In the world of icons in Hollywood Elizabeth Taylor stands on her own.
It seems that everything that endures in Hollywood she did first. She got treated for alcoholism and drug addiction and spoke about it. She was one of the first to stand up and fight against AIDS. She fought to keep her weight down. She had messy marriages (and broke up others.) Celebrity culture seems to have been created with her name on it. Even though we might have more access to celebrities today, and we might think that the people on the cover of People and US are celebrities, the truth is we pine for true and real celebrities like Taylor. That’s why we are all so devastated with her death.
Plain and simple she was a legend. Mind you, I never grew up seeing her movies. Her career came way before my time. She was a child star who morphed into a beautiful young woman and then into a gorgeous adult who was the envy of all those around her not only because of her beauty, but because of her talent. Her career is unprecedented, and she was in some of the best movies ever made in Hollywood. National Velvet, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, Butterfield 8, Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf to name but a few. She won two Academy Awards for best actress for Butterfield 8 and for Who’s Afraid of Viriginia Woolf and had several other nominations.
In 1960, she became the highest paid actress in Hollywood making the unprecedented salary of $1 million to star in Cleopatra which became one of the biggest flops when it was released in 1963. But unlike today where a flop of that magnitude would doom an actress, Taylor endured and got better. Cleopatra, to us, will not be remembered as a flop but it will be remembered as the picture where Liz Taylor hooked up with Richard Burton and the two of them became the biggest Hollywood couple of their era. Brad and Angelina are nothing compared to Liz and Dick.
I always knew that Elizabeth Taylor was the biggest and brightest because I remember her being on the cover of People Magazine and I remember that she was beloved by my grandmothers. Oh poor Liz they would say as if they knew her. She never really got too much blame from women for her track record of breaking up marriages because with Liz, it was never just glamor and happiness. A dark cloud was always lurking. She may have been the woman with the biggest diamond on the planet, yet she was still the woman whose husband died in a tragic plane crash (Mike Todd), or she was the woman who endured a lifetime of back pain that led to her drug addiction.
By being messy and gorgeous she took the veneer off Hollywood and allowed us regular people into that world. Her celebrity was at a time before our current 24/7 reality TV infused cycle of absurdity. Her world was a world where you were allowed small glimpses at movie openings or on Barbara Walters interviews. My most vivid memories of her are related to her weddings which we all seem to be obsessed with. It’s like she could never be happy or satisfied. I remember her marrying a Senator (John Warner) and then a decade later marrying a construction worker (Larry Fortensky). What a contrast. When she married Larry Fortensky in the early 90s I was struck by it because it seemed so out of character. She was the woman who created glamor. But looking back now it makes sense. She was looking for foundation and grounding.
Liz Taylor will also be remembered for sticking by her two great friends, Rock Hudson and Michael Jackson. She was one of the first people who stood up against AIDS when most of Hollywood was running from it. She made it cool and chic to support AMFAR (American Foundation for AIDS Research) and each year I looked forward to seeing what she would wear to the Cannes benefit where they raised money to find a cure for AIDS. Her early dedication to this issue has saved more lives than we probably will ever know. She also stood by Michael Jackson when he was charged with sexual abuse never once wavering in her belief of him.
The thing that is sad today is that while Liz Taylor has been out of the public for some time people are very moved by her death. She was an icon to a time when Hollywood was special and the death of someone like her makes us remember that those days are just long gone.