Liz Smith: The Foxiest “Little Fox” of All Time

“I’M LUCKY Horace. I’ve always been lucky. I’ll be lucky again.” So declared Lillian Hellman’s ruthless anti-heroine Regina Giddens in “The Little Foxes.” She announces this to her critically ill husband, after he has foiled her crooked plans to become wealthy.

Moments later, Regina does indeed become “lucky” once again.

RECENTLY, I interviewed veteran actor Dennis Christopher, who has a juicy role in the current Quentin Tarantino Oscar-nominated hit, “Django Unchained.” (He plays Leonide Moguy.)

But way back in 1981, Dennis, who had, as he put it, “a kind of ‘happening’ film career,” put it on hold to join the Broadway-bound production of “The Little Foxes.”

That revival of Lillian Hellman’s condemnation of all-American capitalist greed was to star Elizabeth Taylor in her stage debut, as the unsatisfied, avaricious, downright fatal Regina.

The star of stars had had quite enough of sitting at home in Washington D.C. or Virginia, while the man she helped elect to the Senate, John Warner, worked at the Senate. (Taylor had never been married to somebody whose profession and interests were entirely foreign to her. Even hotel heir Nicky Hilton knew all about show-biz.) Elizabeth lost weight for “Foxes,” cut back on the Jack Daniels, and put her mind to this latest challenge — which nobody thought she could actually accomplish.

Dennis, though impressed that he’d be working with the legendary movie queen, was really more excited about the prospect of being onstage with fabled character actress Maureen Stapleton. (Stapleton played the pathetic “Birdie” in “The Little Foxes” and she was magnificent.)

Dennis says: “I thought Elizabeth would be, well — Elizabeth Taylor. I was looking forward to her, but I did not expect a certain degree of professionalism from her — not theater professionalism, anyway. I was wrong. She was shockingly open to every suggestion, never pulled rank, never ran off in a fit, was perfectly willing to run lines, sit on the floor to mark and highlight the script. There was nothing to suggest she had ever been a pampered movie star, with people falling over themselves to please her. It turned out, she was a theater professional! And, she was superb in the role.

“Elizabeth was just a doll, and great in the show for months. But then, one day I came to the theater, early as usual — who wanted to sit at home? Even an empty theater is exciting to me! I heard somebody crying. I followed the sound and there was Elizabeth in her dressing room, weeping as if her heart were broken. I was shocked, we’d become close. I said, ‘My God, what is the matter?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘I just saw my friend murdered on television.’ I didn’t know what she meant at first, and then I realized she was talking about Anwar Sadat, who’d been assassinated that day. I had no idea they’d even known each other. She was absolutely grief-stricken.”

“BUT THAT event, for whatever reason, triggered something. Elizabeth was never really the same again. Certain habits resurfaced. This was before she went to Betty Ford and I suppose she had no coping mechanism at that point. If it hadn’t been Sadat it would have been something else.

“She was never unpleasant, ever, but things changed and we all the saw that the show was suffering, although it remained a huge hit. Most of the cast didn’t follow ‘Foxes’ to London the next year.”

(In London, Elizabeth — by then separated from John Warner — reunited with Richard Burton on the occasion of her 50th birthday. The next day he boasted to the tabloids of having slept with her. She was shocked and dismayed, but still undeterred to have him back. This eventually led to the debacle of “Private Lives” and the end of Taylor’s promising stage career.)

DENNIS concludes: “I was unhappy because Elizabeth became unhappy, but I never regretted saying yes to ‘The Little Foxes.’ She was a revelation in so many ways. Oh, and working with Maureen Stapleton was just as inspiring as I’d hoped. And Maureen was quite the character too!”

Dennis Christopher has a million stories to tell of his long and varied career. I hope he does write that autobiography he hinted at, during our conversation.

A FEW fast thoughts on Thursday’s Oscar nominations.

