New Again: Elizabeth Taylor

By and
Photography Firooz Zahedi

Published March 5, 2014

 

We’ve been thinking about Elizabeth Taylor quite a bit over the past week: last Thursday would have been her 82nd birthday and in honor of the occasion, family and friends gathered in Los Angeles at the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation Benefit to celebrate and support the late actress’s humanitarian vision. In addition, this past Sunday we witnessed Cate Blanchett take home her second Oscar at the 86th Annual Academy Awards: a feat accomplished by only a select few actors and actresses. Elizabeth Taylor remains part of this elite group, with two Oscars for her 1960’s roles in BUtterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Alongside Taylor and Blanchett, acting legends such as Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy, and Vivien Leigh are also part of the two-timer club. 

With Taylor’s legacy on our minds, we looked back to our November 1976 issue, in which the actress met with photographer Firooz Zahedi in Washington, D.C. The two discussed Taylor’s acting career over mashed potatoes and chicken, while the conversation shifted sporadically between serious inquiries and playful (accented) banter. In the wake of the post-Oscars frenzy, it’s endearing to hear Taylor refer to her golden statues as “the poor little things.”  

Elizabeth Taylor: A Little Light ChatterBy Firooz Zahedi

Elizabeth Taylor recently took a break from filming A Little Night Music in Vienna and spent a weekend in Washington D.C. visiting her fiancé John Warner. Our man-on-the-spot in the nation’s capital, Firooz Zahedi, was granted her only interview. Just for fun, Firooz occasionally assumed BBC Announcer and Cockney accents, while Elizabeth responded in the voices of a Grande Dame and a Southern Belle, and with a mean Cockney of her own.

FIROOZ ZAHEDI: [BBC Announcer] Sooo…

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: [Grand Dame] Yeees…

ZAHEDI: [BBC Announcer] Tell me about yourself, Miss Taylor.

TAYLOR: I was born as a child…

ZAHEDI: How is A Little Night Music coming along?

TAYLOR: Hopefully, it’s coming along rather well. We seem to be on schedule despite lots of weather problems and minor problems like my breaking a bone in my foot and various and sundry other little things. You know, I had to learn all of that dance, after you left, in one lesson. I just had to get up and do it. Before, my foot had been all bandaged up. It smarted.

ZAHEDI: How much dancing do you have to do now?

TAYLOR: I have one more number that I haven’t learned yet. And the bone is healing rapidly. But everyone else has rehearsed it except me. So I just hope I’m quick on my toes.

ZAHEDI: Have you recorded all the songs?

TAYLOR: No, I have two more. Steve (Sondheim)’s writing a special one for me that he likes better than “Send in the Clowns,” which I find hard to believe because that’s one of the great songs of all time. But he’s written another. I haven’t heard it yet.

ZAHEDI: Are you enjoying making a musical?

TAYLOR: Mmm! I’ve always sung in the shower. Now I make the stage a mental shower in order not to get too uptight and enjoy it.

ZAHEDI: Do you wear a shower cap on the set?

TAYLOR: It’s all mental!

ZAHEDI: Honestly, though, I used to think that you really had to psych yourself for a scene. But when I was watching you, it was just a part of everyday life. Suddenly, click and you came out with the line.

TAYLOR: I find it rather tedious working with some actors who have to go into a corner and bounce up and down, shake their hands and arms, saying to the director, “Just a second—I’ll be ready in a few minutes, ” while all the other actors are waiting around to get in. Then they say, “OK! I’m ready now.” And then they come on and do it exactly the same way they’ve done it in rehearsal. To me, acting is a matter of absolute concentration. You can laugh and giggle with your friends up to the minute the director says, “Action!” Then you snap your mind into shape and into the character that you’re playing and relate to the people that you’re acting with and forget everybody else that you’ve been joking with. This, I suppose, is inside training, as I’ve never had an acting lesson.

ZAHEDI: It must come with experience. After a while, you know how to bring about certain emotions.

