Elizabeth Taylor had a love-hate fling with Oscar
The first three times Elizabeth Taylor was nominated, Oscar jilted her for other lead actresses. When she was up for "Raintree County" (1957), the academy's Golden Boy embraced Joanne Woodward ("Three Faces of Eve"). She deserved to win for "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958), but Oscar tossed her aside for Susan Hayward ("I Want to Live!").
Thank goodness she didn't win for "Suddenly, Last Summer" (1959) –- she didn't deserve to. All Taylor did was mug, whine and weep too extravagantly about her wayward cousin, Sebastian, that impossible Sebastian, while being upstaged by Katharine Hepburn, who was also nominated and seemed to suffer Taylor's histrionics with a stealy jaw. (By the way, I own Hepburn's Oscar nomination plaque, which is on display at the Hollywood Museum where you can also see Taylor's costumes and sets from "Cleopatra"). The award went to the undeserving Simone Signoret ("Room at the Top").
One year later, Taylor finally won for an undeserved performance as a high-class call girl in "Butterfield 8" (1960). She beat Greer Garson ("Sunrise at Campobello"), Deborah Kerr ("The Sundowners"), Shirley MacLaine ("The Apartment") and Melina Mercouri ("Never on Sunday").
In later years, Taylor would use profanity to slam and dismiss "Butterfield 8," which she agreed to make only because she was eager to fulfill her contract obligations to MGM and move on. She costarred opposite Eddie Fisher, whom she had recently stolen away from Debbie Reynolds, triggering a national outcry.
As the next Oscar derby began, it looked like Taylor was too engulfed in scandal to win, but she suddenly became a sympathetic figure when she came down with pneumonia and doctors said her condition was "grave." An emergency tracheotomy was performed so she could breathe, Taylor rallied and she showed up on the Oscar red carpet looking frail. When she won, she gasped at the podium, "I don't know how to express my gratitude for this and for everything. All I can say is thank you, thank you with all my heart."
Six years later Taylor was nominated for "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and it was obvious that she was going to win –- rightfully -– for the greatest performance of her career. But she refused to attend the gala. Her then-husband Richard Burton had already lost four Oscar bouts, and it was obvious that he was about to lose again, this time to Paul Scofield ("A Man for All Seasons"). Taylor and Burton stayed in Paris in protest. Taylor claimed that the reason she remained in France was because Burton was afraid of flying, and she wanted to support him, but everyone knew the real reason. And it became painfully clear what her feelings were when she refused to issue a statement thanking the academy for her win.
Taylor would kiss and make up with Oscar in later years, of course. At the ceremony honoring 1992 films, she received the honorary Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. Three times she presented the trophy for best picture: "Midnight Cowboy" (1969), "The Sting" (1973) and "The Silence of the Lambs" (1991).
-- Tom O'Neil
Photo: Elizabeth Taylor in "Butterfield 8" (MGM)