Credit: HBO/Tribeca Film Festival
by Chris Cassingham Featured Film

Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes — Nanette Burstein [Tribeca ’24 Review]

June 15, 2024

On paper, a recently discovered 1964 interview between author and journalist Richard Meryman and Elizabeth Taylor, then at the absolute height of her fame and notoriety, should be the perfect raw material for Nanette Burstein’s documentary, Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes. At the time, Taylor had just seen the release of Cleopatra, then the most expensive film ever made; begun her world-famous relationship with co-star Richard Burton, a union controversial enough to earn official condemnation from the Vatican; and set out to begin production on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, the film that would finally legitimize her status as an actress, not just a movie star. What better time, then, to delve into the intricacies of fame, fortune, and folly that hound the life of the world’s biggest star?

On the tapes, Taylor speaks warmly of a childhood in Los Angeles, and her fascination with the scale and glamor of Hollywood filmmaking. She also recalls her roller coaster 1950s, when a series of failed and tragically truncated marriages clashed with her frustrations with an industry that seemed at once hell-bent on making her older than she was, infantilizing her as a perennial ingénue, and limiting her choices in roles that would allow her to really act. Whether reminiscing on the past or grappling with the present, Taylor’s voice always has a palpable immediacy. You can hear it in the opening moments of the film, as the pair get settled before officially starting their interview, a mixture of strain, exhaustion, and good-natured hospitality giving it the depth and perspective earned from spending a lifetime in the spotlight.

Woven into the story are other recordings and television appearances of Taylor herself and of her friends and colleagues. A common refrain in The Lost Tapes is the voice of Roddy McDowell, Taylor’s long-time best friend, and her very first co-star. Apart from television appearances that we can see, it’s unclear when and in what context the other recordings were made or taken. They have a muddying effect on the clarity of the film’s central premise of these lost tapes. So while they add breadth and depth to the film’s perspective on Taylor’s life, the diversity of viewpoints ends up diluting Taylor’s.

At a time when the public’s access to celebrities’ personal lives is simultaneously at its greatest and most calculated, the raw vulnerability of Taylor’s recollections is necessarily tempered when transposed onto something so pedestrian as Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes often is. If the material at Burstein’s disposal holds within it deep insights about the toxic nature of hypervisible celebrity, about an industry’s exploitations, her film deploys them hesitantly. The effect is not only disappointing, it prompts the same questions many celebrity biographical documentaries prompt, such as what exactly we’re getting from this that can’t be accomplished by reading a biography and watching the star’s movies. As it plays, the film feels like it’s just trying to kill those two birds with one stone.

If there’s one intriguing mystery to Elizabeth Taylor: The Lost Tapes, it’s the question of how it will conclude. Given the immediacy of the 1964 conversation, conducted as it was at such a volatile point in Taylor’s life, one expects the conclusion to be open-ended, ambiguous, to broach unanswerable questions about celebrity, to imbue some mystery in the life of a very well-known woman by deliberately not answering the already answered. However, when Meryman’s job is done, the film is not, turning instead to a half-hearted montage of news clippings, talk-show segments and other recorded interviews to sweep us along the next 20 years of Taylor’s life, during which she and Richard Burton divorced, remarried and divorced again, and found herself, for the first time ever, living on her own. The film concludes with another set of tapes, recorded in 1985 by journalist Dominick Dunne, but their insights feel like an afterthought. “To thine own self be true,” she offers as a motto for her life. If there’s one instance in which someone else should have spoken for Taylor, perhaps it was here.

Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 2.