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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.

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