Extremely surprised that Ben Affleck or Jamie Foxx were not nominated for Best Actor. Would have preferred either of them over Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln” or Joaquin Phoenix in the disastrous “The Master.” (For my money, “Lincoln” is boring, overrated, and Day-Lewis comes off more robotic than charismatic.)

Downright shocked that Affleck was overlooked for his masterful directing of “Argo.” Ditto “Argo’s seamless screenplay. Well, at least “Argo” received a Best Picture nod. Also stunned that Tarantino was shut out of the Directing category, too.

Everybody says Anne Hathaway’s weeping/singing cameo has a lock on “Best Supporting Actress” for “Les Miserables” but don’t count out Sally Field, who campaigned tirelessly for the role of Mary Todd Lincoln (I still say Mary Tyler Moore was the best Mrs. Lincoln ever, in the 1988 TV mini-series) … my money’s on Jennifer Lawrence as Best Actress for “Silver Linings Playbook” … torn between Alan Arkin for “Argo” and Christoph Waltz for “Django Unchained” in the male Best Supporting category …. As for Best Picture, for me it’s a toss between “Argo” and “Django Unchained,” though a surprise “Life of Pi” win wouldn’t make me unhappy.

On February 24th, we’ll know all. But remember, we still have the Golden Globes to look forward to this Sunday. I hope Ben and Quentin party hearty. They deserve to.

This column originally appeared on NYSocialDiary.com on 1/11/13

7 comments so far.

  1. avatar JERILYN says:

    It was the best experience seeing my idol “Elizabeth Taylor” in the ‘Little Foxes’ on Broadway. She was magnificent and enjoyed the standing ovations we gave her for her work. And even though the critics hated the play “Private Lives” was a lovefest for all the Tay/Bur fans and I remember with pride the beautiful note she wrote me when I told her how much I enjoyed her work in ‘Private Lives’ even though it was hated by the critics. They laughed when we gave them a standing ovation for kissing each other on stage. Burton must have thought we had gone “mad” but we were fans who loved this couple even in a lousy play we did not care. How we miss our Dame Elizabeth and her ‘Antony’. Those were the days my friend we thought they’d never end. Great story Liz Smith never knew Elizabeth Taylor was a friend of Anwar Sadat a true hero. Love your stories about our Great Dame Elizabeth. We look forward to more stories and insight into the life of our favorite Icon Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor. Nobody does it better then Liz Smith. Brava and thank you.

  2. avatar saps says:

    Argo WAS nominated for best adapted screenplay.

  3. avatar Jay Gentile says:

    Liz, I love when you write about Elizabeth Taylor. I wish you would write a book about her. Perhaps no other journalist spent more time with Elizabeth Taylor or knew her as well as you did. You wrote about her in your first memoir, but like all ET fans I want MORE. “Life with Elizabeth” would be a great read. Get right on that, please.

    • avatar JERILYN says:

      Jay I couldn’t agree more. Liz Smith could write about our Dame Elizabeth every day and we would learn more & MORE about this Icon who left OUR world a better place for having the PASSION to make a difference. Please Liz Smith keep writing and entertaining us with your stories. Brava we love hearing about Dame Elizabeth. Thank you Liz Smith.

    • avatar Baby Snooks says:

      You really should write a book. You were probably the only journalist who was part of the “caravan” during the “Burton Years.”  The “caravan” as opposed to the “entourage.” 

  4. avatar Susisl says:

    When they increased the numbers of movies nominated, they should have increased the number of directors nominated. I don’t think anyone was necessarily shut out, just not enough room.

  5. avatar Allan Trivette says:

    Liz – I’m another of Elizabeth’s loyal fans who would like to give you a big ol’ Southern hug for the way you have been so wonderfully and eloquently kind – especially to Elizabeth, but also to any person you write about. Even when writing about bad behavior, you have a most gracious way of not vilifying anyone. My dear, you have out-hopped Hedda and been a parson compared to Louella! You do your profession proud!! Now, let me join the others in prompting you to write THE definitive biography on our beloved Elizabeth. NO ONE could do it better. All my very best to you – Allan