force of nature, it did not occur to Taylor that she might not find a way to make, say, a second small fortune to match the sums gained from her Hollywood career. It took a while to parlay her famous $150 million jewelry collection into a marketing angle/product image, but Passion and White Diamonds, Taylor's personal fragrances, were pulling in 60-plus million dollars annually by the late 1990s. That's alongside the $270 million Taylor ultimately raised, starting in 1985, for AIDS-focused charities and projects. Despite spectacular health problems (many of which led to chemical dependencies and related difficulties), being essentially banished from motion pictures, and often being her own worst enemy in terms of public image, Elizabeth Taylor, in her dwindling years, was fully engaged in major business endeavors and award-winning charitable enterprises.

It makes sense, really. In many of those screen roles in which she drew from her own strong-willed spirit to create a character, Elizabeth Taylor invariably hinted that she should never be counted out. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Paul Newman asks Taylor, "What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?" The best looking woman in Hollywood purrs her response, "Just staying on it I guess—as long as she can." —DP

Owsley Stanley

Few people influenced the '60s like Owsley Stanley. He would be known just for his long stint as the road manager for the Grateful Dead. The young audio technician designed the elaborate custom equipment that helped to turn the Dead into one of the era's legendary live acts. Regardless of the music, nobody sounded better in concert than the Grateful Dead—which helped to inspire the bootlegging of shows that would turn the band's tours into major events for the length of their career.

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Stanley—also known as "Bear" to Dead fans—had another important skill. In fact, he first met the Dead members at a party where everyone was checking out the latest stash of LSD from the Stanley home lab. His potent acid didn't just inspire the Dead as musicians. He also used his drug money to fund the Dead's early career. Stanley didn't need the band's notoriety to become a celebrity dealer, though. "Owsley" was already becoming a code name for the not-so-enigmatic figure producing mass quantities of acid to eager hippies. That was mostly between 1965 and 1967, and it should be noted that the "Owsley" name was known for reliable product at a reasonable price.

Stanley was lucky that LSD wasn't illegal back in 1965. He also got a break when the Sandoz Laboratories removed their pharmaceutical LSD from the market in the mid-60s. That's when Stanley began to move in celebrity circles as a supplier—making the most of his musical connections through his association with Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. LSD finally became illegal in 1967, and Stanley's celebrity status quickly caught up with him. He was busted with 350,000 doses of acid. The judge didn't believe Stanley's claim that it was for personal use, and sentenced the dealer to three years in prison.

He got out to find a job waiting for him with the Grateful Dead, but Stanley turned out to be a bad influence. Almost the entire band would end up arrested while on tour with Stanley in 1970. Stanley would spend two more years in prison for traveling with his stash of LSD and barbiturates. The Dead were inspired by the bust to write "Truckin'," so that worked out pretty well for them.

A lot of people in the '80s decided that Australia was the safest place to avoid the nuclear and/or environmental holocaust that was sure to result from the Reagan years. Stanley was one of them, and headed off to his own happy life in the Australian outback while having lots of kids. He was no hippie-dippy type, though. Stanley loved to pontificate on all kinds of things, including the virtues of his all-meat diet. He thought vegetables were poisonous to the body. (He blamed his bout with throat cancer on being served broccoli as a child.) The guy might have been onto something, since Stanley's own body held up pretty well to a chemical onslaught. Sadly, no diet could have prepared Stanley for a car accident near his Queensland home. (76, car accident) —JRT

James Arness

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Remember that big, lumbering creature terrorizing soldiers at an arctic outpost in the science-fiction classic The Thing From Another World? That was big Jim Arness, and rightly so; no one else in Hollywood at the time stood 6'7'' tall. That's also Arness as a lanky farm boy in The Farmer's Daughter, and as a deranged member of the Clegg clan in John Ford's downbeat western Wagon Master. A dozen more minor turns in forgotten westerns followed before his boss at Batjac Films (one John Wayne) recommended that CBS hire Arness to play Matt Dillon for a planned television version of "Gunsmoke," which was still a hugely successful and critically-acclaimed radio series. Arness got the part, and what followed has never been matched in television history.

The series ran from 1955 to 1975, the longest run so far for any television series. That's 635 episodes, but it took Arness only a few of the early ones to establish himself as the definitive U.S. Marshall, a stern but decent lawman managing the untamed territories near Dodge City, Kansas. By its third season, "Gunsmoke" held the number one ratings slot and stayed there for three more years. It remained in the top ten, though not consecutively, for fourteen of its twenty years on the air. In other words, for two full decades James Arness was the most recognized western star in America—apart from his old boss John Wayne, who introduced Arness to viewers in a rather lengthy monologue at the beginning of the first episode on September 10, 1955 ("He's a young fellow and maybe new to some of you, but I've worked with him and I predict he'll be a big star. So you might as well get used to him, like you've had to get used to me.")

During "Gunsmoke's" unmatched run on television, thirty other western programs came and went, starring such big names as Walter Brennan, Robert Conrad, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, James Garner, and Richard Boone. Arness outlasted all of them. (88) —DP

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