Trafficking with Movie Stars– Meeting Elizabeth Taylor

29 Apr

I’ve always needed to meet the people whose creative work has profoundly influenced or touched me.  I want to see how they behave, to know what’s inside their heads, to discover how their temperament differs from mine, etc. etc.  Those of you who read my blog know that the movie “Cleopatra” and its writer/director Joseph L. Mankiewicz were profoundly influential on my life.  When I saw the film for the first time, when I was twelve, I became infatuated with the actors, it’s true, but soon I wanted to know about the man who created it.  Why had the film so affected me?  In film school, in my college years, I produced an award-winning thesis, “When ‘The Movies’ Went Out of Style”, in which I interviewed many members of the cast and crew, including Joe Mankiewicz, and over the years I became the person known as the “unofficial cast member of ‘Cleopatra’”.  I have been a “film historian” in two documentaries about the movie, which are being packaged with the release of the blu-ray.  (Talk about having a whim of iron!  I now co-star with everyone!)  Roddy McDowall in fact became a friend and even visited me in Washington, D.C., when I lived there.

But I had always managed to avoid meeting HER.

Truth is, I really didn’t want to meet her.  I was quite content to know Elizabeth Taylor through her performances.  When you meet stars and celebrities, you always run the risk of major disappointment.  They can be dull and vaguely stupid a lot of the time.  Or so dominated by their loathsome agents and managers that all you want to do is run screaming from the room.  And, being a historian at heart, they certainly don’t want to meet me.  Stars never want to be known as an artifact from another time.  They are NOW, they are HAPPENING, they are RELEVANT.  It doesn’t matter if they haven’t made a film in thirty years, everything is about TODAY!  (Only Roddy McDowall truly had a sense of history, and knew his own place within it, and that was the basis of our friendship – he loved to talk about his days as a child star and all the famous people he had worked with.  Even his Cadillac’s license plate said “EX MOPPET” on it.)  The technicians and craftsmen are the interesting ones – the behind-the-scenes people always have the best stories.  Stars – rarely!

In 1997, however, I finally got to meet Taylor through the intervention of Roddy McDowall.  We had gotten permission from Twentieth Century-Fox to at long last mount a search for the missing footage from “Cleopatra”.  Mankiewicz had delivered a five-and-a-half hour film, from which the studio removed about an hour-and-a-half.  (You can learn the story behind the film’s editing on a new documentary that I’m in, packaged with the blu-ray, called “Cleopatra’s Missing Footage.”)

Though Bill Mechanic, then-president of Fox, had said “yes” to the project there was one hitch to our plans.  The film was still owned in part by Elizabeth Taylor and we needed to get her permission to go forward.  (This was but one of the many unprecedented clauses in her contract with Fox, and never to be seen again in any celebrity contract.)  Roddy said that he would handle her, and he set a time for the meeting.  At the last moment he asked me to come along, saying that I could speak for the recently deceased Joe Mankiewicz.

I was filled with trepidation, not only because of the reasons stated above, but because Taylor scared the hell out of me.  Everyone I had interviewed had talked about how intimidating she could be, particularly if she sensed you needed something from her.  (Stars are always being approached by people seeking money, gifts and favors and they are deeply suspicious of any stranger.)  Even Richard Burton, who I talked with on the telephone, told me that she alone had taught him “how to squeeze the balls of the executives” in his dealings with film studios.  I was fond enough of my balls in their current position and did not relish the idea of her being anywhere near them.

Well, anyway, I went to the meeting.  Really – wouldn’t you?

We traveled in Roddy’s Cadillac up to her surprisingly small house in Bel Air, and proceeded to sit in her living room for over an hour.  She was upstairs and apparently did not mind keeping her very best childhood friend waiting.  I got to look at her Van Gogh up close, however, and that helped to pass the time.

Finally, she appeared.  She was white-haired at that phase in her life and swept grandly into the room.  I remember that she was barefoot beneath a long white caftan.  Roddy introduced us and she said in a slight English accent, “It’s so-o-o-o-o gude to meet yew.  Joe Mankiewicz – ”  (she was the only person I knew who ever pronounced it Mahn-kuh-vitch) “ – spoke so highly about yew.”

Nervously I launched into my spiel.  “Well, thank you, Miss Taylor – it’s because of his memory that I’m here.  We’ve finally been given permission by Fox to restore ‘Cleopatra’ to his first cut and we need your permission before we can do it.”

Gone in an instant was the English accent.  Gone was any pretense at friendliness.  The sand-papery voice became charged with Virginia Woolf volume.  “Blow it out your ass!” she screamed at me.  “I never made a DIME off that goddamn movie!”

She had in fact made $7 million from overtime on the production alone.  Later, when Fox had sued her after the film came out, claiming that her and Burton’s “immoral” behavior had proved “detrimental to the financial performance of the film”, she had actually won that suit, and another $2.6 million dollars (10% of the film’s actual budget, proving Mankiewicz’ claim that the film never cost $44 million as the studio claimed) was settled on her – with the stipulation that the books would be closed on “Cleopatra”.  This is why the film is always shown as making only $26 million; it will forever be seen as only breaking even, and never going into profit.  Taylor’s additional ten percent of the gross income of the film, once again guaranteed by her contract, was to be covered in the $2.6 million payment.  “Cleopatra,” however, went on to make money all over the world in various international markets and later by sales to television and home video – the profits of which were denied Taylor by the court settlement.  This was one of the few times that a studio had out-maneuvered her and was she bitter!  Though she had “not made a dime on that goddamn movie” she had actually made almost $10 million – and in 1960’s dollars!  Dimes are obviously of different value to stars of her magnitude.

So what did I do when she told me to “blow it out my ass”?  I’m afraid I laughed out loud.  This was perhaps the only thing that saved me, because she was not expecting it.  Apparently other people cringed before her tempers – Eddie Fisher once told me that she had taught him how to scream for anything that he wanted – but I knew right then that I had a great story suitable for any cocktail party, and one that I could dine out on for the rest of time.  I didn’t need her, you see – I was under contract to Disney at the time, and frankly they didn’t take too well to the fact that I was consulting to a rival studio.  It was her film, and if she didn’t want to do the project, well…it was no skin off my ass.

But Roddy calmed her down.  “Now, Elizabeth!  Elizabeth!” he purred.   He finally maneuvered her to the point where she growled, “Okay – but I’m gonna get my lawyers on it!”  Once again he dissuaded her, saying that such a move would destroy any chance we had for finding the footage.  He convinced her instead to wait until the work was finished before she initiated any legal proceedings.

So that was my encounter with La Liz.  I never met her again.  But then I didn’t want to, either.  Once was quite enough.  Besides, it was never my goal – as it is with so many others who get into show business – to have lunch with movie stars.  I wanted to make stuff, to tell stories, to work with great talents – not hover in the celestial orbits of the rich and infamous.


15 Responses to “Trafficking with Movie Stars– Meeting Elizabeth Taylor”

  1. rayworth1973 April 29, 2012 at 9:18 pm #

    Quite a fascinating account! I’ve met a few celebrities and most of them were great, down to earth people with a few exceptions. Thanks for sharing.

  2. maroon5gurl88 April 29, 2012 at 11:18 pm #

    So happy to read this (and I’m extremely jealous)!

  3. Vikki (The View Outside) April 30, 2012 at 3:06 am #

    Wow!!!!!! 🙂


  4. thelightbearernovelist May 1, 2012 at 6:26 am #

    I have nominated you and your website for The Versatile Blogger Award! Congrats! Emily Guido! It is on my webpage:

    • Brad Geagley May 1, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

      You are so generous – thanks so very much. I’m so glad you like it.


  5. Owen & Diana May 1, 2012 at 4:55 pm #

    So jealous you met Roddy. He was great in that movie. I’ve seen Cleopatra 20 times at least, starting when I was about 8. Thanks for sharing.

    • Brad Geagley May 1, 2012 at 5:19 pm #

      You and I are fellow travelers. Yes, he was great in that film – and he was great in life, too. I miss him.

  6. Michael Smith May 1, 2012 at 10:45 pm #

    Thank you for your wonderful story! I too have a few Taylor tales, she was very kind to me when I was a teenager.
    I saw “Cleopatra” at the Fox theater in Riverside California when I was 13 and it profoundly affected my life as well. I didn’t. Get to see the full four hour version until 1971 at the Egyptian in Hollywood….that was a revelation. I did get to read a copy of the screenplay so I know what is missing and it is a shame we may never see it fully restored.
    Your contributions to the blu-ray (got my copy from the UK) on both documentaries are invaluable! So thank you for being our historian, champion and Sisogones to “Cleopatra”.
    Best always,
    Michael C. Smith

    • Brad Geagley May 3, 2012 at 9:53 am #

      Well, this just makes my day, Michael. Thank you – the “Sosigenes of Cleopatra” is the best nickname anyone has ever called me!


      • Michael Smith May 3, 2012 at 1:44 pm #

        Dear Sosigenes,
        So that is how you spell it….well it is all Greek to me. I am happy I made your day and in so doing you made mine!

  7. theeyeoffaith May 2, 2012 at 9:59 am #

    Wow, great story! “Cleopatra” has most recently come to fascinate me. The hair, the extraordinary productioin, the performances, the epic directing- but what a blast to have met the legend herself!

    What do you think of the infamous LILO pulling out her chops to play Liz in an upcoming TV movie? “Interesting”, to say the least.

    Thanks for visiting my site!


    -The Eye

    • Brad Geagley May 3, 2012 at 9:52 am #

      You know – I like Lindsay. I think she’s talented, and also think she’s had a couple of terrible parents and some bad breaks. But Liz she is NOT. Count me out.


  8. Dawn Pisturino May 2, 2012 at 10:34 am #

    Great story! Certainly blows away my image of her!

    • Brad Geagley May 3, 2012 at 9:49 am #

      Well, it shouldn’t blow away any image. I couldn’t have imagined a better encounter, really – I got to see her without any bullshit (for lack of a better word) and I’m grateful. It didn’t affect my admiration for her one little bit – and I hope it doesn’t yours! I still loved her, and the world is less bright now that she’s gone.


      • Dawn Pisturino May 3, 2012 at 7:55 pm #

        I agree with that! She was one of the finest actresses that ever lived.

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