Film

Maid and Unmade: Elizabeth Taylor (1932 - 2011)

While there was never really a private Elizabeth Taylor, there was part of her story that few understood. In death, the truth does not always come clear.

Was there ever a "private" Elizabeth Taylor? Was there ever a moment in her elegant and ephemeral career spent outside the glare of the camera -- onset, on stage, on the street? She was the first true tabloid sensation, the other woman who ruined Debbie Reynold's fairytale marriage to Eddie Fischer. She was a superstar before she was 20, a thrice married widow by 36, and notorious scandal sheet fodder for most of the '60s and '70s. By the time she had married and left actor Richard Burton (twice) and tried her hand at a "regular" guy with last husband Larry Fortensky, she had been a Senator's spouse, a comedy skit laughing stock, and the last remaining vestige of former Hollywood glamour and glitz flitting around the fringes of an industry that had downgraded her from regal to relic.

But there remains nothing remotely antique about the seminal silver screen beauty, a bombshell before said descriptions were possible - or polite. With her violet eyes and stunning brunette facade, she flew squarely in the face of those who believed fashioned favored the blond and the bimbo. Throughout her career, she was earnest and easy to like, complicated and incorrigible, immensely talented and readily dismissed as part of the studio system's cruel conveyor belt paradigm. Still, she holds more Oscars in her hands than many modern Method icons, and is never far from the artform's Best-of discussions. So her passing on 23 March of complications from congestive heart failure is not the end of an era. Instead, it's a chance to re-embrace a forgotten film star whose myth has stayed as bright as the spotlight shown on her spectacle-laden private life.

You can't be married eight times, in such splashy public fashion, and not suffer a few stinging rebuffs. You can't own an Academy Award for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and not expect some backlash when the industry hands you another for the underwhelming Butterfield 8. In a career spanning six decades and seminal titles like A Place in the Sun, Giant, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Suddenly, Last Summer, there's going to be some drivel (Raintree County), some dross (The VIPs) and some dreck (Boom! , A Little Night Music). But in a world which nitpicks choices and chances, Taylor was uniquely independent, her undeniable facade allowing her the luxury of being who she wanted, when she wanted, no matter what the public needed or the paper's published about her.

In many ways, she was destined to live forever. She defied death so many times that she seemed like the literal feline incarnation of the famous Tennessee Williams' chanteuse she once played. During Cleopatra, she was rushed from the set and, upon recovery, returned with a prominent (and hard to disguise) tracheotomy scar. When she was 12, she fell off a horse and hurt her back. She eventually had both hips replaced. It took a team of nine doctors several grueling hours to deliver her premature third child, and she battled various pneumonias and respiratory infections throughout her life. She even experience the ultimate in celebrity medical misery - a six week stay in the Betty Ford Clinic for drug and alcohol dependency.

And still Taylor's allure remained. She was the first actress ever to earn a million dollars on a movie. She translated her aging star power into a profitable stint creating perfumes (White Diamonds, Passion, and Black Pearls) and designing jewelry. When her friend and famous co-star Rock Hudson was diagnosed with AIDS, she became a staunch advocate for disease awareness. Upon his untimely death, she helped start amfAR (the American Foundation for AIDS Research) and worked tirelessly to raise money. Initially protective of her image, she eventually lightened up, making fun of herself in films like The Mirror Crack'd and TV appearances (The Simpsons, The Nanny). She was indeed a rarity, a component of classic cinema that managed to transcend time and place to be relevant in every decade she lived.

None of this lessens her impact onscreen, mind you. Taylor is a terrific actress, a whole body performer who never lets a single scene go by without bringing whatever she can to the mix. When she's young, just discovering the power inherent in her looks, she's coy and convincing. As she ages, she moves from China doll to champion. There's a gutsiness and determination that comes with the Taylor territory, a world weary sense of "seen it all" the follows every film she's in. Even when the material doesn't match her mystery, she's veiled and vibrant, swelling bosom suggesting a sexuality ripe for the relishing. Even a stint as Michael Jackson's lead cheerleader couldn't derail what once commanded the movie screen.

That's because Taylor is the ultimate cinematic icon. She's Marilyn Monroe without the secret shame (and short shelf life), she's Bette Davis without the depressing diva dryness. She's a more down to Earth Katherine Hepburn and a far friendlier Vivien Leigh. She's been hero and villain, saint and sinner, and any other cliched dichotomy you can think of. The many hats she wore were always fashionable, frequently controversial, and never without relative rhyme or reason. It's hard to say if she was more famous for being famous (and tirelessly maintaining said fame) than anything she did within her craft, but the truth trips by at 24 irrefutable frames per second. If you put the ultimate idealized version of an actress, a beauty, a troubled bad girl and a grace Grand Dame in the karmic blender and hit "spin", something almost like Taylor would turn up.

Over the next few days, her story will be spun by a myriad of media types all trying to get in the best last word. She will be canonized and crucified, lied about and lamented. Her face will plaster a billion blogs, each hoping the hits her aura provides will give them one more day of significance. Her love affair with Richard Burton will become the blundering benchmark for all uber-celeb couplings and her later years will be stained by gossip, innuendo, and coat-tailing cash considerations. While there was never really a private Elizabeth Taylor, there was part of her story that few understood. In death, the truth does not always come clear. For someone like this fallen idol, that may end up being a benefit.


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