Saturday, March 26, 2011

Corporate Exploitation, Personal Addictions, and Media Codependency in Hollyweird: Charlie Sheen vs. CBS and Warner Brothers Television

Adonis Rising

Is it just me or is actor Charlie Sheen poised to pull off the biggest heist since the Brink's job?

by Patricia Calloway

On March 7, 2011 CBS and Warner Bros. Television announced the firing of actor Charlie Sheen from the hit show "Two and a Half Men" following weeks of public controversy and negative publicity which included alleged anti-semitic remarks made by the actor against the show's creator Chuck Lorre. Since then Sheen has been on the lips of just about everybody you know and a lot of people you don't, media people who just can't stop trying to pimp him and his situation.

But Sheen has taken all of this, the biased news stories, the constant crush of paparazzi, restraining orders, the removal of his children by the state, even imprisonment inside his own home due to the media jackals lurking just outside the security gates of the community he's trying to raise his children in and turned it onto its head and into the greatest show on earth; not if, but when he wins his $100 million breach of contract lawsuit against his corporate tormentors at CBS and Warner Bros. Television he will emerge as the slickest mofo since D.B. Cooper.

God, it's good to be alive right now.

Viva Charlie!

In a flurry of major media appearances and interviews Charlie Sheen has managed to do what many Hollywood celebrities either cannot or will not do; he has put his corporate owners on notice that he has taken control and ownership of Charlie Sheen, his name, his image and profitability both present and future using the very media that is chomping at the bit to use and destroy him. He is gaining his freedom the old-fashioned way, through struggle and hardship, having seized control of his career and life from the jaws of the hyenas who would just as soon help him to die as continue to use him as youth demographic bait for their old, tired assed network.

During the Week of Charlie Awesomeness, when he was doing interview after interview with all the major networks, CBS tossed the idea to the media of recasting "Two and a Half Men" with a different actor in a scenario that would help save the show; as far back as April 2010 the network was toying with this same idea (and quite publicly) after Sheen was arrested on Christmas Day 2009 in Aspen, Colorado for misdemeanor assault and felony menacing involving a domestic dispute with his wife, Brooke Mueller. He eventually plead guilty in August 2010 and in a plea deal he received 30 days in rehab, 30 days probation and 36 hours of anger management and was sentenced to time already served at Promises Treatment Center. He and his wife reconciled in February 2010 and both completed alcohol rehab that year. Sheen began to re-evaluate "Two and a Half Men" and announced he was taking time off from the program to pull himself, his marriage and his life together.

At the time, 26, 365 polled viewers were asked Can The Show Survive Without Charlie; 84% of them answered 'No'. When asked What Should The Network Do If He Leaves, 81% responded 'Cancel the Show';

When he returned to the show it was very clear to CBS that Sheen was the butter on their bread.

Season 7 of "Two and a Half Men" started September 21, 2009 and was originally slated to run for 22 episodes but that increased to 24 episodes in November. In February Sheen entered rehab for three weeks and the season was peeled back by two episodes.

Season 7 averaged 14.89 million viewers for the entire 22 episodes, but for the first six episodes airing after the Aspen arrest, from January 11, 2010 to March 8, 2010, "Two and a Half Men" enjoyed a ratings average of 17.01 million viewers. On March 23, 2010, ratings for the show dropped back to normal and the remaining four episodes of the season averaged 14.15 million.

Sheen was arrested October 26, 2010 for an incident at New York's Plaza Hotel where he caused $7,000 in damages and threatened a naked hooker because he couldn't find his cellphone and wallet; for the four weeks following this incident, from November 2, 2010 to November 23, 2010, the show averaged 13.91 million viewers, not a huge difference from the Season 7 average.

Sensing a pattern? Sheen's outlandish behavior was a bit of a boon for CBS. If I were a betting woman, I'd put $1.25 on the network turning a blind eye to his problems and behavior in favor of keeping the 15 million viewers he brought them each week. Sheen's self-destructive behavior was overlooked repeatedly; perhaps it was seen as the price of doing business. After all, "Two and a Half Men" is worth billions, yes, with a "b", billions of dollars in worldwide syndication and distribution rights and none of it would be possible without him.

So what if he's tore up from the floor up? Move the furniture around. Somebody get his leg.

There's your moral turpitude right there.

In a February 28, 2010 interview Sheen demanded a 50% increase in pay from the show which would net him $3 million per episode. He reasoned that compared to what the show is making and is worth, CBS could afford it. A week later they fired him; what a coincidence.

Sheen was accused of being anti-semitic by the media because he called the show's creator, Chuck Lorre by his Hebrew name, Chaim Levine; that didn't stick to him as Sheen is Jewish through his mother, artist Janet Templeton. Sheen told TMZ: "I was addressing the man, not the bulls**t TV persona. So you're telling me that anytime someone calls me Carlos Estevez (his birth name) they are being anti-Latino?"

"Two and a Half Men" has been CBS' number one show for the past seven years because of Charlie Sheen's work, persona and popularity. CBS' attempt to rob, yes, rob Charlie Sheen of the billions that are his is nothing short of despicable. You don't have to love him, but you do have to love fairness, equitable treatment, honest pay for honest work and equitable compensation for one's contributions on the job. I'm not talking about Sheen the crazy TV star because that's what they want you to look at while they quietly steal his money; I'm talking about Sheen the worker and so is he.

And therefore Charlie Sheen is waging a revolution of sorts, an emancipation effort that serves as both a warning to corporate execs who foolishly underestimated him and as an escape template for others to reproduce. He must be acutely aware that the only way he can insure his freedom is by taking power for himself and not giving it back to CBS and Warner Brothers Television.

How Emiliano Zapata is that?

The Acorn and the Tree

His father, actor Martin Sheen, has a long history in liberal Democratic politics and social activism. He has supported a number of causes including the Bobby Kennedy campaign and the1965 farm worker movement with Cesar Chavez in California, anti-nuclear protests in Nevada and has opposed the war in Iraq. He lends his support to groups such as Help Darfur Now, Earth First! and By Any Means Necessary (BAMN).

Charlie Sheen is actively involved in breast cancer awareness and is a major donor and supporter of the HIV/AIDS assistance organization Aid for AIDS in Los Angeles. He is also a prominent advocate of the 9/11 Truth Movement which believes the attacks were an inside job; the media made him out to be a conspiracy kook after his interview on "The Alex Jones Show" gained mainstream media attention in 2009.

Since September 2009 when Sheen first contacted President Obama and urged him to investigate the attacks, the media has cranked up its scrutiny of him; his life is already a fishbowl but the added pressure of just about every media outlet trying to catch you dirty would make a man feel uncomfortable and a little paranoid. It might make a man with addiction issues feel worse than that.

In light of this the Christmas 2009 incident in Aspen seems inevitable. Sheen and his wife got into an argument; she threatened to divorce him and he snapped. Even though they reconciled the following February it wasn't enough; Sheen filed for divorce from his wife eight months later. His greatest fear had come upon him.

B***h Betta Have My Money

On March 10, 2010 Chuck Lorre, CBS and Warner Brothers Television were sued by Charlie Sheen for $100 million dollars. In a 30-page complaint Sheen charges Chuck Lorre fired him illegally; not only was he in breach of Sheen's contract but he was in violation of federal law prohibiting the firing of sick persons. Sheen's radio comments about Lorre are protected speech so he can't be fired for exercising that right; Sheen charges that the comments are the real reason behind his firing.

The "hilarious, but legally sound" lawsuit is said to tell all and then some about the operations behind the show and the actions of its bigwigs. Experts expect a quick settlement with Sheen from Lorre, CBS and Warner Brothers to avoid further embarrassment; Sheen can't seem to stop making fun of them in "their" media.

Because Chuck Lorre didn't like what Sheen said about him on the air and because CBS doesn't want to share a bigger slice of the billions they stand to make off Sheen with him he was fired on a trumped-up morals clause; now isnt' that the pot calling the kettle black?

You can't fire a man for indecent behavior you have tolerated, underwritten and encouraged for almost as long as he's worked for you simply because he's making you rich. You can't pretend you haven't entered into a contract with a man when he demands fair and equitable treatment under that contract from you. You can't defame a man because he knows what he's worth and is trying to protect his value.

Sheen has also demanded that cast and crew members of "Two and a Half Men" get paid for the remaining episodes. His contract included a "pay or play" clause that pays him for all episodes plus residuals whether he works or not. Remember in November 2010 when the season was extended to 24 episodes but was put back to 22 episodes when Sheen went to rehab? Well, he signed a contract for 24 episodes and is owed for the remainder and so is the cast and crew. They are not working yet are under contract; who will step over CBS to hire them? As displaced workers they are eligible for unemployment compensation from the state of California, and thank goodness, but Sheen has put CBS on notice that he expects his people to be paid.

What this thing is about is worker's rights, employment law and contract law, period. It is not about an "out-of-control" star, it's not about a drug addict who hangs out with hookers. This is about a corporation's attempt to deny its employees justice and their rights under the law, like in the state of Wisconsin; it's about unrestrained corporate greed, greed by any means necessary up to and including the deaths of workers, like at British Petroleum; it's about the immoral lack of respect and disregard for worker's dignity, like at DeBeers. And it is about a corporation's refusal to negotiate billions of dollars in present and future earnings from a man's work with that man, like the NFL owners.

Don't ever think it's about anything else.

You're Not the Boss of Me

This past Friday it was announced that Sheen's one-man show, "My Violent Torpedo of Truth" has been expanded to 22 shows. He originally scheduled five dates, the first for April 2 at the Fox Theatre here in Detroit. He will make an estimated $7 million dollars a month on shows sold out within 18 minutes of their announcement on his Twitter page where followers were able to purchase tickets to the event.

Since joining Twitter Sheen has entered the Guiness Book of World Records as the fastest person to achieve one million followers in the shortest amount of time. Before he ever tweeted Sheen had 10,000 followers; in the next 24 hours he had attracted one million. As of March 20, 2010 Charlie Sheen has 3 million followers and a train load of sponsors lining up to get on his page.

Behold this piece of Charlie awesomeness: his deal with LiveNation gives him 85% of profits plus merchandising and afterparty appearances. This is possible because tickets were purchased via Twitter; Sheen doesn't need LiveNation's ticket booth so his overhead is low. Low overhead, high profit. One dollar from every ticket sold for his show will be donated to the American Red Cross for the Japanese Earthquake Relief Fund.

He shows us how to deal with circling buzzards like LiveNation by stripping them of their power to fleece; they're not the boss of him or his tickets.

Sheen scares the hell out of Them. The more he talks the more They freak out; They have put great stock in maintaining the illusion of celebrity because it gives them an endless supply of fresh bodies to exploit for their own ends. He doesn't give a s**t what we think about him, he just does his thing and in doing so he strips away the mystique of fame and celebrity. He lets us see that it's all smoke and mirrors and sleight of hand.

He holds up Hollywood's hypocrisy and falsity like the severed head of the Medusa and allows us to gaze upon its horror and ugly simplicity. No, he will not obey and behave, no he will not hide his contempt for the thing that is killing him. No, he will not apologize for his lifestyle choices; he's an addict who doesn't care if you know that he likes hookers and mountains of coke and fast cars and gunplay and terrorizing his wives.

He's like your cousin Reggie only Charlie Sheen will work and he's rich. Deal with it.

Angel with a Dirty Face

Sheen brings us in through the front of the tent then closes the curtain behind us as we watch in shock and awe the truth about the world he lives and works in. We're cool with that because it's real and we know he's being honest with us and that he respects us. This drives Them to fits because They do the opposite; Sheen consistently breaks the spells They keep trying to cast over us and offers up his life as a testimony to Their lies.

Charlie Sheen is on the verge of revolution and I'm glad to see it. His lawsuit will singlehandedly bitch slap not one but two corporations by exposing their greed and immorality, their deceit and their cruel disregard toward workers. Through him we'll see for ourselves their whoredoms and pathetic weaknesses and in comparison to Them he will look like a saint.

Viva el verdad! Viva la justicia! Viva Santo Carlos Estevez!

Patricia Calloway paints, writes, blogs and cheers for workers the world over in Detroit, Michigan.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Legendary and Iconic Elizabeth Taylor: 1932-2011

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932-2011


One of the last of the AMERICAN GIANTS has finally left the planet. She was an amazing cultural/artistic representative from the last truly GOLDEN AGE this rapidly declining country will ever see. Just think about it: Marlon Brando, Miles Davis, Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra, Charlie Parker, Allen Ginsberg, Marilyn Monroe, James Baldwin, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Paul Newman, Jack Lemmon, Sammy Davis, Jr., Audrey Hepburn, Norman Mailer, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, James Dean, Eartha Kitt, Frank O'Hara, Noam Chomsky, Gore Vidal, B.B. King, Muddy Waters, John Lee H o o k e r, Harold Cruse, Ray Charles, Lena Horne, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Montgomery Clift, Medgar Evers, Hugh Hefner, Lenny Bruce, Orson Welles, Ella Fitzgerald, Lauren Bacall, John A. Williams, Cecil Taylor, James Brown, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln, Ornette Coleman, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Grace Kelly, Eric Dolphy, Dianh Washington, Betty Carter, Thelonious Monk, Berry Gordy, Toni Morrison etc., etc. (WHEW!!) WERE ALL BORN IN THE SAME GENERATION. Can you BELIEVE that? And like her equally iconic contemporaries LIZ T. was a TRUE ORIGINAL AND THE LAST OF A BREED. I first noticed her overwhelming violet-eyed aura at age 17 when I saw her relentlessly VAMP across the screen in 'Cat on A Hot Tin Roof' on a latenight TV movie program. All I could think then was: "I ain't never seen a white girl act like THAT before!"...BTW: My favorite all time performances of Ms. Taylor are in 'A Place in The Sun', 'Giant', 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' and 'Cat...'. RIP Elizabeth. You kicked ass and named names for over 50 years and we'll never forget it or you...


A Lustrous Pinnacle of Hollywood Glamour


March 23, 2011
New York Times

Elizabeth Taylor, the actress who dazzled generations of moviegoers with her stunning beauty and whose name was synonymous with Hollywood glamour, died on Wednesday in Los Angeles. She was 79.

A spokeswoman at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center said Ms. Taylor died at 1:28 a.m. Pacific time. Her publicist, Sally Morrison, said the cause was complications of congestive heart failure. Ms. Taylor had had a series of medical setbacks over the years and was hospitalized six weeks ago with heart problems.

In a world of flickering images, Elizabeth Taylor was a constant star. First appearing on screen at age 10, she grew up there, never passing through an awkward age. It was one quick leap from “National Velvet” to “A Place in the Sun” and from there to “Cleopatra,” as she was indelibly transformed from a vulnerable child actress into a voluptuous film queen.