TAYLOR: Each time it’s different because each character is different. You have to try to become that person.

ZAHEDI: [BBC Announcer] But you are veddy versatile in your acting abilities.

TAYLOR: Who said he was a snob?

ZAHEDI: I’m trying to sound intellectual.

TAYLOR: [Grande Dame] Your voice matches your suit, my dear.

ZAHEDI: But, honestly…

TAYLOR: Yes, Mr. Zahedi.

ZAHEDI: You’ve done…

TAYLOR: Yes.

ZAHEDI: Ah…

TAYLOR: Um.

ZAHEDI: You’ve switched from doing things like Cat On a Hot Tin Roof to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf to The Taming of the Shrew to A Little Night Music—completely different…

TAYLOR: As they say in Variety, “…is the spice.” I’m not in a rut, I don’t think. And I try to use different accents, which is just for my own fun.

ZAHEDI: But people very rarely ask you about your films. They’re more interested in your private life.

TAYLOR: Private? What makes you think my life is private?

ZAHEDI: Well, your public-private life. But I do want to poke into your career.

TAYLOR: I’m a dedicated amateur.

ZAHEDI: With three Oscars on the shelf.

TAYLOR: No, I only have two—the poor little things. But acting, I think, is fun. It’s not my whole life. It’s not my entire being. It’s secondary to my life. My life is primary. I’m running in the primary, as you know.

ZAHEDI: Do you want to get involved in politics, now?

TAYLOR: You never know! I might—either by osmosis or deliberate intent.

ZAHEDI: One can only do so much on the screen.

TAYLOR: Well, I hate the idea of always having to interpret other people’s ideas and thoughts and words, because I’m very independent and, I guess, a free thinker. And I like to express my own thoughts—when I’m coherent. Of course, you’ve caught me on an awful day today.

ZAHEDI: What were we talking about?

TAYLOR: I don’t know. It must be boring you. Do you want some more mashed potatoes?

ZAHEDI: You’re a good cook.

TAYLOR: [Southern] Some mo’ o’ dat mean gravy?

ZAHEDI: Do you get fed up with gossip columns?

TAYLOR: [Southern] I sho’ do!

ZAHEDI: Don’t you find it aggravating being chased by photographers?

TAYLOR: Don’t you remember when you almost had that fight?

ZAHEDI: The European ones, I think, are worse. They’re much more aggressive than the ones here.

TAYLOR: The name “paparazzi” comes from the Italian.

ZAHEDI: What does “paparazzi” mean?

TAYLOR: Cockroach. They’re totally amoral and totally fearless. They’re a degenerate group.

ZAHEDI: In London, though, they seemed very nice. Remember when we arrived at the airport?

TAYLOR: Except do you remember going shopping? That whole day, I think they were waiting for me to blow my stack. Which, of course, I wouldn’t dream of doing.

ZAHEDI: You say, rolling your eyes.

TAYLOR: Like Groucho Marx.

ZAHEDI: [BBC Announcer] You must admit, Miss Taylor, the Nation’s Capital has treated you veddy well.

TAYLOR: [Grande Dame] Veddy well. Extr-r-r-emely well.

ZAHEDI: Tell me about Washington. What do you like about Washington?

TAYLOR: Do you want addresses or phone numbers?

ZAHEDI: No, I’m talking purely geographically—buildings, sights…

TAYLOR: It’s that Washington monument!

ZAHEDI: Seriously, though…

TAYLOR: After all, it is the hub of the universe and I’m still very impressed by it and impressed by meeting the people who make the kinds of decisions that influence the entire world. People do things here. I admire people that do do things.

ZAHEDI: Who do you support in the elections?

TAYLOR: As it were, Mr. Carter’s peanut. [Southern Belle] Ah jus’ love farmers.

ZAHEDI: Why?

TAYLOR: I think he has a good chance of winning, although there’re a couple of issues I disagree with him on.

ZAHEDI: [BBC Announcer] Miss Taylor, let’s talk about your film career again. I’m teddibly fascinated by it.

