Mary Catherine Castelli (Carol Burnett): “It’s weird telling all this to a total stranger.”
Deborah Shapiro (Elizabeth Taylor): “We’re not strangers anymore, kiddo.”
When I saw Crystal put up a call for entries for the Elizabeth Taylor Blogathon on her blog, I jumped at it. I mean, who doesn’t love “Liz”? Her beautiful dark-on-pale features, those amazing violet eyes, that enormous and diverse talent, that ability to be dramatic or witty or anything in between, sometimes all in the same scene, that class and style, that humanitarian heart, and, most of all, that endurance!
Elizabeth Taylor had such a long career that I decided it would be fun to go searching for one of her later films rather than her more popular dramatic roles such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Butterfield 8 (1960), Suddenly, Last Summer(1959) and Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), to name but a few.
I found a TV movie, of all things, that starred not only Taylor but Carol Burnett, whom I consider to be one of the best comediennes of our. The film is from the early 1980’s called Between Friends (1983). While not the kind of complex psychological drama we’re used to seeing in with Taylor (TV movies have their limitations), it’s a lovely entertaining film with a lot to offer, especially for women of a certain age (late 40’s/early 50’s). And in the context of its time, it’s quite an interesting film.
Photo Credit: Elizabeth Taylor in 1981 (about the time she made Between Friends), taken by Alan Light on 8 November 1981 at a Filmex “An Evening With Elizabeth Taylor” event: Alan Light/Flickr/CC BY 2.0
The film surprised me in that it starts out as anything but what you would expect a film about two tough middle-aged women who become besties and help one another cope through life’s ups and downs. I anticipated a somewhat feminist film within the limitations of a TV drama. But the film seems to start out carrying one of the most conventional messages of patriarchal society – that a woman without a man is a lonely, lost, and pathetic human being. The way this message is portrayed in the two characters is vastly different. Taylor plays Deborah Shapiro, a self-proclaimed ex-Jewish Princess from a wealthy background who has been divorced for a while with two sons away at college. She is coping with the “empty next syndrome”, trying to find her bearings in a life where her previous roles as wife and mother no longer serve her. She admits to Mary Catherine Castelli (Burnett) during an all-night gal-pal bull session that she likes to “do for a man” and take care of a man in the conventional sense. Despite her plucky and smart personality, her goal in life is to get married again. She attaches herself to Sam (Henry Ramer), a wealthy but somewhat slimy businessman who is dying to marry her, proposing to her at regular intervals. And yet, when he finally railroads her into an engagement, she is anything but pleased.
Burnett is quite a different character and it’s easy to see why she and Taylor would become friends in the film. Raised Catholic and newly divorced and coping with a teenage daughter (Barbara Tyson), she is tough and in-your-face about most things. Unlike Taylor, the last thing she wants is marriage. In fact, she wants to “be like the single guys”, playing around, sleeping with whoever she pleases without getting emotionally involved. It’s no surprise, then, that she seems to prefer her lovers to be married men. So Burnett’s problem is the opposite one of Taylor’s. If Taylor supports the idea that marriage is the way a woman can be fulfilled, Burnett’s character supports the idea that the most unfulfilling life for a woman is to play around “like a man”.
Happily, the film develops in a different direction. As the friendship between Taylor and Burnett deepens, they begin to see the scars of their own approach to life and love. Taylor comes to see she has a long way to go before she can decide whether another marriage is really what she wants out of life. Earlier in the film, she confesses to envying Burnett for her career because she “went out into the world when you had the chance”. Taylor comes to realize now is her chance to go out into the world and being fifty doesn’t stop her from discovering what will really make her happy for the future.
Photo Credit: Carol Burnett (posing with Dolly Parton) for an advertisement in 1980 (also about the time she made Between Friends), author unknown, taken 14 September 1980: Peluchito hermoso/Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice 1989
Similarly, Burnett comes to see that playing the field is not what she really wants. During a rendezvous in the bachelor pad of a friend of her latest married lover, Malcolm (Bruce Grey), she abruptly ends the affair, telling him, “I want more than this, I really do. And you know what? I deserve it.” For Burnett, who has resisted emotional ties (other than with her daughter) since her divorce, connecting with Taylor on an emotional level and having a best friend helps her get over the phobia of commitment so that she is ready to open her heart up to others.
To me, this film became even more interesting once I did some research on its context. The story is based on a book by Canadian writer Shelley Steinmann List called Nobody Makes Me Cry. What is noteworthy is that it was published in 1975 but the film wasn’t made until 1983. In the context of the women’s movement, this is pretty significant. The second wave feminist movement is generally accepted as having begun to fade out in the late 1970’s while the third wave feminist movement began to stir in the late 1980’s and gained ground in the early 1990’s. The early and mid 1980’s proved to be a kind of silent time for the women’s movement (though of course there are debates about this). Many identify this period as not so much a dead zone for feminism but a time when a new generation of women were reassessing themselves and their position as women in and not only celebrating their gains but also looking at those who had fought for women’s rights in the past with a more critical eye. This reassessment led to the more inclusive present third wave that considers global issues as well as issues of race, class, age, etc. In this light, we might see Between Friends (the film) based on a pro-feminist novel but made during a critical time in between gains and reassessments of the movement. It already recognizes some of the ideas third wave feminists would take up later. For example, many have criticized the second wave as having been largely made up of upper middle-class white women whose concerns revolved around what they felt were relevant but were colored by what was more relevant to women of their class (as well as their race and education level, among other things). Class, however, comes into play between Taylor and Burnett’s characters in a pretty big way but some of the issues they both deal with (such as alcoholism) break down those barriers.
I can’t say why this film was made eight years after the book was written but I appreciated its message that women, especially those in their later years, do not need to follow a conventional prescription to be happy (especially because I myself am in my late 40’s and certainly not following any conventional prescription :-)). It may also have been a reminder at the time that, despite a lull in the feminist movement, the fight for women’s rights was not over (and, sadly, it still isn’t). In the filmography of Elizabeth Taylor, it might not be one of the most remembered films, but it’s certainly one that is worth looking at.