|Marilyn, Elizabeth and ‘Cleopatra’
The 1950s were a time of prosperity in the USA, and conservatism. In Hollywood, some of the greatest American sex symbols found fame –
among them a blonde, Marilyn Monroe, and a brunette, Elizabeth Taylor.
Monroe was born Norma Jeane Mortenson in Los Angeles and grew up, in her own words, as a “waif”. At the time of the Great Depression,
Norma Jeane queued daily with a foster parent for cheap, stale bread.
Elizabeth Rosamund Taylor was born in London in 1932, six years after Norma Jeane. Her American-born parents were both adept social
climbers – her mother, Sara, was a former actress and her father, Francis, a wealthy art dealer. Pretty Elizabeth, with her violet eyes, would
become the focus of her mother’s boldest endeavour.
As World War II broke out, the Taylors emigrated to California. By 1944, Elizabeth Taylor was a child star in ‘National Velvet’, the story of a
very English little girl and her beloved pony. She was quickly signed to MGM, and starred in a series of films between lessons at the “star
academy.” She would later bitterly regret her “lost” childhood.
In 1946, Norma Jeane changed her name and became the starlet Marilyn Monroe, but it would be several years before she too was a
household name. As Elizabeth reached maturity, she blossomed into a dazzling, raven-haired beauty. Life mirrored art when she starred in
‘Father Of The Bride’, on the eve of her first wedding to hotel heir Nicky Hilton in 1950. However, in reality there was no happy ending – the
marriage collapsed after just a few months.
Elizabeth played a rich debutante in the Oscar-winning 1951 film, ‘A Place In The Sun’. The role proved she was a gifted actress and, privately,
marked the start of her enduring friendship with co-star Montgomery Clift. He was as alluring as Taylor, but deeply insecure, forced by
Hollywood to hide his homosexuality. He brought out Elizabeth’s warm, maternal side.
By 1953, Marilyn Monroe was Elizabeth’s only rival as Queen of Hollywood. Films like ‘Niagara’, ‘Gentlemen Prefer Blondes’ and ‘How To
Marry A Millionaire’ made millions at the box office, but Marilyn felt increasingly trapped in a contract with Twentieth Century Fox.
As she fought for better roles, Marilyn reportedly told writer Truman Capote, “Everybody says I can’t act. They said the same thing about
Elizabeth Taylor. And they were wrong. She was great in ‘A Place In The Sun.’“ The conversation is depicted in Capote’s brief sketch of
Monroe, ‘A Beautiful Child’.
While Elizabeth was well-paid by MGM, she too was dissatisfied by the roles she was assigned. She later said, "If you were considered pretty,
you might as well have been a waitress trying to act - you were treated with no respect at all.” This was a sentiment that Marilyn would have
Elizabeth’s second marriage, to actor Michael Wilding, lasted four years, and they had two sons together. In 1954 Marilyn was briefly married
to baseball star Joe DiMaggio, but her career tore them apart. It is curious that in a small town like Hollywood, there is no record of any
interaction between Monroe and her rival, Taylor, at this time.
In 1955, Elizabeth married the showman Mike Todd. It seemed that she had finally met her match, a man whose zest for life and extravagance
matched her own. Marilyn, now on suspension from Twentieth Century Fox, moved to New York and rode on a pink elephant at a charity
circus organised by Todd.
If Truman Capote’s account is to be believed, Marilyn was curious enough to ask him what Elizabeth Taylor was really like. “Well, she’s a bit
like you,” Capote replied. “She wears her heart on her sleeve and talks salty.”
Marilyn also embarked on a new affair, with playwright Arthur Miller, and a man more different to Mike Todd could scarcely be imagined.
Earnest and cerebral, Miller had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1950 for ‘Death As A Salesman’, a dissection of the American Dream, and his later
work, ‘The Crucible’, was interpreted as a criticism of the anti-Communist “witch-hunts” then being led by Senator Joe McCarthy.
In 1958, two years after Marilyn married Arthur, Mike Todd was killed in a plane crash. Elizabeth, who had recently given birth to a daughter,
Liza, was devastated. Sympathy for Taylor turned to disapproval a year later when she fell for singer Eddie Fisher, Mike Todd’s best friend,
and the husband of wholesome actress Debbie Reynolds.
Elizabeth cared for Montgomery Clift after he was injured in a car crash, but his looks were permanently damaged and his melancholia, and
alcoholism, spiralled. No stranger to suffering, Elizabeth was plagued by physical ailments. She drank too much, perhaps trying to ease her
grief for Mike Todd, and she would soon become addicted to painkillers.
Meanwhile, Marilyn stood by Arthur Miller when he was indicted by the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was eventually
acquitted, but domestic bliss was not to be. Marilyn suffered two miscarriages and grew more withdrawn, depending heavily on sedatives.
Despite the turmoil of their private lives, both Elizabeth and Marilyn’s careers soared throughout the 1950s. Marilyn established her own
production company and won critical acclaim for her performances in ‘Bus Stop’,’ The Prince And The Showgirl’, and ‘Some Like It Hot’.
Elizabeth began a series of “southern belle” parts with ‘Giant’ in 1955, and established a (professional) relationship with Tennessee Williams,
Arthur Miller’s only true peer in American drama. Taylor starred in the film adaptations of two of Williams’ plays, ‘Cat On A Hot Tin Roof’
and ‘Suddenly Last Summer’. Williams’ lyrical style and torrid subject matter suited Taylor very well.
Marilyn’s most demanding role was in ‘The Misfits’, written for her by husband Arthur Miller. The strain of playing a character so like herself
took its toll on Marilyn, and though her performance was brilliant, her marriage to Arthur dissolved soon after.
One of the few bright points of ‘The Misfits’, from Marilyn’s perspective, was the opportunity to work with one of her favourite actors,
Montgomery Clift. Marilyn bonded with Clift just as Elizabeth Taylor had done, and even in her darkest moments, did all she could to
reassure him. Producer Frank Taylor described Monroe and Clift as “psychic twins" while Marilyn said candidly, "Monty’s the only person I
know in worse shape than I am."
Elizabeth Taylor was unflatteringly cast as a high-class call girl in ‘Butterfield 8’, a film she loathed but which nonetheless won her an Oscar.
She believed that its success had less to do with her acting than a sympathy vote after she suffered a near-fatal illness in 1961.
That May, Elizabeth and Eddie Fisher attended a performance by Frank Sinatra at The Sands nightclub in Las Vegas. A newly divorced
Marilyn, dating Sinatra at the time, was also there. It is the only known occasion when the two greatest beauties of their era were
photographed together. Watching Marilyn sway dreamily to the music, Elizabeth allegedly remarked, “Boy, is she ever tight!” Whereupon
Elizabeth, quite tipsy herself, then flopped her head onto Eddie Fisher’s shoulder.
|All images are copyrighted by their respective owners & should not be used for commercial purposes.
|By Tara Hanks