Thursday, March 24, 2011

Good Performance in a Badly Scripted Life

Elizabeth Taylor has died at 79 without publishing her memoirs, but that would have been redundant. Everything about her, from the age of ten, is on film and in old magazines.

We never met but, in 1958, she saved my best friend's life. I had sent Bob Levin to interview her and her then-husband Mike Todd for Redbook. He was to see her on a Saturday morning, but the day before she was in bed with bronchitis and Todd suggested that Bob come with him on a flight from L.A. to New York on his private plane instead.

Just before takeoff, she called to say she was feeling better, and my friend stayed behind. Mike Todd's plane crashed that night.

In a life that seemed scripted by a bad writer, Elizabeth Taylor was the 20th century's most enduring celebrity--eight marriages to seven husbands, headline scandals, and a career as an actress that veered from fine acting to self-parody. But she did it all in high style.

In 1959, she had won an Oscar nomination, essentially for screaming at Paul Newman through "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," but she had rehearsed the part privately, as I learned on my first trip to Hollywood that year as a magazine editor.

Staying at the Bel Air with a six-month-old, my wife and I apologized to the manager for the baby's crying. "No need," he assured us, "your suite was soundproofed after Elizabeth Taylor's honeymoon with Nicky Hilton."

That was the start of her first marriage to a hotel heir that lasted nine months. She kept marrying, not always wisely or well, but Elizabeth Taylor lived through it all openly and without hypocrisy to become a better actress and, in the end, a better person.

In "A Place in the Sun," director George Stevens drew performances from Taylor and Montgomery Clift that lifted her from a former child star in "National Velvet" into film art.

All through her hyperactive heterosexuality, she was drawn to the friendship of gay men--Clift, Roddy McDowall and Rock Hudson, with whom she starred in Stevens' "Giant." It was Hudson's death that led her to work so hard against AIDS in later years and receive a Humanitarian Oscar.

Now her death is prompting wonkish debate about "Is It Harder to Be a Celebrity Now?" Wrong question. Fame was and is never easy, but it helps to know who you are. Elizabeth Taylor did.

Update: Camille Paglia is back to expand on her exaltation of Taylor as a symbol of the "sexual power that Feminism cannot explain and has tried to destroy...the world-disordering impact of legendary women like Delilah, Salome, and Helen of Troy."

Now Paglia adds: "The canonical shot of Elizabeth Taylor sewn into that white slip in 'Butterfield 8' is one of the major art images of my entire life! She is Babylonian pagan woman--the goddess Ishtar, the anti-Mary!"

Maybe so, but Taylor had a simpler explanation for herself, once telling fans, “I know I’m vulgar, but would you have me any other way?”

1 comment:

bayroad22 said...

someone on tv said Liz was drawn into the aids fight because her son's wife had the disease and died. this was prior to the death of Rock.