I don’t usually get flustered before an interview, but I did when Entertainment Tonight told me I’d be talking to Elizabeth Taylor. The year was 1989, and she was promoting a new TV version of Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth she had made with Mark Harmon. I didn’t want to squander this opportunity, and I didn’t know what it would be like talking to the famously press-shy star. So I called her longtime friend Roddy McDowall, who’d been very kind to me on a number of occasions, and asked if there was anything Miss Taylor was fond of that people didn’t tend to ask her about.
He discouraged my line of thinking, saying,—
—“You won’t need to play any tricks with her. She’s very forthright, and I’m sure she’ll respond to you.”
Knowing the star’s reputation for lateness, my crew and I had brought reading matter to the Beverly Hills Hotel suite where the interview was to take place—and we were told that we got off relatively easy when Miss Taylor showed up two hours past our appointed time.
From the moment she walked in the room she was graciousness personified. I asked the obligatory questions about Sweet Bird, her costars, and Tennessee Williams. She admitted that she didn’t watch the 1962 movie because “Geraldine Page is such a brilliant actress. I’m a natural-born mimic; I didn’t want to pick up anything. It would have been easy for me; I can’t help it; I mimic. It would have intimidated me enormously.”
Then I got to the things I was interested in. Was it true that MGM was thinking of testing her brother back in the 1940s? “Yes,” she replied. “He didn’t want to be a child actor. He was supposed to be tested for a Western, so he stopped by a barber and had his head shaved. I loved it.”
She told me she regarded A Place in the Sun as the first real milestone in her career, calling it “the first conscious time I thought about acting… George (Stevens) and Monty (Clift) made me aware of the thought process. It was really the first time I observed, and probably really listened, because mainly before I had been playing myself, with horses and dogs. This time it was with people.
“I never had an acting lesson in my life, so really my school of acting is from watching other people.”
To my surprise, she told me she was highly self-critical, which made it difficult for her to watch her own films. “I don’t like my voice. I don’t like the way I look, I don’t like the way I move, I don’t like the way I act, I mean period!” I asked if there were any exceptions, and she said, “I think the only one I thought (well of)—and probably because it was a character part—was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. I changed my voice, I wore padding and rubber on my face, so it was almost like watching someone else, I guess.”
Then I asked about two of her most memorable films. She called National Velvet “a great experience for me because it was an extension of myself. It was no great work, or performance for me, it was just kind of being me. I even chose the horse. The studio gave me the horse and I had him with me till he died, so that was great. I was 12 and it was just like being told, “live your fantasy.”
And I asked about Father of the Bride, in particular her costar. She replied, “I think Spencer Tracy is probably the greatest screen actor that ever lived. It was incredible working, just watching him. He was wonderful man; I loved him dearly. We kept in contact with each other for years, and he was Pops and I was Kitten until the day he died.”
All of these answers were interesting, of course, and well expressed, but at the end of each response was a big “period,” rather than a sense of give-and-take. I felt flop sweat on my neck because I had to keep the conversation flowing, inch by inch. Our star couldn’t have been more professional, but she was not forthcoming. I guess she’d been burned too many times, over too many years, by the press.
Then something interesting happened. In one of its penny-pinching moves, ET had only sent one camera crew that day, so we couldn’t shoot me during the interview. My director asked Miss Taylor if she would mind staying a few extra minutes while he re-set the camera to get an over-the-shoulder shot of me asking some of my questions. To our great surprise, she said she didn’t mind at all.
This procedure is one of the most embarrassing in television journalism, but sometimes it has to be done. The director then explained to Miss Taylor that it no longer mattered what she said since they were only recording me. At that, she flashed a smile and began teasing me, making offhanded wisecracks as we went along… but the sound man had removed her microphone!
This was the real Elizabeth Taylor, the one I’d hoped to capture on camera. I’m sorry that didn’t come to pass, but at least I was afforded a glimpse.