No one played the role of great actress, fabulous celebrity, and selfless humanitarian with the dexterity of Elizabeth Taylor, who died on this day in 2011. (Angelina Jolie might come close, but Liz is still Queen.) There’s never been anyone whose performances so intensely riveted us, along with her personal life (eight marriages to seven guys, for starters) and her good works, too. It was Liz who became one of the first public figures to recognize AIDS when her friend Rock Hudson was tragically felled by the illness. She then cofounded amfAR in 1985 and started the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation six years later.
A child star in the 1940s, Liz grew up so dramatically, she sizzled up ‘50s cinema in a variety of negligees and nighties while wielding lipstick and a pout. In 1958, she petulantly begged Paul Newman to make love to her in the simmering adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Gay references to Newman’s character were excised on the journey to the screen, but they weren’t needed; what other excuse could there be for him to not want to screw Liz Taylor?
And who was Liz mounting in real life? The very same year, she was romancing (straight) crooner Eddie Fisher, stealing him away from America’s sweetheart Debbie Reynolds, who died in December, in the original version of the Brad-Jennifer-Angelina trilogy. That was the gossip story of the decade and reached a bittersweet conclusion years later when Liz and Debbie buried the hatchet when it came to Eddie, becoming friends out of a mutual loathing of the man (whom I loved, especially when he’d come to my New York nightclub parties in the ‘90s and sing “Oh, Mein Papa”. By then, he had a new wife, whom I worried for.)
Starring in the unspeakably lavish Cleopatra (a movie Jolie once tried to remake) opposite her two-time husband Richard Burton, Liz sported a 1960s version of ancient Egyptian makeup as she was carried through spectacular set pieces while nasally intoning orders in what vaguely sounded like a Bronx-by-way-of-British accent. It was fabulous! And the film made tons of money, even though it cost even more. (My dad contributed to the film’s gross. When my parents took me to see it, he bought me a Cleopatra ring in the lobby, seeming to tacitly acknowledge that I was a burgeoning gay. Thank you, dad. Thank you, Liz.)
She and the drunk, sexy Burton had a sort of can’t-live-with-each-other-can’t-live-without-each-other attraction, a dynamic that was brilliantly worked out in another adaptation—1966’s searing marital tragicomedy Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Liz won the Oscar for letting herself go and diving into the role of the earthy, flirty harridan who belittles her husband while clinging to a drink and a fantasy child (meanwhile, Jolie and soon to be ex-husband Brad Pitt paired up for their own meta commentary on marriage, By the Sea, and shortly after they announced their divorce).
By then, her much older peers during the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, the likes of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, who are so memorably being revived on TV these days in Ryan Murphy's Feud, were over the hill after their brief resurgence for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? The hagsploitation that film introduced to cinema would to some extent come to define Liz's professional work in her twilight years.
Since she clicked so miraculously as a braying shrew in Woolf (a part playwright Edward Albee once wanted Davis for), Liz followed that with an endless array of similar roles, albeit in far lesser films. She was barely tame-able in The Taming of the Shrew (1967), was shrilly bonkers in Secret Ceremony and Boom! (’68), and overbearing in the swinging London adultery tale X, Y, and Zee (1971). For years, I’ve hosted a movie club that revels exclusively in good/bad flicks, and we adore this phase of Liz’s career, when her sheer magnetism eclipsed all the misfiring dialogue in movies that she gamely pretended were Oscar winners.
Liz eventually battled alcoholism and also a brain tumor, but was valiant, even as she appeared giddily messy on awards shows more than once. There was the Tony Awards where she said “Jimmy Needleheimer” instead of Jimmy Nederlander. And who can forget the Golden Globes in 2001, when she started opening the “Best Picture, Drama” envelope before reading the nominees? Producer Dick Clark rushed out in a panic, to set her straight, as Liz gurgled “Hellooooo!”, a moment that was later parodied by Molly Shannon in Saturday Night Live.
Liz didn’t even seem to know the name of the award—she called it “the Golden Glow”—and she covered her gaffes by joking, “I’m new at this.” She was so adorable about it, you had to love her even more, especially since she was gleefully pointing up the ritualized silliness of the whole thing while bringing it some much needed spontaneity. Thankfully, Warren Beatty would later rescue Liz from awards show infamy with his and Faye Dunaway's befuddled appearance at the 2017 Oscars.
We didn’t know everything about Liz, despite her life having been treated as an open book by the media (and herself). Frank Langella’s 2012 memoir, Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them, shed more light by revealing an older Liz who was lonely and desperately wanted a new husband to move to the country with.
Can you imagine Liz Taylor having to beg a man to romance her? This was shades of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but for real! The woman had so much heart (to go with that heaving bosom) and, to this day, remains the epitome of actor/celebrity/perfume hawker/activist/peacemaker. I'd like to see Angelina try that, perhaps in a Ryan Murphy anthology.
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