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Liz & Marilyn: Black and White in Colour
November 7, 2015 to January 7, 2016
TIFF Bell Lightbox

The history of Hollywood cinema is replete with talented and alluring screen goddesses, and two of those stars in particular shined brighter than any others between the mid-fifties and mid-sixties; before they became more famous as tabloid fodder, that is. (These two actresses made Lindsay Lohan’s antics seem amateurish at best.) These actresses were Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe and TIFF Bell Lightbox is celebrating some of their best work ever captured on celluloid. Whereas I make a point of watching WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (where Taylor’s performance as Martha, the blowsy, profane alcoholic with dark secrets and venom flowing through her veins in Mike Nicholl’s adaptation of Edward Albee’s ground-breaking play, garnered a second Oscar for the actress) and SOME LIKE IT HOT (rated the number one comedy of all time by the American Film Institute, Monroe is pitch perfect as Sugar Kane Kowalczyk, the ukulele playing singer in an all-girl band who just wants to meet Mr. Right) at least once a year, I had the opportunity to revisit two classic Elizabeth Taylor films and watch one, starring Marilyn Monroe, that I’ve avoided like the plague until now.


Poker hot after the successes of GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES and HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE, Monroe was cast to showcase her dramatic skills in a western directed by Otto Preminger and starring Robert Mitchum. In RIVER OF NO RETURN, Marilyn’s beauty completely overshadows the majestic Banff National Park background filmed in glorious Technicolor and Cinemascope. The storyline is pure 50’s hokum: plucky saloon singer is left stranded with a macho farmer and his young son, by her husband, who steals the farmer’s horse to claim his winnings in a poker match. The singer, farmer and son go on a raft down the treacherous river seeking redemption and revenge where, along the way, they are attacked by savage Indians, mountain lions and assorted other bad guys. All the while, Monroe comforts the young lad with insipid songs strummed on her guitar. This movie showcases all of Monroe’s weaknesses as an actress; she is overly enunciating everything and entirely unconvincing. Still, she is at her peak beauty perfection and it is impossible to take your eyes off her.

Already a child star, Taylor’s first adult role (and screen kiss) in George Stevens’ A PLACE IN THE SUN, proved without a doubt that this was an actress to be reckoned with. Only 17 years old at the time and playing opposite the equally gorgeous Montgomery Clift, Taylor’s instinctive performance is translucent. Whereas viewing this movie now, one’s eyes may roll at the melodrama of it all, A PLACE IN THE SUN still has the most erotic screen kiss ever filmed. And there is nothing hotter when Taylor looks at Montgomery and murmurs seductively “Tell Mama.”


And while on the topic of seductiveness, is there anything sexier than La Taylor wearing a clingy white slip while lying on a bed? In the watered down screen version of Tennessee Williams’ CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, where all references to homosexuality have been excised, Taylor’s rage and sexual frustrations, intermingled with compassion and insight, are mind boggling to behold. Despite stellar performances from Paul Newman and Burl Ives, Elizabeth Taylor blows them all out of the water and this is the performance that should have gotten her her first Oscar.

On a personal note, I wish TIFF had headlined this series of classic movies differently. Dame Elizabeth Taylor HATED to be called Liz. Just watch her reaction to when Johnny Carson asked if he could call her that when she finally consented to be a guest on “The Tonight Show”. Still, happy to have the chance to behold these two beauties and their bodies of work again on the big screen.

Liz & Marilyn: Black and White in Colour runs through January 7th, 2016 at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. For more information and for tickets, please visit

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