Films to Love: The Ministry of Love
Acclaimed actor, Elizabeth Taylor, played many roles in her long career. The ones she is most known for, however, are not the ones where I prize her performance. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a tour de force performance, and I cannot find fault with it. Butterfield 8 is a movie I watched and quickly forgot; Elizabeth agreed as she referred to it as a piece of sh*t. Both of those films earned Taylor an Oscar.
Today, I want to take a look at her lesser known films. These three are linked, however, by a theme that threads through them. I’ll title it: the ministry of love- coined from one of the movies I’m writing about today. The ministry of love- as outlined by Claire Hewitt in The Sandpiper- is one a ministry of sacrifice, patience, perseverance, compassion, and, above, all reconciliation and restoration.
Love is a transformative force. It is not an emotion. Emotions attach themselves to love, but they are not the foundation of what love is. Love is a discipline, and like any other discipline, there are ways in which to apply love in our daily lives and make it a habit.
These three Elizabeth Taylor movies showcase eloquently how transformative love is in all its forms.
Those are the words Elizabeth Taylor’s character says to Richard Burton’s character after she splints the broken wing of a baby sandpiper. Rather than put the mending bird in a cage as Burton suggests, she lets the bird fly free in her home until it’s ready to return to the wild. These words are the crux of The Sandpiper.
Whether it be free spirited artist Lauren Reynolds (Elizabeth Taylor), disillusioned minister and headmaster of a boys boarding school Dr. Edward Hewitt (Richard Burton), or his wife, Claire (Eva Marie Saint), each character unfolds as the caged bird. While Lauren Reynold’s bohemian life that scoffs at conventions might seem like the free one when compared to the structured and seemingly strictured life of a minister and his wife, she is just as trapped. By her experiences. By her prejudices. By her fears.
Reynold’s honesty and vivacity captivates Hewitt. At first it’s a curiosity, but then it evolves into genuine love. And why does he love her? Because her desire to live her life with integrity, being true to herself, reminds him of something he’s forgotten. For 20 years, he’s worked diligently as a headmaster, starting with lofty ambitions of making an impact in young boys’ lives and devolving into being little more than a fundraiser who compromises himself more and more with each passing day.
Nothing about this film is easy (except, perhaps the scenery and the score). It is a movie full of questions. About morality, marriage, and infidelity, God and the universe, even our very existence. It’s a ponderous film. Even overly dramatic at times. But there’s beauty in it— in the tragedy of it all, in the truths being plumbed, in the hope that threads through it, sometimes unseen like monofilament, other times unmistakable like black button twist on white canvas. Even though these three characters are embroiled in one of life’s most painful situations, they discover a great deal about what love truly is. Lauren doesn’t believe she can be loved for who she is; she doesn’t believe love really exists. She learns this is not true. Hewitt has forgotten his grand, brave dreams of long ago when he wanted to follow in the footsteps of Frances of Assisi; he’s become complacent and compromised on many of the virtues he once held dear. He receives the reminder he needs of what the ministry of love is. And then there’s Claire Hewitt, who has remained constant. Certainly she’s seen the devolution of her dreams, but she’s carved out a contented life. When she finds out about her husband’s infidelity, her love is stretched. It may not endure. It may break. But, she holds onto it, even in her uncertainty, demonstrating a graciousness that can only be found when someone knows what true love is.
Pay attention to two scenes. The first: when Burton is visiting Taylor at her remote beach house to see the sketches she’s done for the chapel he’s building. The second: the interchange between Burton and Marie Saint in his office after she’s found out about his affair. Both can be chewed on for a long time.
(Also, the score of this film set to the breathtaking backdrop of central coastal California, makes this Vincente Minelli directed picture enjoyable all on its own. Truly a beautiful film.)
Oddly enough, The V.I.P.s deals with infidelity as well. And it stars Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, too. The movie follows a cast of characters who find themselves stranded in the V.I.P. lounge at London Airport when heavy fog makes it impossible for any planes to take off. This delay, which is nearly 24 hours, brings each character to a crisis point. There is a lot of tension and angst with this one. Thankfully, there are moments of levity provided by Dame Margaret Rutherford and Elsa Martinelli. This movie needs those moments. Especially the portion of the plot that deals with Taylor and Burton’s relationship.
Burton is billionaire Paul Andros. Taylor plays his wife of 13 years, Frances. She’s leaving her husband. She hasn’t told him. Rather, she wrote him a note and left it for him to find after her flight took off. Worse, she’s leaving Paul for another man, international gigolo, Marc Champselle, played by Louis Jourdan. While they have not had a physical affair, for the last three months, they have been in an emotional affair.
Frances is leaving Paul not only because she’s fallen in love with Marc, but because she is tired of being treated like a possession. She’s not Paul’s wife; she’s his belonging. It’s insinuated that Paul married Frances, daughter of a successful businessman, way back when his business was in trouble. He’s made a success of it, but Frances has never felt the love she should have as his wife. At the start, she felt needed, but as he’s become such a wealthy tycoon, she’s faded into the background, feeling unloved and, worse, unneeded.
What she doesn’t realize is that Paul doesn’t see her as a possession, but as a necessity for his life. What life is life if Frances… Strangely enough, Marc Champselle, who has known many women and had numerous relationships in his life, has never known love either. Frances is caught at a crossroads. The V.I.P.s explores many facets of love, not just the romantic aspect, and shows what a balm the decision to love can be. I particularly appreciate the time this film gives to the correlation of being loved and being needed.
Keep a lookout for the scene between Maggie Smith and Richard Burton. It is my favorite one in the movie and gives true insight into why Frances’ character struggles with the decision whether to leave Paul or not.
Giant is my absolute favorite movie with Elizabeth Taylor. There are so many things about her character that I admire. She’s a strong willed woman who does not compromise her values. Yet, when she is faced with opposition, she wisely picks her battles. Her patience, quiet fortitude, and unconditional love are instrumental in shaping the future of the Benedict family.
George Stevens’ Giant is based on Edna Ferber’s novel of the same name. Where Ferber’s book was largely rejected by Texans as being condescending and presumptive, the movie was heartily embraced as the championing of a country that possessed the strength and resilience to grow through adversity.
Rock Hudson plays Bick Benedict, a West Texas rancher, who goes east to Maryland to buy a stallion. There he meets Leslie, played by Elizabeth Taylor. After a quick romance, they marry and Leslie embarks on the adventure of a lifetime. Life as a West Texas rancher’s wife is truly foreign to her. She contends with the rugged landscape and the prejudices that riddle its people. Bick Benedict is a bullheaded man, but in Leslie, he’s met his match. And when they lock horns, it’s quite a sight. These two prove the statement that iron sharpens iron.
This movie is an ode to Texas, where she started and how far she’s come. Through the characters of Bick and Leslie, you see the evolution of a harsh, unforgiving land into a country that faces its shortcomings head-on, deals with them, and embraces a future where true freedom reigns. At the heart of that growth is patience and perseverance and a love that endures and steadily grows through the hard times.
Elizabeth Taylor never shied away from difficult discourse. These three roles demonstrate that. No one wants to spearhead conversations about infidelity or morality or prejudice, yet, she understood the importance of having those conversations no matter how uncomfortable they were. That tenacity translated to the screen so eloquently because it was a part of who she was as a woman. One of the difficult conversations that Elizabeth Taylor entered into fearlessly was about AIDS. In 1991, when AIDS was a word that people feared, she led the force to establish The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. She raised hundreds of millions of dollars during her lifetime to fund domestic and international organizations that helped in the treatment of those with AIDS and funded research to find a lasting cure for the disease. Not only did she aid the cause monetarily, but her foundation helped removed the taboo surrounding those who carried the disease, providing a safe place for them to seek treatment and find acceptance. This is only one example of how Taylor ministered love. Her legacy lives on. These three movies are a part of that legacy because each one spotlights the heart of a woman who desperately wants to love those who are in most need of it. That’s the ministry of love. Thank you, Ms. Taylor for being such a beacon.
And, now, it’s your turn, dear readers. Do you have a favorite Elizabeth Taylor film? (There’s one more film where I really love Elizabeth Taylor, but I’ve already written about it in my Films to Love: Sultry Summer Cinema.)