Do Artists Have to Be Outsiders?

April 3, 2011

Imagine: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton fighting over which of them was more Jewish! Of course, neither was born Jewish, but here’s a litle spat cited by Jessica Ravitz in her blog post at CNN as recounted by Danielle Berrin in theJewish Journal:


Burton had referred to the Welsh as “the Jews of Britain”, a comment on their self-identity as the outsiders of the United Kingdom. [Note: Burton was Welsh]


“You’re not Jewish at all,” he told Elizabeth in one of their very public fights, “If there’s any Jew in this family, it’s me! “I am Jewish,” she answered, “and you can f–k off!”


I love it. These two glamorous figures clinging to their status as outsiders, as sufferers. Of course, they were both iconic insiders, clamorously embraced by American society and supremely privileged by fame and wealth. Yet, they cherished their outsider-ness. Was it the experience of being—or feeling like—an outsider that gave them depth as actors? A memory perhaps of when they were less than accepted? Is that what gave Taylor a sense of identification with Jews? And did that feeling also give her that sad, haunting look in her eyes?


Taylor donated time and money to Jewish causes and, more famously, to AIDS research.  She was close friends with Montgomery Clift, who was gay. Clift was lovers with Jerome Robbins, who was Jewish. 


And now that I’ve mentioned Robbins: Didn’t his outsider status help him become a major artist? Think of the “Mistake Waltz” in The Concert— probably the funniest bit of choreography ever. One girl is always out of step. Actually, in some of his other ballets (Fancy Free, Dances at a Gathering) one person often doesn’t fit into the group. Did being Jewish spur Robbins to express that nagging feeling of being left outside? He always envied Balanchine; he wanted to be Christian—and ballet-immersed—like Balanchine.


Elizabeth Taylor had converted to Judaism in 1959 after studying Judaism under the tutelage of Rabbi Max Nussbaum for six months. Ravitz writes:


“Some gave Taylor a hard time about her decision to convert, but she stood by the choice…Biographer Kitty Kelley quotes Taylor as saying: ‘I felt terribly sorry for the suffering of the Jews during the war. I was attracted to their heritage. I guess I identified with them as underdogs.’ ”


Here is Taylor’s acceptance speech for getting a humanitarian award for narrating a film about the holocaust….


(Hey, doesn’t her voice sound familiar? Even though she made this speech in 1980, it sounds to me a tad bit like Martha Graham speaking in the 1957 documentary film A Dancer’s World. I guess they’re both from the southern California school of fancy diction.)


I think artists feel an affinity for outsiders because it gives them a perspective on our society—not to mention the experience of suffering. Perhaps one must be able to feel entirely alone in order to express a range of emotions. So outsider-ness is also a privilege—for artists.


In this photo from our archives, I would say Taylor looks like one lonely dance teacher. It’s a publicity shot for the 1952 movie directed by Stanley Donen called Love Is Better Than Ever. Has anyone ever seen it? Does she have a body double for the dance scenes (?!?!?)




Photo from the DM Archives