In a career of some 70 years and more than 50 films, she won two Academy Awards as best actress, for her performances as a call girl in “BUtterfield 8” (1960) and as the acid-tongued Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” (1966). Mike Nichols, who directed her in “Virginia Woolf,” said he considered her “one of the greatest cinema actresses.”

When Ms. Taylor was honored in 1986 by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Vincent Canby wrote in The New York Times, “More than anyone else I can think of, Elizabeth Taylor represents the complete movie phenomenon — what movies are as an art and an industry, and what they have meant to those of us who have grown up watching them in the dark.”

Ms. Taylor’s popularity endured throughout her life, but critics were sometimes reserved in their praise of her acting. In that sense she may have been upstaged by her own striking beauty. Could anyone as lovely as Elizabeth Taylor also be talented? The answer, of course, was yes.

Given her lack of professional training, the range of her acting was surprisingly wide. She played predatory vixens and wounded victims. She was Cleopatra of the burnished barge; Tennessee Williams’s Maggie the cat; Catherine Holly, who confronted terror suddenly last summer; and Shakespeare’s Kate. Her melodramatic heroines would have been at home on soap operas.

Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed her in “Suddenly, Last Summer” and “Cleopatra,” saw her for the first time, in Cannes, when she was 18. “She was the most incredible vision of loveliness I have ever seen in my life,” he said. “And she was sheer innocence.”

Mankiewicz admired her professionalism. “Whatever the script called for, she played it,” he said. “The thread that goes through the whole is that of a woman who is an honest performer. Therein lies her identity.”

It was also Mankiewicz who said that for Ms. Taylor, “living life was a kind of acting,” that she lived her life “in screen time.”

Beauty Incarnate
Marilyn Monroe was the sex goddess, Grace Kelly the ice queen, Audrey Hepburn the eternal gamine. Ms. Taylor was beauty incarnate. As the director George Stevens said when he chose her for “A Place in the Sun,” the role called for the “beautiful girl in the yellow Cadillac convertible that every American boy, some time or other, thinks he can marry.”

There was more than a touch of Ms. Taylor herself in the roles she played. She acted with the magnet of her personality. Although she could alter her look for a part — putting on weight for Martha in “Virginia Woolf” or wearing elaborate period costumes — she was not a chameleon, assuming the coloration of a character. Instead she would bring the character closer to herself. For her, acting was “purely intuitive.” As she said, “What I try to do is to give the maximum emotional effect with the minimum of visual movement.”

Sometimes her film roles seemed to be a mirror image of her life. More than most movie stars, she seemed to exist in the public domain. She was pursued by paparazzi and denounced by the Vatican. But behind the seemingly scandalous behavior was a woman with a clear sense of morality: she habitually married her lovers. People watched and counted, with vicarious pleasure, as she became Elizabeth Taylor Hilton Wilding Todd Fisher Burton Burton Warner Fortensky — enough marriages to certify her career as a serial wife. Asked why she married so often, she said, in an assumed drawl: “I don’t know, honey. It sure beats the hell out of me.”

In a lifetime of emotional and physical setbacks, serious illnesses and accidents, and several near-death experiences, Ms. Taylor was a survivor. “I’ve been lucky all my life,” she said just before turning 60. “Everything was handed to me. Looks, fame, wealth, honors, love. I rarely had to fight for anything. But I’ve paid for that luck with disasters.” At 65, she said on the ABC program “20/20”: “I’m like a living example of what people can go through and survive. I’m not like anyone. I’m me.”

Her life was played out in print: miles of newspaper and magazine articles, a galaxy of photographs and a shelf of biographies, each one painting a different portrait. “Planes, trains, everything stops for Elizabeth Taylor, but the public has no conception of who she is,” said Roddy McDowall, who was one of her earliest co-stars and a friend for life. “People who damn her wish to hell they could do what they think she does.”

There was one point of general agreement: her beauty. As cameramen noted, her face was flawlessly symmetrical; she had no bad angle, and her eyes were of the deepest violet.

One prominent and perhaps surprising dissenter about her looks was Richard Burton, who was twice her husband. The notion of his wife as “the most beautiful woman in the world is absolute nonsense,” he said. “She has wonderful eyes,” he added, “but she has a double chin and an overdeveloped chest, and she’s rather short in the leg.”

On screen and off, Ms. Taylor was a provocative combination of the angel and the seductress. In all her incarnations she had a vibrant sensuality. But beneath it was more than a tinge of vulgarity, as in her love of showy jewelry. “I know I’m vulgar,” she said, addressing her fans with typical candor, “but would you have me any other way?”

For many years she was high on the list of box-office stars. Even when her movies were unsuccessful, or, late in her career, when she acted infrequently, she retained her fame: there was only one Liz (a nickname she hated), and her celebrity increased the more she lived in the public eye. There was nothing she could do about it. “The public me,” she said, “the one named Elizabeth Taylor, has become a lot of hokum and fabrication — a bunch of drivel — and I find her slightly revolting.”

