Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: Elizabeth Taylor stars in 1958 film
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From 1986 to 1991, Paul Newman and his closest friend, screenwriter Stewart Stern, worked on an oral history of his life with the star’s family, friends and closest work colleagues. They amassed 14,000 pages of notes and eventually gave up, unable to manage the sheer volume any more. The screen icon died in 2008 at 83 and Stern in 2015. The manuscripts disappeared until producer Emily Wachtel found them while archiving a family storage unit two years ago. Sorted into a new book, The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Man, they include recollections of encounters with numerous Hollywood stars, including Newman’s confession he was haunted all his life by a moment with Elizabeth Taylor while they were filming Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Newman wrote: “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof began production only a week after The Long, Hot Summer hit the movie theatres. I was cast as Brick, Elizabeth Taylor’s hard-drinking husband, and it was my job to make my character’s refusal to have sex with Elizabeth seem believable – even though in our movie, unlike Tennessee’s original play, we were barred from alluding to Brick’s gayness as the reason for his marital abstinence…
“Elizabeth had missed a couple of days on the set because of a virus. The illness also prevented her from accompanying her husband, the producer Mike Todd, on a quick trip to New York. Todd took off in his private plane from Burbank and died, along with another passenger and two pilots, when his Lockheed Lodestar crashed in the middle of a stormy night over New Mexico.”
Taylor had only married Todd, her third husband, on February 2, 1957. Their daughter Elizabeth Frances, known as Liza, was born that August.
Todd’s shock death on March 22, 1958, absolutely flattened the emotionally volatile and vulnerable Taylor. And Newman found himself completely out of his depth.
He wrote: “Elizabeth’s doctor placed her under sedation. Our production was likewise in shock and also in jeopardy. I decided to stop by her home and offer what solace I could. When I arrived, I was shown up to her boudoir, where I listened to Elizabeth sobbing, ‘Why him? Why now?’ She was highly doped up. Not knowing what else to say, I started to offer her some well-worn clichés about how this was all God’s will.
“Elizabeth cut me off, looked up at me, and practically snarled, ‘Oh, shut up. Get the f*** out of here!’”
Newman later wrote of his deep shame over how he handled the painful encounter.
He confessed: “I should have just said, ‘I love you and think you’re a terrific lady,’ and admitted I was obviously unable to provide answers to the terrible questions she was asking.
“Instead, I just put my tail between my legs and silently left in a state of disarray. I was inadequate when I got to Elizabeth’s bedroom, but I suppose I didn’t really know that beforehand. My platitudes and discomfort in that situation have chased me through my whole life.”
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Along with medication and bed rest, Taylor also turned, as so often, to a man. This time it was the singer Eddie Fisher, who was a close friend of her late husband.
They soon began an affair but, scandalously, he was still married to Taylor’s friend, fellow star Debbie Reynolds. Fisher left his wife amid a huge public scandal, and married Taylor married at the Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas on May 12, 1959.
The final part of the tragedy was Taylor’s later confession that she had never truly loved Fisher and only married him to try and distract from the pain of losing Todd. By 1962 she was already having an affair with Richard Burton, who she would marry, for the first time, in 1964.
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