It was a life lived in the public eye; she barely had a childhood. Decade after decade her every movement was photographed and scrutinized with the fanatic effort used to decipher the Rosetta Stone. There were dagger columns by Hedda Hopper and Louellea Parsons. When Life magazine featured her on the cover the issue sold-out. When Elizabeth gained weight the public worried. When she shed pounds the public—and the studios—sighed with relief. And when husband #3 Mike Todd, real name Avrom Hirsch Goldbogen, perished in a plane crash, fans grieved with Elizabeth, mentally sitting shiva with their tragic heroine.
There were eight marriages—twice to Richard Burton—passionate affairs, public adulteries, and of course there were addictions to pills and booze, five broken backs, a tracheotomy, hip replacements, cancer, drug rehab, more rehab, slabs of jewelry, and with metronomic regularity, nervous collapses.
Elizabeth Taylor was a true Hollywood star.
The last genuine movie star.
Now, we endure a parade of interchangeable, smaller-than-life celebrities.
Her violet eyes burn through the screen. But it is her voice, a soprano whisper from the throat, that lays hold of your heart and conjures visions of a child-woman who desperately needs rescue.
Too often, her notorious private life overshadowed her considerable talent. From child star to ingenue and then glamorous leading lady, Elizabeth Taylor refined her craft—too often in really terrible movies, I dare you to sit through Boom!, 1968—and emerged as a compelling actress who, with great subtlety, was most adept at revealing a character’s tortured but generous heart.
Taylor won two Oscars. First, for her flinty but nuanced performance in BUtterfield 8 in 1960, a script she loathed, and for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1966, a film I despise—arty, self-conscious, totally false. Her grotesque performance as a grotesque woman is classic Oscar bait. Lavished with praise and prizes when first released—misery and despair soaked in booze are like, heavy, man—the film stands as a relentlessly shrill and slick husk best suited for dysfunctional film school types who also adore Russ Meyer’s simulation of women.
Easily, her finest performance is in A Place in the Sun, 1951, as Angela Vickers, a bratty socialite who comes between George Eastman, Montgomery Clift, and his dour, pregnant blue-collar girlfriend Alice Tripp, Shelley Winters.
There’s a stunning moment in the film when Clift, crushed under the weight of guilt, lays his head on Taylor’s breast. He snuggles like a child. She breathes in and out, soothes his fevered brow and whispers: “Tell mama all.” He is doomed, their love is doomed, but Taylor reveals an unexpected core of goodness, a capacity for endless love.
In her frequently painful memoir, Baby Doll, actress Carroll Baker gives a vivid portrait of Elizabeth Taylor as the classic Hollywood goddess: over-indulged, self-absorbed, innocent, selfish, generous, clueless about mere mortals, a conflicting mix of character traits wrapped in beauty so stunning she leaves a literal path of destruction in her wake.
The year is 1956. Baker and Taylor—both women converted to Judaism—have just wrapped production on the epic but deeply flawed Giant. Now, back in Los Angeles, Baker, a talented, wide-eyed ingenue—bad men, bad financial management, and bad judgement harpooned what should have been an enduring Hollywood career—goes out for lunch with Elizabeth Taylor.
Driving with Elizabeth behind the wheel of her white Cadillac was a uniquely terrifying experience. I can’t imagine how she ever passed her driver’s test! She flatly refused to acknowledge the presence of other vehicles on the road—let alone that they might have the right-of-way. We had only two blocks to go from the studio, but even in the sparse Burbank traffic, we had three hair-raising near-misses. Outside the restaurant she drove directly into a parked car, then backed up and hit the man in the car behind us. The driver was so dumbstruck at the sight of Elizabeth Taylor that he forgot to complain, and when he stepped out of the car, she glared daggers at him for having dared to be in her path in the first place. I went around to survey the dent in the fender, but Liz waltzed directly into the restaurant, totally unconcerned.
My feelings about Liz probably seem extreme, but to me, at that time in my impressionable youg life, she was truly the pinnacle of what being a star meant. I lover her—I adored her—I worshipped her. She was utterly regal!
The diners dropped their forks and stared in open-mouthed wonder at Elizabeth’s every movement and gesture, and the poor girl couldn’t relax for a second during lunch. With all her fame and beauty, she was so sincere and sweet and charming and had at times such a helpless, little-girl quality, that I wanted nothing more than to watch over her and protect her.
When the bill arrived, she said: “Carroll, you pay it. I haven’t got any money.” I remember wanting to crawl under the table and kiss her china doll feet for giving me the honor.
In her later years, Elizabeth Taylor was best known for her charity work on behalf of AIDS. Always, her best friends were anguished gay men. But she was also a great supporter of Israel, an ardent Zionist—she offered herself in exchange for the Entebbe hostages—and contributed generously to Jewish charities.
Baruch Dayan Emes. Blessed is the True Judge.
Let’s close with a powerful scene from A Place in the Sun: