I was surprised by my reaction to the news that Elizabeth Taylor had died. I was deeply sad to hear it. Elizabeth Taylor was the very first movie star I was ever aware of, and she has been a constant in my life for all of my life. At the supermarket checkout, she was a constant, her image flying at me in one unflattering photograph after another--most recently in a wheel chair and cannula in her nose, looking aged and frail. In this age of round-the-clock celebrity TV, magazines, newspapers and Internet, Liz retained her ability to fascinate long after her peers had faded into retirement and the grave. As all the obits said, 50 films, seven husbands, hundreds of carats of diamonds, the condemnation of the Vatican, and billions of spilled words all seem to sum up a long and well-lived life. She was never my favorite movie star, and I managed to miss most of her great film work from the 50s until I was in my twenties, yet whenever Elizabeth Taylor crossed my radar, I almost always stopped to pay attention. Does any star have that effect on me now? Absolutely not.
Drug stores in the late 50s and 60s had big magazine stands. The movie mags dominated with their own section and you couldn't miss them. I first became aware of Elizabeth Taylor during her marriage to Eddie Fisher. I vaguely knew she had lost her previous husband (Mike Todd) in a plane crash. I also was aware that Fisher was a constant comfort to her in the aftermath of Todd's death, to the point where Elizabeth and Eddie became an item, igniting a scandal over his leaving his marriage to Debbie Reynolds to marry Elizabeth. I was fascinated over the loud disapproval of Elizabeth when only a few months before, there was this tremendous outpouring of sympathy for the widow. How did I know this at ten or eleven? My step-aunt, only a few years older than me, had movie magazines and we briefly lived with her, my grandfather and her mother when we first moved to California in the early 60s. In those pre-Internet days, there was little to distract a young kid other than playing outdoors. There was this gorgeous creature with a fascinating scar on her throat (the result of an emergency tracheotomy) staring from the covers of these publications. I started to read and became even more fascinated. This interest would go last for the next 50 years.
When I was twelve or thirteen years old and living in San Francisco, the News-Call Bulletin, a now defunct tabloid much like New York's Daily News, always had screaming headlines, and other than than the death of Marilyn Monroe, and JFK's assassination, no story had more impact on that newspapers front page than the love affair of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. There affair, which would end their marriages to others, blossomed during the filming of CLEOPATRA. For a time I sold newspapers in my neighborhood, and I never missed the photos of Liz and Dick on a pleasure boat in the Mediterranean nuzzling in their swimsuits, sunglasses firmly in place, or walking in ancient Roman neighborhoods, hand-in-hand. Elizabeth was still married to Eddie Fisher. You never saw a photo of them walking together as you did with Liz and Dick. Eddie was always five paces behind the star, his humiliated, hangdog expression visibly spelled out so clearly. The movie magazines sided with Debbie Reynolds, a popular studio contract star, but lacking the kind of megawatt fascination and box office of Elizabeth Taylor. We now know Debbie and Eddie's marriage was already kaput, but at the time, it looked as though Liz had heartlessly taken Eddie away from Debbie. This instant sympathy for poor Debbie, ignited her box-office appeal, and she would remain a top MGM star for nearly a decade following her divorce from Eddie.
As Elizabeth and Richard played out their romance and eventual marriage, the headlines still blazed. They trashed hotel suites long before the juvenile antics of Johhny Depp or Charlie Sheen. Richard bought Liz jaw-droppingly huge gems like the Krupp diamond, which managed to enhance her already stunning decolletage. They drew huge crowds to New York's theater district every night while Burton was starring in Hamlet on Broadway. People thronged to the theater in the hopes they night see Elizabeth with Richard. They were fixtures on the international Jet Set circuit, partying with Frank Sinatra and Princess Grace. Meanwhile they made movies, drank to excess--their antics and activities somehow enhancing our hum-drum lives. Nothing about them was to trivial to write about, including England laws impounding Elizabeth's dogs from entering the country. Liz's solution was to hire a yacht to house her precious pets offshore. Such were the perks of stardom.
When the Burton's tumultuous union floundered, it seem to signal a long slide. Had they peaked in our fascination? Certainly Burton's star had waned. And while Elizabeth's ballooning weight and less-than-stellar movie choice had dimmed her box office luster, she continued to fascinate. In the late 70s, I got pretty close to her one night in New York at a very flashy opening of a ballet adaptation of THE MERRY WIDOW starring the great British ballerina, Dame Margot Fonteyn
You sensed that as she aged, Liz wasn't always having a good time. When the Elizabeth and Richard agreed to star in a Broadway revival of PRIVATE LIVES, the reviews were pretty vicious, but you knew this wasn't a good idea in the first place. The years in Washington as the wife of Senator John Warner didn't look particularly happy for her either. Elizabeth Taylor seemed constrained and Washington packed more bullshit than Hollywood ever would. Besides as a bonafide Hollywood heavyweight, Liz was used to speaking her mind and Washington wasn't the place for her brand of spirited frankness and bawdy humor.
