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(The 2024 Tribeca Film Festival runs June 5-16, and as always, we have many boots on the ground. Check out Chris Reed’s Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes movie review. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

In 1964, journalist and biographer Richard Meryman sat down with actress Elizabeth Taylor for a series of taped interviews, covering a range of topics, from childhood to early stardom to her tempestuous personal life and more. In the new documentary Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes, director Nanette Burstein (Gringo: The Dangerous Life of John McAfee) uses these recordings as the spine of a fascinating look at this great cinematic icon. On top of that wonderful archive she adds a wealth of film clips, photographs, other period interviews, and the occasional artistic recreation for effect. It’s a well-crafted, engaging celebration of the woman and her œuvre.

Born in 1932, Taylor was raised in California among the children of film professionals, though she was never pushed to enter the business by her parents. Instead, she herself made the leap in 1942, and by the next year was starring in the hit film Lassie Come Home. National Velvet would follow the year after that, further cementing her burgeoning celebrity. At some point in the Meryman tapes the adult Taylor exclaims that she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t famous. Indeed, she was a public figure by the end of World War II.

Through her skillful editing of old footage, including publicity materials from Hollywood Studios, Burstein reveals the repugnant underbelly of all this attention. At 16, she was touted as a sex symbol and was playing onscreen wife to Robert Taylor, 11 years her senior. Listening to sexualized descriptions of her spoken without shame, one shudders at the conflicts she must have felt as she describes to Meryman how different she was on the inside vs. her external image.

But she made many supportive friends, especially among the closeted gay male actors of her time, among them Roddy McDowall, Montgomery Clift, and Rock Hudson. She felt safe with these men, who never hit on her. Her choices of partners from the straight males in her orbit were sometimes less considered (she would marry 8 times, repeating one man, Richard Burton, for 7 husbands in total).

Burstein takes us through her subject’s professional and romantic life from the origins to the time of Meryman’s conversations, covering Taylor’s marriages to Nick Hilton (scion of the hotel family), Michael Wilding, Mike Todd (the first real love match)—who sadly died before his time in a plane crash—then Eddie Fisher (married initially to Debbie Reynolds), and finally Richard Burton. That’s just 5 of the eventual 7 partners, but the vast majority of the movie’s narrative takes place up to the mid-1960s. The final 10 minutes or so cover most of the remaining decades. If that seems rushed, it is, but that doesn’t detract from the documentary’s many strengths.

For those looking for entertaining anecdotes about production histories, there are many, including tales of the vastly over-budget Cleopatra, during the initial shooting of which Taylor almost died from pneumonia. She survived, but emerged with a scar on her throat from the hole doctors cut there so she could breathe. During her recovery, she won her first Oscar for Butterfield 8 (a film she apparently hated, as she makes clear many times), a fact she explains to Meryman thusly: “I won the award for my tracheotomy.” Perhaps, but she was also terrific in most of her roles (my personal favorite, not mentioned here, is Reflections in a Golden Eye).

Burstein opens with Taylor stating, “I have made many mistakes, and I don’t know if I can ever pay the bill.” She certainly lived a full life, transitioning into what may be her most important work as an AIDS-research activist in the 1980s. Mistakes are in the eye of the beholder. Elizabeth Taylor was a fully three-dimensional being, and those who judged her (mostly for her romances) are long forgotten. With a movie like this one, Taylor remains as vibrant and vital as ever.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

2024 Tribeca Film Festival; Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes movie; Nanette Burstein

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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