Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, 1958
By Stephen M. SIlverman
Superstar to superstar. To Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor was "a functioning voluptuary … a courageous survivor, a helluva actress and someone I am extremely proud to know."
Even in the sanitized 1958 MGM version of Tennessee Williams's potent drama in which they costarred, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – with the sultry Newman as the drunkard ex-athlete Brick and an indelible Taylor as his neglected wife, Maggie the Cat – the two sent audiences' pulses racing. But they were more than simply sex symbols. Both proved themselves Academy Award-level actors and world-class humanitarians.
"What can you say about a legend?" Newman muses at the beginning of the four-minute video love letter. Acknowledging but not dwelling upon her remarkable violent eyes or stunning beauty, Newman instead concentrates on her screen presence, "her volatility, her sense of truth."
"On the screen," he said, "her very presence seemed to radiate charm."
And while "she practically grew up in front of the camera," Newman noted, "her life has not been an easy or a private one, but a series of tribulations, serious illnesses, senseless tragedy and lost love."
Left a widow during the making of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof when the private plane carrying her husband, impresario Mike Todd, crashed in New Mexico, Taylor continued acting as Maggie, finding the work therapeutic. "I was overwhelmed with her professionalism," Newman said.
"One thing for sure: She is not afraid to take chances in front of people. I find a lot of actors who reach the top, they become very protective of themselves, and self-indulgent, but not Elizabeth," added Newman. "I was always staggered by her ferocity."
Echoing a sentiment that was often said about Taylor – who was unstintingly devoted to friends (and costars) Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift and Roddy McDowall – Newman said, "Not only is she a phenomenal actress, but she is also a generous human being and one who cherishes and works at her friendships. She gives her talent and her time unselfishly … She has risen above her pain and troubles to help others overcome theirs."
On Sunday April 10, Turner Classic Movies will present a 24-hour tribute to Elizabeth Taylor, with nine films, including the two for which she won the Best Actress Oscar, 1960's BUtterfield 8 and 1966's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?