‘Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes’ Review: The Legend In Her Own Words In HBO Documentary About Newly Discovered 1964 Interview – Cannes Film Festival

There have been countless books written about the immortal star Elizabeth Taylor, even some credited to her as both memoir or autobiography including 1989’s Elizabeth On Elizabeth. But a book released on January 1, 1965, probably comes closest to a pure autobiography, and the cover simply says, Elizabeth Taylor by Elizabeth Taylor. It is a by-the-numbers account of her life through her own words up until that point, but it actually was written by Richard Meryman, a journalist credited with among other things the last interview with Marilyn Monroe (published two days before her August 4, 1962, death).

Meryman got Taylor to sit for some tape-recorded sessions in 1964, so he would be able to write the book as if Taylor did it herself. Sixty years later, those presumed “lost” recordings have been found and cleared for release by Taylor’s and Meryman’s estates. They have been in Meryman’s wife’s possession all these years, but now filmmaker Nanette Burstein (Hillary, The Kid Stays In The Picture) has rediscovered a treasure trove of about 40 hours of interview in order to produce the new HBO Documentary, Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes.”

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The tapes weren’t actually lost. No one had combed the contracts and did the detective work to see if they even still existed, until now. What is most interesting about this docu, which had its world premiere Thursday night as part of the Cannes Classics section at the Cannes Film Festival, is giving the world a chance to hear Taylor, who died in 2011 at 79, tell her story, at least until the mid-’60s, in her own voice. And through the miracle of new technologies and AI, it has been remarkably cleaned up with a clarity and style that sounds like it might have been professionally recorded in a sound studio just yesterday. Liz comes vividly alive here, and though what she reveals is largely well known, it gives it extra gravitas to hear that unmistakable voice give us the 411 on what really happened.

Using the visual device of an old reel-to-reel tape recorder rolling along, and mixing in film clips, newsreels, interviews and home movies, the film meticulously follows the dots of the highs, lows and marriages of this great and iconic star. No one was bigger in her day. Even as a kid she was considered an extraordinary beauty, and by the time she got discovered by Lassie Come Home producer Sam Marx, they didn’t even bother with a screen test and rolled the dice that she could act. Her looks were that powerful.

Some of the “lost” tapes are augmented by old or, in a couple of cases, new interviews by friends and associates like bestie and Lassie and Cleopatra co-star Roddy McDowall, Debbie Reynolds and agent Marion Rosenberg. But the anchor is Taylor in her often charming and occasionally blatantly honest recollections for the taping sessions designed to be turned into an autobiography. Early days at MGM in 1942 are detailed including her story about desperately wanting the role in 1945’s National Velvet. That is very amusing, with her saying she went to great lengths — literally — to win the part despite being told she was too short. Thus she did a training regimen over the course of three months to “stretch” herself, eventually adding 3 inches and getting the role.

Among other memories Taylor shares was that her first real kiss was preceded by her first kiss onscreen by just a week. Taylor says the movie version was a lot better. Her first film as a grownup, rather than teenage roles, was in 1951’s certified classic, A Place in the Sun with Montgomery Clift, who would become another lifelong friend even though she was intimidated by his acting experience compared to hers. She reveals she never took a lesson.

The movie Giant five years later also was notable and also directed by George Stevens, with whom she would get into disagreements about her character. It starred yet another man who would become a lifelong friend, Rock Hudson, along with James Dean, who died during production at 24. She recalls telling the producers that she got word her co-star was dead, something she could not comprehend. There is also talk about how Taylor, an early champion against AIDS, felt comfortable her whole life with gay men, including close friends McDowall, Hudson and Clift.

1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof was a blur because her beloved third husband Mike Todd had been killed in a plane crash two weeks into shooting. It was devastating as this was a man she truly loved. Burstein steadfastly chronicles each of the star’s famous string of marriages beginning with Nicky Hilton, then Michael Wilding, Todd and Eddie Fisher, who was married to Reynolds and the couple were good friends with the Todds. After his death Fisher grew closer to Taylor as both grieved the loss of Todd, eventually breaking up his marriage to Reynolds and wedding Taylor, who confesses she liked him but never loved the singer. That would be saved for her Cleopatra co-star Richard Burton.

The section detailing the ups and downs during Cleopatra, her near-death health experiences, the breakup with Fisher and his erratic behavior, and the marriage(s) to Burton are the film’s best, with Burstein and team precisely choosing just the right portions of the interview to tell the scandalous tale. That period also included winning her first Oscar for 1960’s critically reviled Butterfield 8, a part she hated but played with such anger at being in it that it worked to her advantage. “I won because I had a tracheotomy,” she said.

Other career decisions are also liberally covered including a reluctance to do Suddenly Last Summer in 1959 with Clift and Katharine Hepburn, despite the fact it brought her a third consecutive Oscar nomination. “I would have rather been in Ben-Hur,” she laughed, referring to that year’s big Oscar winner. Her second Oscar-winning performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? also is skillfully woven in here even, though that 1966 film wasn’t released until well after this interview was recorded.

It all makes for a satisfying journey through one of Hollywood’s most memorable careers. There is the feeling of intimacy that makes this one special, if not exactly full of new revelations. Like the 2015 docu Marlon on Marlon, which chronicled 200 hours of recorded tapes by Brando, it is a valuable addition to our understanding of what made her tick. Taylor comes alive in different ways for this one, and she makes for very good company.

The producers are J.J. Abrams, Sean Stuart, Glen Zipper, Bill Gerber and Rachel Rusch Rich. The film make its North American premiere at Tribeca in June.

Title: Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes
Festival: Cannes Film Festival (Cannes Classics)
Distributor: HBO
Release date: August 3, 2024 on HBO (and streaming on Max)
Director: Nanette Burstein
Running time: 1 hr 40 mins

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