Monday Morning Critic – 3.28.2011 – Elizabeth Taylor, 88 Minutes

Every Monday morning, InsidePulse Movies Czar Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings an irreverent and oftentimes hilarious look at pop culture, politics, sports and whatever else comes to mind. And sometimes he writes about movies.

You know what kind of bugged me this week? The coverage of Elizabeth Taylor’s death … yeah, I’m going there.

Or, more accurately, the fact that death has elevated her from an Orson Welles type that had long since been removed from the spotlight to being amongst the most glamorous of movie stars ever. She was a “diva” who set the standard for women owning their sexuality, and all that jazz, but she wasn’t a movie star in any lengthy aspect much less one for the generations. Reading some of the coverage you’d have thought she had headlined films recently on top of being an AIDS activist and a pedophile-apologist as opposed to tabloid fodder. Part of me kind of shrugged when she passed, if only because every washed up has-been gets to have their moment in the sun (however so brief) upon their death, but usually that lasts a day or two. This has gotten a bit over the top, though, to the point where it seems like Michael Jackson was pointed out to be a kid-raping degenerate during the televised portion of his funeral proceedings as opposed to the “greatest musician in the history of music” or whatever superlative they gave him. I get why, though.

Celebrity deaths tend to happen enough that we kind of just shrug, look at their best work, and then move on. We want to remember them at their peak like how we remember athletes at their peak. We don’t want to remember Kirby Puckett as some sort of washed up baseball player going blind and being accused of despicable crimes against women. We want to remember him as the star of the Twins, the guy who never cashed in and left for somewhere else, and I get why people want to put Elizabeth Taylor on this pedestal her career warranted. Her peak as the hottest woman alive and a damn fine actress do merit mention but she’s famous for her personal life much more than anything she did on screen. It was who she did off it that kept her famous. And it’s not like she had stepped away from the limelight a short while ago.

She hadn’t been relevant on the silver screen in decades.

Taylor was a star for another generation and has a film library with an armful of classics in it. Many more than some of her contemporaries did, too, but it’s not her film library or her status as a “movie star” that was the thing she should be remembered for. She was famous to an entire generation for being a tabloid star and someone famous who apparently just liked getting married a lot. Or she was “sexual napalm” as John Meyer would say.

It’s either that or she must’ve not been a pleasant person, as comedian Jim Norton pointed out, because no one gets married eight times that’s especially nice. But one thing kind of bugged me whenever people described. It was one phrase that kept being bandied back and forth: “Elizabeth Taylor, The Last Movie Star.”

Has our definition of a movie star slipped so far that she’s the last one we can think of as being a movie star? It’s a bit ridiculous for us to lionize her as the greatest of the great when she was nothing more than Angelina Jolie with a big butt and a bigger appetite for other people’s spouses. She hadn’t been relevant for almost 40 years as an actress, which considering she died at 79 is nearly half her life. Think about that for a moment; she spent the bulk of her life riding the tabloids for fame and fortune and only a tiny sliver actually being in films in comparison. She was a child star who transitioned successfully to being an adult one, one of the final products of the old studio system to boot, but it’s not like she had a long distinguished career as a thespian.

Her career as a relevant actress basically ended when she hit her late 30s, peaking with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and from there it was a lot of television. So to call her a film star, if not THE LAST MOVIE STAR, is significantly off when she lent a voice to Captain Planet and appeared in The Flintstones film were her highest achievements in the latter half of her career. Paul Neuman would be a better fit for that title because he was still making films, and rode off into the sunset with a great Pixar voice role, at the end of his career. Taylor hadn’t been an actress worth following in decades, a relic of a time when being famous came with it requisite demands of behavior. She broke social norms, et al, but it wasn’t common to do so. Now you have E! doing shows about celebrity wife-swapping so it’s not exactly shocking when you look back at her antics, thus one has to look at her work as a whole to fairly evaluate her. And it’s not pretty. Heck being in The Last Starfighter might’ve been a bit higher of an achievement than some of the stuff she lent her talents to.

A movie star of that note is one that didn’t need tabloid papers to stay in the public eye without any works of note in front of the camera. Taylor needed the coverage or else people would’ve remembered that she hadn’t done a film of note in so long that she put the “has” into “washed-up has-been.” It puts Orson Welles lending his voice to the animated Transformers film in context, I guess, and calling her any sort of movie star is a bit off. Why’s that? Because she wasn’t even the biggest star of her era, much less the last one ever. Even Welles was given a fair treatment for his brilliant early work and then a couple of decades cashing checks after his death. Taylor’s being given kudos far above and beyond her stature.

We wouldn’t call someone like Tom Hanks a movie star nowadays if he had basically stopped acting 20 years ago and just maintained his fame with all sorts of shenanigans. We’d call him a middle-aged Lindsay Lohan and laugh at him, loudly, in the same way we look at Lohan herself. And that’s what Elizabeth Taylor ultimately was; Lindsay Lohan with a couple Oscars and enough of a tolerance for drugs and alcohol to live a long life. She wasn’t a movie star for very long, much less the last one; she was someone who was a good actress who achieved a significant measure of fame early on in life, living a life of tabloid debauchery for the rest of it. If you could turn marriage into a powder and snort it, Liz Taylor would’ve blown a fortune on it in the same way Li-Lo has probably blown hers with the real stuff.

If you want to call any woman the “last movie star” it should be Meryl Streep, who’s a better actress and apparently better at fidelity too. She’s managed to make lots of great films and is a phenomenal actress, the best of her generation by a wide margin and never ceasing to impress. She’s also been regularly working for the last 30 years, which is something you can’t say about Taylor. Taylor may have as many Oscars but even she admitted that one of those she had won merely for “not dying” as opposed to Streep winning because she’s usually the best actress with the best performance in nearly any given year. But then again in comparison to the recently departed that’s like being a basketball player / actor than Rick Fox; it’s not all that hard in comparison.

A Movie A Week – The Challenge

This Week’s DVD – 88 Minutes

I patently disliked this film when I saw it in theatres but used something on Swaptree.com to get it because I wanted to give it another go round on DVD. Why? Because I love Pacino and he gets that rare second chance with me. So I traded something of little note for this action thriller.

Dr. Jack Gramm (Pacino) is a forensic psychologist instrumental in putting serial killers away. The Seattle Slayer (Neal McDonough) is a day away from the electric chair and someone is copying his killing style. Or maybe he isn’t the killer and Graham was mistaken? Everyone’s a suspect for the highly paranoid Gramm, who’s been told he has 88 minutes to live. The film follows him in real time once the countdown begins as he has 90 minutes to find out who’s trying to kill him.

It’s a good setup and it has all the requisites to be a great thriller with a twist but it doesn’t have any intelligence to it. It’s an absolutely dumb film that’s almost insulting to the viewer. This is direct to video schlock that only got a theatrical release because of Pacino’s name as opposed to any semblance of quality. And I think Pacino kind of figured that out early on because he kind of mails it in so poorly his performance ought to have been sponsored by the Postal Service.

Recommendation to avoid.

What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 Pints of Bass Ale and community college co-eds with low standards at the Alumni Club

Hop – The Easter Bunny doesn’t want to do his job and opts to go on the lamb. Shenanigans ensue.

Skip It – Animated films don’t get good until the summer, thus I imagine this’ll probably not be good.

Insidious – Possessed kid does bad things or something

Skip It – This has the most ridiculously awful trailer ever, which is saying something for a horror film, and nine times out of 10 you can gauge a horror film’s quality based on its trailer.

Source Code – The lesser talented Gyllenhaal has to relive the same eight minutes, over and over, until he figures out who blew up a train.

See It – I’ll give Duncan Jones the benefit of the doubt after Moon.

The King’s Speech (PG-13) – The Academy Award winner for Best Picture gets re-released without all the profanity.

Skip It – There’s only one way to see this film, which is with the language that Tom Hooper intended. Wait for DVD to get the film as it was meant to be seen.

Cat Run – A wacky action comedy ala Rush Hour because apparently there was a void in mid ‘90s action comedies that needed to be filled. In limited release.

See It – Sometimes a small indie can be surprising and this has that feel to me for some reason.

Super – Rainn Wilson becomes a superhero with a wrench. In limited release.

See It – This looks beautifully subversive.

Do you have questions about movies, life, love, or Branigan’s Law? Shoot me an e-mail at Kubryk@Insidepulse.com and you could be featured in the next “Monday Morning Critic.” Include your name and hometown to improve your odds.

Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @MMCritic_Kubryk.

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