Mann may take some flack for his claim of the status of Elizabeth Taylor as the ultimate Hollywood star, but there is no question that she is an iconic figure. Mann focuses on Taylor’s climb to fame in this book, from the Forties to the late Sixties, from her youthful endeavors in National Velvet to the groundbreaking Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Richard Burton. The rest is condensed in the “Epilogue”: the years of diamond-collecting and embarrassing romances, the weight gain and loss, the substance-abuse rehabilitation and medical emergencies and relative obscurity of beauty past its prime.
Not to worry. There’s plenty of fabulous material in this book, from the opening chapter in which Mann describes the set of Cleopatra and Taylor’s blooming affair with the very-married Burton. The text is filled with details and insider information, from gossip to truth. After life on the Cleopatra set, we settle into the more formal trajectory of Elizabeth’s career, particularly family background and Taylor’s mother’s influence and support on the way to stardom. Even in National Velvet it is clear that Elizabeth possesses extraordinary beauty, youth belied by a maturity evident in her features.
Taylor learns that the studio will take over her life, that the system of patrimony will dictate her every move professional and private, and that even her marriages will be carefully screened by MGM in conjunction with her mother, Sara. Signed to do a number of frivolous roles as she matures, Elizabeth has to fight for the quality of roles that increase her status with coworkers in her films. She gets her big chance with director George Stevens in A Place in the Sun opposite Montgomery Clift, a breakthrough film that establishes a bright new star on the Hollywood horizon. From then on, the “sell” is on.
Once Taylor is firmly entrenched in the minds of fans thanks to MGM’s great public relations system, it is only a matter of feeding the flames. An eager public wants to know everything about this beautiful young star - her early marriages; the tragic death of Mike Todd, who finally propels her into the economic status she desires; and the outrageous purloining of married men, from Eddie Fisher, the husband of perky and popular Debbie Reynolds, to an impressive Richard Burton. But what of the Fishers’ marriage? Was Taylor’s husband Mike Wilding homosexual?
With the occasional brilliant performance - Butterfield 8, Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof - Taylor is a media darling for her personal life as much as her work. There is an ongoing feud with Hollywood gossip queen Hedda Hopper, who offers support to the young star but is outraged once the affairs hit the media, a mentor turned moralist. Taylor’s ongoing dramas fill the studio’s coffers. The public never tires of her escapades, whether with men or the growing collection of diamonds she covets. Taylor is a creature of her own invention, always in front of the camera, the beauty men cannot refuse, the home-wrecker, the seductress. Eventually, even bad press fails to tarnish this star’s reputation.
Mann’s explores the truth behind the hype, the larger-than-life personality, the romances, excesses and dramas, the siren, the brokenhearted widow, the bejeweled star with her husband du jour by her side, the drunken brawls with Burton, the public humiliations and divorce. Acting is never Elizabeth’s great love; rather, it is being a star, living the life of privilege, life as Performance Art.
Who doesn’t want to witness the hubris and human foibles of a screen goddess built by the Hollywood machine? Those days are gone, but in How to Be a Movie Star, Mann reminds us of those heady days of hero worship long before the cult of celebrity, a star who is part wonder, part monster, poking her finger in the eye of convention: “She stole other women’s husbands and turned living in sin into just another way to live.”