Once she left Washington, Elizabeth Taylor seemed to have a rebirth. She emerged newly slim and as glamorous as ever in her early-to-mid 50s, her black hair edged with white tips, which only accented her gorgeous eyes. A little discreet plastic surgery had her looking sensational and the paparazzi followed her everywhere, this time canoodling with Malcom Forbes. Elizabeth Taylor seemed reborn. And then Rock Hudson, her good friend and former co-star, died of AIDS. Taylor who had enjoyed close and intimate friendships with Hollywood's gay stars, Montgomery Clift and Roddy McDowall, finally found a second act which would perfectly suit her generosity and star power. Before taking up the cause of conquering AIDS, the disease was thought of as a deadly, highly contagious "gay" disease. Elizabeth Taylor give the disease a human dimension. Her righteous anger at the politics and prejudice coupled with her fame galvanized the public, and she was able to make people look beyond the rumors and ignorance surrounding AIDS, raising millions for a cure. It was a graceful way to engage her energies. Elizabeth would never have made a career in TV (can you imagine her starring as Cagney or Lacey?). She wouldn't find success as an aging character actress, and she lacked the stamina and acting chops for a stage career.
Liz threw herself into becoming the face of AIDS. She launched a perfume line, which helped maintain her lavish lifestyle, and wrote a coffee table book about her fabulous jewelry collection. She managed to get married one more time, and her close friendship with Michael Jackson continued to provide her public with fascination, as did her bad health. Even as she succumbed to deteriorating heart disease, we were not treated to a bedside deathwatch. Unlike Zsa-Zsa Gabor (the quintessential personality who was famous merely for being famous), who seemed to issue press releases on an hourly basis from her hospital bed with the grim news of leg amputations, etc., Elizabeth Taylor slipped away with her dignity intact.
The first Elizabeth Taylor movie I ever saw was WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? I was sixteen and it shocked me. There was a tremendous amount of publicity surrounding the making of the movie and after it opened. I recall big spreads in Look and Life magazines. I was too young to appreciate its very adult themes. But I was far more interested in Richard Burton's performance than I was of Elizbeth's. It seemed to be very one note. And whenever her voice rose, it lacked dimension. As a friend later put it, Mike Nichols got a very good performance out of her, but imagine what it might have been in the hands of a great actress. Elizabeth Taylor's voice never worked for me, and it kept me from enjoying many of her performances. I liked her work a lot in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and GIANT. Good as her work is in A PLACE IN THE SUN, Shelley Winters is the performance you remember. My favorite movie of hers is Franco Zeffirelli's sumptuous THE TAMING OF THE SHREW. Taylor made few comedies, but she had a flair for the genre. The VIPs was laughable and both Maggie Smith and Margaret Rutherford steal the movie from Elizabeth and Richard. He's better than she is. The scenes with Louis Jordan are embarrassingly comedic in their silliness.
I missed many of her movies of the 60s: THE SAND PIPER, THE COMEDIANS, BOOM!, HAMMERSMITH IS OUT, X Y AND ZEE, ASH WEDNESDAY, THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN. I did seem REFLECTIONS IN A GOLDEN EYE, a movie that made no impact on me whatsoever. I do remember her hilariously funny, late-in-the-day turn in THE MIRROR CRACK'D ("Wrinkle, wrinkle, go away," her character said to her mirror. 'Reappear on Doris Day," she finished with mock maliciousness that was truly hilarious). I preferred the more natural charms of Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren and Doris Day. Still, there were those gorgeous eyes, the pale skin and all that dark hair to make you overlook her less than brilliant acting. She was a mesmerizing screen presence.
It's been fourteen years since the death of Princess Diana, and while many famous people have died in the intervening years, including Michael Jackson, I think it's a pretty safe bet that Elizabeth Taylor's passing, while not as shocking, registers just as hugely with the public.
Throughout her life, Elizabeth Taylor never seemed to lose her hold on our imaginations. Even in the midst of one of the most polarizing love affairs of all time, Elizabeth Taylor provided fascination. All of her great contemporaries are gone, save Sophia Loren and Doris Day (two stars who has managed to keep the affection of their large fan bases). Few of the stories I've read since she died, mention that she was made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. But we know Elizabeth Taylor was one of the great Dames of modern times. She will be missed.