You Must Remember This

How Elizabeth Taylor Won Her Oscar

Tragedy, triumph, tramphood, and a tracheotomy, in 30 eventful months.

Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher
Eddie Fisher and Elizabeth Taylor at the Academy Awards on April 17 1961.

Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

You Must Remember This, the podcast that tells the secret and forgotten history of 20th-century Hollywood, has joined Panoply. And when each episode airs, creator and host Karina Longworth will share some of the research that went into the episode in a transcript excerpt here on Slate. Listen to the complete Episode 10 below, and subscribe to You Must Remember This on iTunes.

Debbie Fisher had been a virgin who lived with her parents when she and the TV star Eddie Fisher got married in 1955. Eddie was … not a virgin. There have been reports that Eddie and Debbie’s marriage was arranged by MGM, who had no problem selling the couple as America’s Sweethearts. But Debbie seems to have thought it was a real relationship—at least, for a while. But after she gave birth to her first child, Carrie, Eddie never seemed to be around. Debbie desperately wanted another kid, but she couldn’t get her husband to sleep with her. Finally one night on vacation in Italy, Debbie got Eddie drunk enough that he performed his husbandly duties. One time was the charm, and nine months later Debbie gave birth to their son Todd.

The Fishers were friends with the Hollywood power couple Elizabeth Taylor and producer Mike Todd, and when Debbie heard in 1958 that Mike Todd had died in a plane crash—his private jet Liz plummeted to the ground in New Mexico—she went over to Liz’s house and offered to take care of Elizabeth’s three children while she grieved. Over the next few weeks, while Debbie was occupied taking care of a total of five children, she knew Eddie was spending a lot of time at Elizabeth’s house, but she wasn’t worried—after all, Eddie had loved Mike, too.

On the eve of the release of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Debbie knew Elizabeth was in New York. She thought Eddie was away on tour, and alone in the house with her kids, Debbie was lonely. She called Elizabeth at her hotel to chat—and Eddie answered. “Roll over, darling,” Debbie said, “and let me speak to Elizabeth.”

When gossip columnist Hedda Hopper called Elizabeth and asked about the rumors about her and Eddie Fisher, Liz did something completely shocking — she told the truth. Or, at least, her version of it. “I don’t go about breaking up marriages. You can’t break up a happy marriage. Debbie’s and Eddie’s never has been.”

When Hedda asked Liz if she loved Eddie, Liz responded, “I like him very much, I’ve felt happier and more like a human being for the past two weeks than I have since Mike’s death.” “What do you suppose Mike would say to this?” Hedda demanded to know. Elizabeth responded, “Well, Mike is dead and I’m alive.” This was an echo of one of Liz’s most famous lines in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—or, you could say, a preview of it, since most of Hedda Hopper’s readers hadn’t yet seen the film. But Liz would offer Hedda a kicker that was more explicitly sexual than anything the movie when she exclaimed, “What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?”

When Eddie asked Debbie for a divorce, Debbie reported to MGM for instructions. None of this would have ever gotten this far during the heyday of Louis B. Mayer, but by 1959 he had long since been deposed, and his successors now jumped to work with what they had. The studio that had decades earlier established itself as the home of family values took the jilted wife’s side, even though the home-wrecker was also technically their property, clearly Elizabeth Taylor could, and would, look out for herself. But Debbie was directed to go through the motions of trying to repair her marriage. With photographers and columnists documenting their every move, Eddie and Debbie went to marriage counseling. The next day, Debbie came out of the house with her daughter Carrie, and when a reporter asked if she and Eddie were separating, Debbie turned to face the cameras and said, “He isn’t coming home.” The next day she filed for divorce.

Debbie had warned Eddie that Liz was going to leave him within 18 months. Debbie was wrong—it took more like 30 months. But it was an eventful 30 months. For the first time, Liz was choosing to be with a man in spite of a lot of reasons not to, because she liked having sex with him. After being married to Debbie, who by her own admission was not a very sexual person, Fisher was delighted to be with a woman who had, as he put it, “the face of an angel and the morals of a truck driver.”

While Liz remained in hiding at her agent’s house, subsiding on takeout chili from Chasen’s, Debbie played her part in daily photo ops designed to show that, unlike the bad girl, the good girl was not afraid to show her face. Columnists like Hopper were inundated with letters, many of which they printed, expressing sympathy for Debbie and disparaging Liz as a tramp, a hussy, a home-wrecker. The theory that all press was good press looked like it was getting a real test when Chesterfield cigarettes, sponsors of Eddie’s TV show, was boycotted by irate moralists. The season premiere of Eddie’s show, on which he sang “That’s Entertainment,” was a smash ratings hit, but viewership declined steadily after that. Eddie Fisher was the first TV star whose career was threatened by a personal scandal. And as the nasty letters that poured into the offices of Chesterfield and NBC proved, the viewers took this scandal very personally. 

But somehow, someway, it didn’t hurt Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Maybe it was because of the synergy between the gossip and the product. A lot of the terrible things that were being said about Liz in the press—about her voracious sexual appetite, her refusal to play by the rules that applied to everyone else—these were things that were true of Maggie, too, but Maggie made the audience understand them in a way that Liz, in real life, in hiding at her agent’s house, couldn’t do on her own. That the movie was a massive hit didn’t solve all of Liz and Eddie’s problems, but it did give them confidence to emerge for the first time, in late December 1958, as an unapologetic couple. A few months later, Liz was nominated for an Oscar. She lost, but within a month, Liz and Eddie married, and as if that wasn’t controversial enough, Liz ensured the ire of the many conservative columnists of 1950s America by converting to her husband’s religion: Judaism.

This was the high point of Liz and Eddie’s life as a couple, and as a public spectacle. Pretty much immediately, Liz began to lose interest. Eddie’s career had lost steam and rather than fight to regain it, he put all his eggs in the basket of his marriage to Elizabeth. But Elizabeth wasn’t interested in any man who was content to be Mr. Elizabeth Taylor, and she started having affairs on the set of her next movie, Suddenly, Last Summer, an independent production which Columbia released, and turned a profit on, pretty much solely by selling it using an image of Liz in a keyhole-cut white bathing suit. Now two films in a row had capitalized on Liz’s real-life image as a seductress. Liz still had one more film to make for MGM, and MGM was insistent that it be Butterfield 8, based on the John O’Hara novel about a so-called “party girl,” i.e. borderline prostitute.

Elizabeth was already resentful of having to go back to MGM for one last contractual obligation, and she hated the script for Butterfield 8. She knew her personal life was being exploited. Really, it was hard to miss. The opening credits play over a naked Liz slowly waking in a strange bed. She puts on a too-tight slip and starts poking through the closet of the wife of the man she’s just bedded. Only when she’s put on the other lady’s fur-trimmed coat does Liz’s Gloria find the note and $250 cash left for her by the husband. She pulls out her lipstick and writes “No Sale” on the mirror, then puts the coat back in the closet. She then selects a full mink for her walk home. The film puts her in two love triangles: one between a married guy played by Laurence Harvey and his Grace Kelly–like wife, and another between Gloria’s best friend, a songwriter, and his sweet blonde girlfriend. The songwriter is played by none other than Eddie Fisher, and his girlfriend is played by Susan Oliver, an actress whose pert petiteness sets her in physical opposition to Taylor, and whose, shall we say, chemistry with Taylor brings to life every international tabloid-watcher’s imagined confrontation between Liz and Debbie.

When I first saw this movie when I was a teenager, I loved it. I loved the seedy adult world of booze and sex and stolen furs that it depicts; and it cemented in my mind the idea that Elizabeth Taylor was the movie star who, more than any other movie star, did not give a fuck. I think if I got all the way to the end, when Liz’s Gloria explains she is the way she is because an older man “taught her more about evil than any 13 year old girl in the world knew,” I probably didn’t understand it. But it’s still fascinating to watch in part because it’s so crude. By 1960 the Motion Picture Production Code was deep in the process of disintegration, but it still feels surprising how frankly characters talk about Taylor’s character’s sex life in this movie, and how carnal her performance is, especially given the pains taken to obscure the real subject of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof just two years earlier. There’s probably no way to prove this, but I suspect that the censors allowed the filmmakers of Butterfield 8 to get away with much of the sexual content of the movie because it’s all a vehicle to have a dozen actors tell Elizabeth Taylor she’s a slut; everything the character goes through seems plainly designed to blame, shame, and punish the actress who played her. And that was the whole point of having a censorship system, from its inception in the 1920s: to show the talent that bad behavior had to be punished.

With Butterfield 8 in the can, Elizabeth was free to start filming Cleopatra, the Fox epic that would make her the first actress paid $1 million for a single film. She arrived in London with Eddie and her kids at the end of the summer of 1960, and immediately things started going wrong. By Nov. 1, when Liz had been scheduled to report for shooting, she was in the hospital suffering what was reported as Malta fever, a type of food poisoning. She was released, but then ended up in the hospital again two weeks later with what was reported as meningitis, although that was then revealed to be a misdiagnosis. A few months later, Liz was sick again—a flu this time, attributed to her having partied too hard the week before; actually, while on vacation in Munich, she had fought with Eddie, taken too many sleeping pills, and had to have her stomach pumped. But then the nurse attending to her one night at the Dorchester Hotel realized that Elizabeth Taylor’s face had turned blue. At the hospital it was declared that the flu had turned into pneumonia, and if she didn’t have an emergency tracheotomy to clear her air passages, she would die. Soon it became international news that the most beautiful woman in the world was at death’s door, having an operation that involved a breathing tube being stuck her neck, and that she could be scarred for life.

Elizabeth had had a real close call, but within a couple of weeks, she was doing fine. It just so happened that her recovery coincided with the balloting period for the Academy Awards, which took place almost a month to the day after her tracheotomy. She had expected to win the two previous years for Cat and Summer, and had openly declared it to be her one ambition before she retired. Liz arrived at the ceremony in a green and white Christian Dior gown, hanging diamond and pearl earrings and no necklace—leaving her fresh tracheotomy scar very visible and unadorned.

Yul Brynner called Elizabeth’s name, and the TV camera cut to her in time to catch her putting her face in her white satin gloved hands. An eternity passed. Finally, Eddie Fisher helped her to her feet, and walked her slowly down the aisle to the stage. She kissed him, hard, and then floated to the podium. She was out of breath—from the walk in her weakened state, from the excitement—and the microphones could barely pick up her voice.

I defy you to watch this and not feel like you’ve just been taken to school. I don’t know if this is acting, or being, or what, I just know it’s the purest example of stardom I’ve ever seen, from the greatest who ever was, and that in some sense, this moment is the final nail in the coffin of the studio system as it was. After this, after an MGM star has spent three years bringing to life all of Louis B. Mayer’s worst nightmares, and she still triumphs because none of it matters anymore, what power did someone like Mayer have left?