TAYLOR: [Grande Dame] Are you?

ZAHEDI: The first film you made—were you excited by it?

TAYLOR: Mmm! It was all make-believe. I was 10 years old. The one that turned me on the most was when I was 12 and did National Velvet, because it was just an extension of my own private life. It was even my own horse. I chose the horse and the studio gave it to me on my 13th birthday. It was one of the best present I’ve ever got.

ZAHEDI: You don’t ride anymore?

TAYLOR: [Grande Dame] It’s rather difficult.

ZAHEDI: Because of your back.

TAYLOR: I’m going to start again, but I have to do it slowly and I don’t think it would be fair to the company to start riding now.

ZAHEDI: It’s incredible with the number of major operations you’ve had and physical problems you’ve had—that you do so many films and fly around going from this city to that city.

TAYLOR: [Southern Belle] Ah’m jus’ a regular l’le ol’ female Henry Kissinger, ah guess.

ZAHEDI: Which films have you most enjoyed making? Z-z-z-z-z-z-z…

TAYLOR: You put yourself to sleep on that one!

ZAHEDI: Suddenly Last Summer?

TAYLOR: That was fun—”The Cannibal Marching Song.” I love doing scenes like that where you really chew up the scenery and scream a lot.

ZAHEDI: If you had a chance to erase some of the films you’ve done, which ones would you erase?

TAYLOR: I have erased them so totally from my mind that I can’t even remember the names. Some of them I’ve never seen because I knew when I was making them they were going to be disasters.

ZAHEDI: You must have made the original disaster filmCleopatra.

TAYLOR: Thank you, dear. It wasn’t a disaster for me because of my overtime. The suit against me was bigger than the suit against Richard, which infuriated him. But the whole thing from 20th Century Fox amounted to 75 million dollars. Then a theater chain joined in and said that the publicity of our romance had kept the audience away from the cinema. So we fought. And they were absolutely astounded that we would fight a suit, rather than settle out of court. What they wanted, actually, was my 10 per cent. And instead of their winning that astronomical figure, which was so ridiculous—who has that kind of money, except governments—we did depositions for 10 months and settled out of court and won two-and-a-half-million. But it was finally getting on my stomach. After days full of depositions and these awful questions I’d go home and be sick. So rather than fight it out all the way—and it could have been endless, it could have been years—we settled out of court. But won. So, in that sense, it wasn’t a disaster.

ZAHEDI: Let’s talk about your favourite designers.

TAYLOR: You mean Halston? It’s not “designers,” it’s “designer.” I absolutely adore him. He’s one of my best chums.

ZAHEDI: He’s a true gentleman.

TAYLOR: He really is. And his clothes are divine. But, more important than clothes—more important than anything, in any human being—is the man. He’s a rare man. And I value his friendship enormously.

ZAHEDI: Do you want some more chicken?

TAYLOR: I was just eyeing it. Do you?

ZAHEDI: I’m eyeing it, too. I wouldn’t mind another leg. Now I know why you don’t give too many interviews.

TAYLOR: Aren’t they boring? It’s almost as boring as making a film.

ZAHEDI: [Cockney] Wot’s ya’ favorite cula?

TAYLOR: [Cockney] Wot’s my favorite cula? I didn’t ‘ear you.

ZAHEDI: [Cockney] That’s wot oi said.

TAYLOR: My favorite name for a color is “puce.” It’s kind of a dried blood color. It’s a hideous color. But I love the word. It’s so euphonic. But my favorite colors are lavender, purple, periwinkle blue, and white.

ZAHEDI: And what about Elephant Walk?

TAYLOR: Forget it! Get out of the room!

ZAHEDI: How many fans do you think you have?

TAYLOR: Are you a fan, Firooz?

ZAHEDI: I’m a fan and a half.

TAYLOR: Than I have one and a half.

THIS ARTICLE INTIALLY APPEARED IN THE NOVEMBER 1976 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW. 

New Again runs every Wednesday. For more, click here.