Late in life she became a social activist. After her friend Rock Hudson died, she helped establish the American Foundation for AIDS Research and helped raise money for it. In 1997, she said, “I use my fame now when I want to help a cause or other people.”

Twice she had leading roles on Broadway, in a 1981 revival of Lillian Hellman’s “Little Foxes” and two years later in Noël Coward’s “Private Lives,” with Burton, then her former husband. In the first instance she won critical respect; in the second she and Burton descended into self-parody. But theater was not her ideal arena; it was as a movie star that she made her impact.

In a life of many surprises, one of the oddest facts is that as an infant she was considered to be an ugly duckling. Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor was born in London on Feb. 27, 1932, the second child of American parents with roots in Kansas. Her father, Francis Lenn Taylor, was an art dealer who had been transferred to London from New York; her mother, the former Sara Viola Warmbrodt, had acted in the theater in New York, under the name Sara Sothern, before she was married. (Her brother, Howard, was born in 1929.) At birth, her mother said, her daughter’s “tiny face was so tightly closed it looked as if it would never unfold.”

Elizabeth spent her early childhood in England. It was there, at 3, that she learned to ride horseback, a skill that helped her win her first major role. Just before World War II, the family moved to the United States, eventually settling in Beverly Hills.

An Inauspicious Start
Ms. Taylor’s mother shared with her daughter a love of movies and encouraged her to act. Elizabeth made her movie debut in 1942 as Gloria Twine in a forgettable film called “There’s One Born Every Minute,” with Carl Switzer, best known as Alfalfa, the boy with the cowlick in the “Our Gang” series. The casting director at Universal said of her: “The kid has nothing.” Despite that inauspicious debut, Sam Marx, an MGM producer who had known the Taylors in England, arranged for their daughter to have a screen test for “Lassie Come Home.” She passed the audition. During the filming, in which Ms. Taylor acted with Roddy McDowall, a cameraman mistakenly thought her long eyelashes were fake and asked her to take them off.

The power of her attraction was evident as early as 1944, in “National Velvet.” MGM had for many years owned the film rights to the Enid Bagnold novel on which that film was based but had had difficulty finding a child actress who could speak with an English accent and ride horses. At 12, Elizabeth Taylor met those requirements, though she was initially rejected for being too short. Stories circulated that she stretched herself in order to fill the physical dimensions of the role: Velvet Brown, a girl who was obsessed with horses and rode one to victory in the Grand National Steeplechase. “I knew if it were right for me to be Velvet,” she said, “God would make me grow.”

In one scene her horse, which she called the Pie, seemed to be dying, and Ms. Taylor was supposed to cry — the first time she was called on to show such emotion on screen. Her co-star was Mickey Rooney, a more experienced actor, and he gave her some advice on how to summon tears: pretend that her father was dying, that her mother had to wash clothes for a living and that her little dog had been run over. Hearing that sad scenario, Ms. Taylor burst out laughing at the absurdity. When it came time to shoot the scene, she later said: “All I thought about was the horse being very sick and that I was the little girl who owned him. And the tears came.”

Ms. Taylor gave a performance that, quite literally, made grown men and women weep, to say nothing of girls who identified with Velvet. In his review of the film in The Nation, James Agee, otherwise a tough-minded critic, confessed that the first time he had seen Ms. Taylor on screen he had been “choked with the peculiar sort of adoration I might have felt if we were both in the same grade of primary school.”

She was, he said, “rapturously beautiful.”

“I think that she and the picture are wonderful, and I hardly know or care whether she can act or not.”

The movie made her a star. Decades later she said “National Velvet” was still “the most exciting film” she had ever made. But there was a drawback. To do the movie she had to sign a long-term contract with MGM. As she said, she “became their chattel until I did ‘Cleopatra.’ ”

At first she played typical teenagers (in “Life With Father,” “A Date With Judy” and “Little Women”). At 16 she was “an emotional child inside a woman’s body,” she later said. But in contrast to other child actresses, she made an easy transition to adult roles. In 1950 she played Robert Taylor’s wife in “Conspirator.” The same year, she was in Vincente Minnelli’s “Father of the Bride,” with Spencer Tracy. And, life imitating art, she became a bride herself in 1950, marrying the hotel heir Conrad N. Hilton Jr., who was known as Nicky. After an unhappy nine months, she divorced him and then married the British actor Michael Wilding, who was 20 years older than she.

By her own estimation, she “whistled and hummed” her way through her early films. But that changed in 1951, when she made “A Place in the Sun,” playing her prototypical role as a seemingly unattainable romantic vision. The film, she said, was “the first time I ever considered acting when I was young.”

In the film she plays a wealthy young woman of social position who is the catalyst for Montgomery Clift’s American tragedy. To the astonishment of skeptics, she held her own with Clift and Shelley Winters.

“A Place in the Sun” was followed by “Ivanhoe,” “Beau Brummel” and “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” Then she made two wide-screen epics back to back, “Giant” (with Rock Hudson and James Dean, who died after finishing his scenes) and “Raintree County” (with Clift, who became a close friend). Her role in “Raintree County” (1957), as Susanna Drake, a Civil-War era Southern belle who marries an Indiana abolitionist, earned her an Oscar nomination for best actress. It was the first of four consecutive nominations; the last resulted in a win for “BUtterfield 8.”

Ms. Taylor was filming “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with Paul Newman in 1958 when her third husband, the impresario Mike Todd, was killed with three others in New Mexico in the crash of a small plane called the Lucky Liz. They had been married little more than a year and had a newly born daughter, Liza.

A bereaved Ms. Taylor was consoled by her husband’s best friend, the singer Eddie Fisher, who in a storybook romance was married to the actress Debbie Reynolds, one of America’s sweethearts. Soon a shocked nation learned that Debbie and Eddie were over and that Mr. Fisher was marrying Ms. Taylor, continuing what turned out to be a chain of marital events. (In 1993, at an AIDS benefit, Ms. Reynolds appeared on stage 20 minutes before Ms. Taylor and said, to waves of laughter, “Well, here I am, sharing something else with Elizabeth.”) Mr. Fisher died in 2010.

After Ms. Taylor finished “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” MGM demanded that she fulfill her contract and act in a film version of John O’Hara’s “BUtterfield 8.” Her performance as the call girl Gloria Wandrous brought her an Oscar in 1961 as best actress.

The award was bestowed less than six weeks after she had an emergency tracheotomy in London after being overcome by pneumonia and losing consciousness, prompting one of several times that headlines proclaimed her close to death. She and others felt that the Oscar was given to her more out of sympathy for her illness than in appreciation of her acting. Next was “Cleopatra,” in which she was the first actress to be paid a million-dollar salary. Working overtime, she earned more than twice that amount. The movie was made in Rome and cost so much ($40 million, a record then) and took so long that it almost bankrupted 20th Century Fox and caused an irrevocable rift between the producer Darryl F. Zanuck and the director, Mankiewicz.

When “Cleopatra” was finally released in 1963 it was a disappointment. But the film became legendary for the off-screen affair of its stars, Ms. Taylor, then married to Mr. Fisher, and Richard Burton, then married to Sybil Williams.

Opposites Attract

Taylor and Burton: it seemed like a meeting, or a collision, of opposites, the most famous movie star in the world and the man many believed to be the finest classical actor of his generation. What they had in common was an extraordinary passion for each other and for living life to the fullest. Their romantic roller coaster was chronicled by the international press, which referred them as an entity called Dickenliz.

After finishing the film, Ms. Taylor went with Burton to Toronto, where he was on a pre-Broadway tour with “Hamlet.” In Toronto, and later in New York, the two were at the height of their megastardom, accompanied by a retinue as large as that of the Sultan of Brunei and besieged by fans, who turned every public appearance into a mob scene. In New York as many as 5,000 people gathered outside the Lunt-Fontanne Theater on West 46th Street after every performance of “Hamlet,” hoping Ms. Taylor was backstage and eager to see the couple emerge.

They were married in 1964, and Ms. Taylor tried without success to keep herself in the background. “I don’t think of myself as Taylor,” she said, ingenuously. “I much prefer being Burton.” She told her husband, “If I get fat enough, they won’t ask me to do any more films.” Although she put on weight, she continued to act.

The life of Dickenliz was one of excess. They owned mansions in various countries, rented entire floors of hotels and spent lavishly on cars, art and jewelry, including the 69.42-carat Cartier diamond and the 33.19-carat Krupp diamond. (In 2002 Ms. Taylor published “My Love Affair With Jewelry,” a coffee-table memoir as told through the prism of her world-class gems.)

Since childhood Ms. Taylor had been surrounded by pets. When she was not allowed to take her dogs to London because of a quarantine rule, she leased a yacht for them at a reported cost of $20,000 and moored it on the Thames.

After “Cleopatra,” the couple united in a film partnership that gave the public glossy romances like “The V.I.P.’s” and “The Sandpiper” and one powerful drama about marital destructiveness, the film version of Edward Albee’s play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” As Martha, the faculty wife, a character 20 years older than she was, Ms. Taylor gained 20 pounds and made herself look dowdy. After she received her second Academy Award for the performance, Burton, who played Martha’s husband, George, offered a wry response: “She won an Oscar for it, he said, bitterly, and I didn’t, he said, equally bitterly.”

The Burtons also acted together in “Doctor Faustus” (1968), in which she was a conjured-up Helen of Troy; “The Comedians” (1967), with Ms. Taylor as an adulterous ambassador’s wife in Haiti; Franco Zeffirelli’s film version of “The Taming of the Shrew” (1967), with Ms. Taylor as the volatile Katharina to Burton’s wife-hunting Petruchio; “Boom!” (1968), based on the Tennessee Williams play “The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore,” with Ms. Taylor as a rich, ailing woman living on an island; “Under Milk Wood” (1972), an adaptation of the Dylan Thomas play; and “Hammersmith Is Out” (1972), a retelling of the Faust legend in which she played a diner waitress. On her own, Ms. Taylor was an adulterous Army major’s wife in “Reflections in a Golden Eye” (1967), with Marlon Brando; a fading prostitute in “Secret Ceremony” (1968); an aging Las Vegas chorus girl in “The Only Game in Town” (1970), with Warren Beatty; a rich widow who witnesses a murder in “Night Watch” (1973); and a wife who tries to save her marriage through plastic surgery in “Ash Wednesday” (1973).

After 10 high-living and often torrid years, the Burtons were divorced in 1974, remarried 16 months later (in a mud-hut village in Botswana), separated again the next February and granted a divorce in Haiti in July 1976.

Burton died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 58 in 1984 in Switzerland. Thirteen years later Ms. Taylor said that Todd and Burton were the loves of her life, and that if Burton had lived they might have married a third time. For years after his death, she told The Times in 2000, she couldn’t watch when the films they had made were on television.

After her second divorce from Burton, she wed John W. Warner, a Virginia politician, and was active in his winning campaign for the United States Senate. For five years she was a Washington political wife and, she said, “the loneliest person in the world.” Overcome by depression, she checked into the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, Calif. She later admitted that she had been treated as “a drunk and a junkie.”

Battling Drugs and Food
In addition to alcohol and drugs, she had a problem with overeating, and it became the butt of jokes by the comedian Joan Rivers. (“She has more chins than a Chinese phone book.”) Ms. Rivers later apologized to Ms. Taylor through a friend, though Ms. Taylor shrugged off the insults, saying they did not “get me where I live.” Ms. Rivers said, “From then on, I was crazy about her.” Ms. Taylor wrote a book about her weight problems, “Elizabeth Takes Off: On Weight Gain, Weight Loss, Self-Image & Self-Esteem” (1988). When she returned to the Ford Center for further treatment, she met Larry Fortensky, a construction worker, who was also a patient. In a wedding spectacular in 1991, she and Mr. Fortensky were married at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch in Santa Ynez, Calif., with celebrated guests sharing the grounds with Jackson’s giraffes, zebras and llamas. Although the press was not invited, a photographer parachuted in and narrowly missed landing on Gregory Peck. Five years later, the Fortenskys were divorced. Ms. Taylor, a longtime friend of Jackson’s, was a visible presence at his funeral in 2009.

Through the 1980s and ’90s, Ms. Taylor acted in movies sporadically, did “The Little Foxes” and “Private Lives” on Broadway, and appeared on television as Louella Parsons in “Malice in Wonderland” in 1985 and as the aging actress Alexandra Del Lago in Tennessee Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth” in 1989.

In 1994 she played Fred Flintstone’s mother-in-law in “The Flintstones,” and in 1996 she made appearances on four CBS sitcoms. In 2001 she and Shirley MacLaine, Joan Collins and Debbie Reynolds made fun of their own images in “These Old Broads,” a tepidly received television movie — written by Carrie Fisher, the daughter of Ms. Reynolds and Eddie Fisher — about aging movie stars (with Ms. Taylor, getting little screen time, as their caftan-wearing agent) who despise one another but reunite for a TV special.

Ms. Taylor was often seen as a caricature of herself, “full of no-nonsense shamelessness,” as Margo Jefferson wrote in The Times in 1999, adding, “Whether it’s about how she ages or what she wears, she has, bless her heart, made the principles of good and bad taste equally meaningless.”

Increasingly, Ms. Taylor divided her time between her charitable works (including various Israeli causes) and commercial enterprises, like a line of perfumes marketed under her name. She helped raise more than $100 million to fight AIDS. In February 1997, she celebrated her 65th birthday at a party that was a benefit for AIDS research. After the party Ms. Taylor entered Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles for an operation on a brain tumor.

There were other medical setbacks. In recent years she had to use a wheelchair because of osteoporosis/scoliosis. In 2009 she had surgery to address heart problems. This year she refused to undergo a back operation, saying she had already had a half-dozen and wasn’t up for another. In February she entered Cedars-Sinai for the final time with congestive heart failure.

She is survived by her sons Michael and Christopher Wilding; her daughter Liza Todd; another daughter, Maria Burton; 10 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

In 2002 Ms. Taylor was among five people to receive Kennedy Center Honors in the performing arts.

Married or single, sick or healthy, on screen or off, Ms. Taylor never lost her appetite for experience. Late in life, when she had one of many offers to write her memoirs, she refused, saying with characteristic panache, “Hell no, I’m still living my memoirs.”

Mel Gussow, the principal writer of this article, died in 2005. William McDonald, William Grimes and Daniel E. Slotnik contributed updated reporting.

Monday, March 21, 2011

A Documentary Film Tribute to Photographer Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham
(b. 1928)

Bill Cunningham New York

by Chuleenan Svetvilas

Bill Cunningham had no interest in participating in a film project. The 80-year-old photographer has been documenting fashion with his camera for nearly five decades. Though he has become famous over the years, he leads a very private life and shuns publicity. Director Richard Press says it took him ten years to make Bill Cunningham New York: eight years to convince Cunningham, who is a friend, and two years to shoot and edit the film.

Luckily, Press was able to gain Cunningham’s trust and the results are delightful. The director unobtrusively follows the photographer by day as he travels about New York City on his bicycle, shooting numerous photos of what people are wearing, darting across a busy street to take a picture, waiting for something interesting to capture. The director takes the lead from the photographer -- staying in the background, taking care not to disturb him as he works -- and through this approach, gradually reveals the essence of Cunningham’s commitment and a fascinating portrait of a man with an irrepressible joie de vivre.

Cunningham’s singular focus on his subject is riveting to watch. He’s like a photographer in the wild stalking his prey except that he’s running after a glimpse of an interesting skirt, an unusual shoe or a stylish drape of fabric. Though he has been doing this job for years, he still marvels at the clothes he sees and thrills to see an elegantly dressed woman. Some of these photos will eventually appear in his weekly “On the Street” column for the New York Times.

A charming man with a ready smile, Cunningham claims there is no short cut to capturing the “fashion show on the street.” So he’s outside everyday in all kinds of weather with his camera in hand to see what people are wearing. Remarkably, his day doesn’t end when the sun goes down; at night he’s off on his bicycle to document any number of benefits and galas to photograph the attendees and performers. These images will appear in his other weekly Times column “Evening Hours.” The film chronicles one of his nightly jaunts. Clearly, Cunningham is very fit. His stamina and dedication to his profession is obvious in each of his scenes.

The documentary also includes interviews with people who have appeared in his columns over the years as well as a few of their photo spreads. Press filmed a former diplomat wearing many different outfits cut from very colorful fabrics, discusses his clothes and why he thought Cunningham photographed them. In another interview, a young man wearing dramatic eye makeup and a striking hat that matches his suit recalls the moment a friend told him that an entire “On the Street” column had been devoted solely to his clothes and hats. Press also speaks with Iris Apfel, an octegenarian with an extravagant and outrageous sense of style; Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, who says “We all get dressed for Bill”; and Tom Wolfe, a writer known for his sartorial trademark, the white suit. They all have great respect and admiration for Cunningham but know little about his personal life.

Additional details about the reserved photographer gradually emerge and he comes across as a man with immense integrity and one who truly loves his work. When he’s deciding which events to attend at night, he says his only consideration is the foundation or organization that is benefiting from the event, not the guest list. The film shows him photographing such an event and refusing a repeated offer of food and drink because that would compromise the newspaper. He’s simply there to do his job, not to socialize.

Before his position at the New York Times, we discover that he was a photographer with the fashion trade magazine Women’s Wear Daily. He once shot photos showing models wearing designer outfits and juxtaposed them with everyday women wearing a combination of clothes similar to the models. His intention was to show that women on the street had creativity similar to fashion designers. However, unbeknownst to Cunningham, WWD chose to mock their clothing. So he quit, appalled that his photos would be used to disrespect the women.

The documentary also provides an eye-opening view into Cunningham’s home, a very small studio in Carnegie Hall crammed so full of file cabinets containing his negatives that there’s barely enough room for his narrow bed. He gives the director a “tour” of his place, which has no kitchen or bathroom and his few clothes are on hangers hooked on handles of his file cabinets. This startling scene illustrates just how deeply committed he is to his work. He doesn’t have room for anything but photography in his life. And the documentary makes it clear that he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Cunningham makes fun of the fact that he documents fashion for a living yet has few clothes himself. But he does have his own sense of practical style, wearing his own everyday uniform of a sort – a plain blue jacket worn by street sweepers in Paris.

Towards the end of the documentary, Press follows Cunningham to Paris as he attends Fashion Week. The veteran photographer likes to sit on the side, rather than at the end of the catwalk where all the other photographers position themselves so they can take frontal shots of the models as they strike their final pose. Cunningham would rather watch the models stride by him and shoot how the clothes look when they walk. He says Fashion Week “re-educates the eye.” But he’s also in Paris to accept the Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters. True to form, Cunningham brings his camera to the event and takes pictures. A woman asks him why he’s “working” and shouldn’t he just be enjoying the event? But he says it’s not work, it’s fun.

The only awkward moments arise at the end when an off-screen voice asks Cunningham about his sexuality and how important the church is to his life. Earlier in the documentary he’s asked about his family and his life before he became a photographer but the film never delves very deeply into his early life. Nearly all the interviews are with people who have some connection to his work as a photographer. The focus is on the man today and it works because Cunningham is a unique individual with an utterly engaging personality. Cunningham’s admiration for his subjects and his joy in the work is palpable in every frame.

This article was originally published in the Fall 2010 issue of DOX magazine. The film is currently playing at New York's Film Forum and will be opening at various theaters around the country in April 2011.

Chuleenan Svetvilas is a writer and editor in Berkeley, California. Her writings on film have appeared in Alternet, Documentary, DOX, Mother Jones, The Panopticon Review, and Soccer vs. the State: Tackling Football and Radical Politics, edited by Gabriel Kuhn (PM Press).