My friends and I were gobsmacked. Had we for years been so distracted by Taylor’s searing beauty—or tabloid persona: eight marriages, recovery from addiction, million-dollar diamonds, and attempted rescue of Michael Jackson—that we overlooked such blazing messages?
In the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills, I found evidence that not everyone was blind to them. The Production Code Administration—which controlled the content of all studio movies from 1934 through 1967—saw precisely what we had seen and did its best to expunge it. For example, nearly all the censors’ memos on A Place in the Sun, starring Montgomery Clift, and Taylor as the rich girl he falls for after he impregnates his assembly-line coworker, demanded rewrites to obfuscate a scene in which the unmarried colleague, played by Shelley Winters, asks for an abortion. The censors also picked up on the alluring independence of Taylor’s character in Butterfield 8 who defiantly refuses to sleep with certain men no matter how much money they offer. They ordered revisions to make her character look “sick.”
Early in her career, Taylor—like the beautiful somnambulist in Harold Lloyd’s movie High and Dizzy who sleepwalked onto an upper-story ledge—strode unconsciously into risky territory, unaware of just how “out there” she was. Somewhere along the line, though, I suspect she woke up. Her 1987 memoir quotes Gloria Steinem and advances thoughts on body image put forth in Susie Orbach’s seminal book Fat Is a Feminist Issue.
I met Taylor only once, in 2001, before any connection between her and feminism had crossed my mind. I will never forget the intelligence I saw behind her famous violet eyes. When I began my new book about her, The Accidental Feminist, I had hoped to question her about my discovery. But her health was then too fragile to permit an interview. In a way, though, we don’t need a formal statement from her. Her films speak volumes—and offer different insights to different viewers. Those who knew Taylor at the height of her career may be startled to find an unexpected side to the icon; younger viewers may be justifiably alarmed to discover a recent past in which rights they take for granted—including abortion, interracial marriage, and certain sexual acts between consenting adults—were illegal.
In any case, you don’t have to take my word for the surprising content in those films. That’s the great thing about movies: You can see for yourself.