The long-standing professional and personal feud between Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe is legendary. Both women were stunningly beautiful actresses and highly successful movie stars. Both women were sex symbols with millions of admiring male fans. And both women loathed one another as much as two Hollywood actresses of the 1950s era ever did.
Although it isn’t documented there may have been an element of envy in Marilyn that Taylor never had to occupy the casting couch. She entered show business at the tender age of 7. Her father, Francis Lenn Taylor and mother, Sara Sothern, were instrumental in securing her film roles. Sothern was a stage actress in England. When the Taylors moved to Los Angeles, Francis opened an art gallery that catered to the upscale, including celebrities, connections that led directly to Elizabeth’s success. Both Universal Studios and MGM wanted the little beauty and Universal signed her without even a screen test.After less than a year, however, the studio fired Taylor for unknown reasons, a Hollywood experience Marilyn knew only too well in her early years with Fox. Insofar as Taylor’s firing was concerned, it has been speculated that she did not live up to her film promise. Francis believed his daughter wasn’t welcome at Universal Her casting director complained, “The kid has nothing.”. Even her beautiful eyes did not impress him.”Her eyes are too old, she doesn’t have the face of a child,” he said. Taylor’s looks were slightly strange at this age. She bore an expression in those beautiful eyes that made people think she was older than she was, something they found disconcerting.
Marilyn bore that same trait. In early pictures as a 16-year-old, Norma Jeane looked considerably older than she was, particularly in her wedding photos. Her appearance also didn’t impress Fox studio executives, who described her as having a “potato nose” and a “weak chin.” She wasn’t cast in her first successful role, The Asphalt Jungle, until Johnny Hyde, her first influential agent, convinced her to have plastic surgery on her nose and chin. Her beautiful body however was au naturel. Her measurements were reputed to be 38-25-36.
Taylor’s first film success was in Lassie, a film that was important in securing her importance with MGM..It was followed closely by National Velvet, the movie that, at age 12, made Taylor into a child star. She managed a smooth transition from child actress to adult movie star, a feat that has been impossible for most Hollywood actors and actresses. Some of Taylor’s more successful films include Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Father of the Bride, Giant, A Place in the Sun, Cleopatra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Suddenly, Last Summer. A lesser known odd movie, The Driver’s Seat, showed some of the middle-aged Taylor’s finest acting, where she starred as a schizophrenic woman searching for a man who is “her type”, one who will tie her up and stab her to death. Taylor’s films spanned three decades, and throughout the years her deepening talent as an actress was apparent and impressive. America watched as Taylor aged over the years, still retaining her famous if maturing beauty until her mid-50’s, when her weight ballooned into the 200-lb range. Even then, her gorgeous face, dominated by those violet eyes, was a beauty icon.
Marilyn too brought a maturation in her beauty and acting skills. Her portrayal of Cherie, the promiscuous chanteuse in Bus Stop, showed a very different Marilyn from any of her previous films. 20th Century Fox hadn’t allowed for the depth of Marilyn’s acting skills and the film was made under Marilyn Monroe Productions, rather than Fox. It was a box office success and earned Marilyn critical praise for her acting ability. Her next attempt at a role outside of her usual comedic fare wasn’t so successful. She played the showgirl alongside Lawrence Olivier in The Prince and the Showgirl, a box office bomb. After the failure of Showgirl and along with Arthur Miller’s complaints about her personal investment in MM Productions, Marilyn reluctantly returned to comedic film roles and to Fox. Miller wrote Marilyn’s final finished film, The Misfits, after her return to Fox. It was another box office bomb, described as an “Arthur Miller movie.” However, Marilyn displayed a good range of acting ability that was unfortunately overshadowerd by the dull plot and odd film characters.
Taylor was known as a great screen actress, a status that eluded Marilyn. Taylor was recognized for her acting ability, her elaborate lifestyle, and beauty. She too led a controversial personal life. Taylor was wed 8 times to 7 men (twice to Richard Burton). Marilyn also found no success in her 3 marriages. Her search for love was as vain as Taylor’s. Like Marilyn, Taylor was known to be a difficult actress who indulged in her own melodramatic behaviors on-set. Taylor was obliged to play the role of a high-priced call girl in Butterfield 8. One scene in particular exasperated her: she awakens from a night of sex in a man’s residence to find he hasn’t paid her full fee. She takes a lipstick and writes “NO SALE” across a mirror. In real life, Taylor reacted more violently to the scene: she threw an object at a mirror, smashing it to bits. Ironically early in her career Marilyn also played a prostitute, although she was a beautiful street-walker during the Victorian Era rather than a call girl, in O’Henry’s Full House.
Although the two women shared some similar, unstable private behavior, Taylor and Marilyn exhibited very different personalities to the press. Taylor was audacious, blatant in her criticism of the press and anyone else who crossed her. She exuded a satirical sense of humour, directed at herself and others. In complete contrast, Marilyn was demure, witty, and always courted the press, taking every press interview as an opportunity to cement herself even further into the public’s adulation. Taylor however displayed a laissez-faire attitude as to how the public perceived her. Her films were successful at the box office and made her very famous and very wealthy. That was all that mattered to Taylor.
Where Marilyn was decided uninterested in material wealth and self-indulgence, Taylor was the extreme opposite. Taylor and Burton were known to rent entire floors in 5-star hotels while travelling for professional and personal reasons. Marilyn was content to live in a trailer when she was filming. She owned a relatively modest home on a quiet street in Brentwood, Los Angeles. Taylor settled for nothing less than an estate worth several million dollars . Marilyn once made the famous statement to her accountant that “I don’t want to be rich. I want to be wonderful.” She was. Marilyn wasn’t happy with the low income she received from during her career but not because she was a Material Girl. Her highest salary was $100,000.00, for the unfinished film Something’s Got to Give, about one million by today’s currency. Taylor on the other hand, was known to command and receive as much as $500,000, about $5 million or so today, making her the highest-paid actress in Hollywood during the 1950s – 1960s. Perhaps one reason Marilyn was unhappy with her salary was the knowledge that Taylor was worth much more to the studio than she, even though the name Marilyn Monroe was an equal draw on a movie marquis. It also emphasized to Marilyn how little Fox appreciated its reigning star.
Two beautiful, successful icons in the Hollywood film industry, each one equally envious of the other for different reasons. In her own codicil to the competition, close to her career and her life’s end, Marilyn once asked a photographer to ensure she was never featured in a magazine or other print production with Elizabeth Taylor in the same issue. I do believe this request was honored in life, but I am quite certain her wish wasn’t honored posthumously.