After National Velvet, MGM was unable to come up with a satisfactory follow-up for its young star, and Elizabeth was off the screen for a year and a half. She kept busy, writing a children's book, Nibbles and Me (1946), about her pet chipmunk, and giving interviews to teen magazines. When she finally did make another film, Courage of Lassie (1946), she got star billing for the first time, but played a distinctly supporting role to a collie. Meanwhile, the pretty little girl was blossoming into a beautiful teenager. She also was developing a backbone, and an awareness of her importance to MGM. When studio head Louis B. Mayer decided that she would sing and dance in her next film, Sally in Her Alley, Elizabeth and her mother met with him to ask if Elizabeth could take singing and dancing lessons. Mayer began cursing and shouting at Mrs. Taylor, calling her stupid and meddlesome. Elizabeth, infuriated, shouted back, "Don't you dare speak to my mother like that! You and your studio can both go to hell!" She stormed out, leaving Mrs. Taylor to placate Mayer. Elizabeth refused to apologize, and never spoke to Mayer again. Sally in Her Alley was never made.
Instead, Elizabeth made Cynthia, and the role suited her perfectly. Like Cynthia, the 15-year old Elizabeth had been sheltered and coddled by her mother and by the studio. Like Cynthia, she could not live a normal life, didn't have friends, and longed for independence and romance. According to production files, Cynthia's writers and director Robert Z. Leonard asked for the star's input for the character, and she gave Cynthia the traits that she had or that she admired, like honesty and compassion. And maybe something else, too: Kitty Kelley's biography, Elizabeth Taylor: the Last Star quotes a co-worker as saying, "I think she might have carried her ill and ailing on-camera role into real life."
Mary Astor, who played Cynthia's mother, watched her young co-star closely, and made some astute observations. "She was beginning to be conscious in a very normal, teen-age way of her own beauty. She was also bright. Very bright. Head-of-the-class type of brightness," Astor later wrote in her memoir, A Life on Film. "Elizabeth was cool, and slightly superior. There was a look in those violet eyes that was somewhat calculating, as though she knew exactly what she wanted and was quite sure of getting it." Astor herself wasn't getting what she wanted. The Oscar®-winning actress was typecast as everybody's mother, and she was frustrated and battling alcoholism. When her MGM contract ended in 1949, Astor checked into rehab, but her personal struggles continued for several years. Eventually, she began writing as therapy, and produced two volumes of memoirs and several novels. She also resumed her acting career.
Critics had praise for both Taylor's and Astor's performances. "Miss Taylor does a brilliant job with the title role," wrote Howard Barnes in the New York Herald Tribune. "She plays an unwilling invalid with grave charm." But they also dismissed the film. "Cynthia is a synthetic morsel -- right out of the Metro candy box," according to Bosley Crowther of the New York Times. But more than 40 years later, British critic Alexander Walker re-evaluated, calling Cynthia one of Taylor's "unjustly forgotten triumphs of tact, sympathy, pathos and insistent self-assertion; and the identification with Cynthia by the bobby-soxers who saw it must have been total. It is one of the most likeable movies of adolescent independence."
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Producer: Edwin H. Knopf
Screenplay: Charles Kaufman, Harold Buchman, from the play The Rich, Full Life by Vina Delmar
Cinematography: Charles Schoenbaum
Editor: Irvine Warburton
Costume Design: Irene
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Principal Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Cynthia Bishop), George Murphy (Larry Bishop), S.Z. Sakall (Prof. Rosenkrantz), Mary Astor (Louise Bishop), Gene Lockhart (Dr. Fred I. Jannings), Spring Byington (Carrie Jannings), James Lydon (Ricky Latham).
by Margarita Landazuri