A few years ago, middle-aged cultural historian (and onetime Newsday columnist) M.G. Lord sat down with some younger friends and watched a set of Elizabeth Taylor DVDs that she'd received as a gift. "My friends expected an evening of camp," Lord writes. "Instead we were gobsmacked -- both by Taylor's performances and by her movies' feminist messages."
From this minor revelation comes "The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice" (Walker & Company, $23), a slender but persuasive book that's as amusing as its title. Lord shows that Taylor's best movies -- including "National Velvet" (1944), which made her a star at 12 -- emphasize female equality and independence. Or, in the case of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," they demonstrate "what happens to a woman when the only way that society permits her to express herself is through her husband's career and children."
Since Taylor's biography is well-known, as are many of the films Lord discusses (such as "A Place in the Sun," "Giant" and "Suddenly, Last Summer"), the book's most compelling parts concern filmmakers' battles with censorship. The force of Taylor's Oscar-winning performance as a maverick prostitute in "BUtterfield 8" overpowered the film's absurd ending, shaped by Hollywood's Production Code Administration, in which her character is essentially punished for her sins. Lord quotes fascinating memos by code officials, including one proudly naming Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina as characters who "died horribly."
Lord writes, "While I know that writers and directors create movies, stars create a brand. And the Taylor brand deserves credit for its under-the-radar challenge to traditional attitudes." Lord's notion that Taylor's feminism was "accidental" comes from something the actress' stepdaughter Kate Burton told the author a year or two before Taylor's death last March: "I don't see her thinking of herself as a feminist. I think she just does what she does."
What did she do? As a teenager, she supported her father after World War II crippled his art business. When her affairs with Eddie Fisher and Richard Burton went public, she defied Hollywood's stifling protocols and didn't hide her private life. And she succeeded in attracting attention to AIDS when the Reagan administration was determined to ignore it. Apparently Taylor wasn't an accidental feminist -- she was a natural-born one.
Wayne Koestenbaum, author of "The Queen's Throat" and other books, sees something noble in another Hollywood icon. In "The Anatomy of Harpo Marx" (University of California Press, $29.95), Koestenbaum ventures that the performances of the funniest Marx brother contain "metaphysical dimensions," and he offers a "blow-by-blow annotation of Harpo's on-screen actions" in all 13 Marx Brothers movies to prove it.
As one might guess, subjecting something as sublimely silly as Harpo's antics to 300 pages of frame-by-frame scrutiny kills the humor. But that's the least of the book's problems. This obsessive, excessive undertaking could be a parody of academic self-indulgence.
Harpo is the Marx brother who never spoke on-screen, communicating through honks of his horn and contortions of his remarkably elastic face. You don't need to be an academic to see Harpo's bulbous squeeze-horn as phallic or to regard his repeated scissoring of cigars and neckties as a kind of castration. But Koestenbaum is fixated on penises. He even says so: "Consider this equation: Harpo = phallus. I speak from experience: the penis is the most reliable thing in my life."
The book is full of such twaddle. Koestenbaum also shares his dreams -- many salacious, all irrelevant. He cites Walter Benjamin and Freud constantly, like a nervous tic, along with dozens of philosophers, novelists, poets and composers. His free association can be diverting, but it's rarely enlightening.
The book's worthwhile observations could fit onto two or three pages. Here's one: "Harpo acts out a textbook of mannerisms that undo masculine aggressions. Women can be nasty, too, but Harpo's foe is The Man -- Gentile, cowboy, cop. Even Groucho plays the part of The Man who needs to be foiled and fouled."
Throughout, Koestenbaum anxiously questions his own authority. "Would Harpo object to my investigations? Maybe I'm betraying him through faulty logic, prurient embroidery, and autobiographical digressions." Indeed.