Fall 2006


“Oh, come on, do I look like I’m dying?” asked Dame Elizabeth Taylor, 74 and feisty as Virginia Woolf, on Larry King Live in May. She was there to dispute the latest rumors that she has one foot in the grave, this time due, allegedly, to Alzheimer’s. And she did it well. Although chronic back pain confines her to a wheelchair, she was the same over-abundant Liz we’ve seen for decades: her iconic face was topped by a teased and swirled globe of brunette hair; her sea-green caftan dripped with jewels. It was easy to see her now and flash back to Taylor’s Cleopatra, who stared daggers at Marc Antony (played by Richard Burton, whom she would soon marry) and spewed: “You will kneel! I asked it of Caesar, I demand it of you!”

Today, after more near-death experiences than an action-adventure heroine, the two-time Oscar winner seems sharp, alert, and fired up about a new line of high-end jewelry she designed herself. “I’m so happy, and it’s so rewarding!” she gushed of her collections. Some might look at them and see vulgar ostentation; to Taylor they’re “all about love.”

The last of Hollywood’s golden-age goddesses, Taylor is also its ultimate survivor, and the fascination with her continues. She’s fun to make fun of, fun to adore, and hard not to envy as we watch her carry out her fantasies – and our own – on the grandest Technicolor scale. It’s all she’s ever known. Her childhood was cut off by stardom, then lived out in her adulthood, when she had millions of dollars to play with. Excess came naturally to Taylor, who was often proclaimed the most beautiful woman in the world. Her eyes alone, an unearthly shade of violet-blue, set her apart from mere mortals. “Liz is royalty,” says Tom Toth, a New York-based film historian and a co-producer of
Rita, the acclaimed 2004 documentary of Rita Hayworth. “M-G-M groomed her to be a little princess, and now she’s a dowager empress. No other actress today possesses that bigger-than-life quality. Liz owns it.”

All the while, in true Hollywood fashion, she’s walked the tightrope between fairyland and complete disaster. We’ve seen it in close-up: the near-death of pneumonia at twenty-nine while she was making
Cleopatra, the film that earned her a then-record million-dollar fee; the messy soap opera with a tortured genius, Richard Burton, whom she married and divorced twice (there were six other husbands); the perilous ballooning of one of the screen’s most coveted bodies. “There are no secrets,” says George Davis-Benton, her assistant in the ‘60s and ‘70s. “There can’t be any secrets. Elizabeth has existed in front of both movie & paparazzi cameras.”

They captured her at twelve, as the spunky, horse-loving title character of
National Velvet; and they caught her fifteen years later in the scandalous Suddenly, Last Summer, where she played a lobotomized, disturbed temptress who lures boys into her male cousin’s hands. Her overripe, oversexed film persona met its match offscreen. There she was in newsreels, flitting from private jet to yacht, a white Pekinese clutched to her bosom. It wasn’t enough for Taylor to own jewels; they had to be the most coveted in the world, like the 33-carat Krupp diamond, a gift from Burton. “When it came up for auction in the late 1960s, I thought how perfect it would be if a nice Jewish girl like me were to own it,” she writes coyly in her 2002 book, My Love Affair with Jewelry.

Taylor has had more to say about diamonds than she has about acting, which she never studied. “I learned it from my peers, and from the directors,” she said recently. More likely it’s an instinctive gift; she commanded the screen even in
National Velvet, and as her mastery of film technique grew she gave us one memorable image after another. Think of her grand entrance into Rome as Cleopatra, which ends with a sly wink; or the fragility in her eyes as she lounges around in her slip in Butterfield 8, the tale of a call girl longing for a new life. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? found her transforming herself into a drunken, fiftyish harridan, pitching her already high, thin voice into ugly places but never losing her humanity. If her Cleopatra could sound like a petulant whiner, she was also capable, in the same film, of making her co-star Burton marvel at her on-camera minimalism.

Where dress is concerned, Taylor isn’t known for subtlety. In her heyday, two of Hollywood’s most elegant costumers, Irene Sharaff and Edith Head, dressed her gorgeously. But left to her own devices she was sometimes a fashion nightmare: how could a fan of Valentino and Chanel wear so many dresses that looked like she bought them at K-Mart? It all had to do with attitude: to Taylor, says George Davis-Benton, “clothes were fun,” not a call to arms. The actress would sometimes shop undisguised in department stores, he recalls, buying budget items then making appearances in them. “She’d see things in newspapers and say, oh, this is fun. When we’d see some slacks we liked we’d buy them in every color.” He recalls an off-the-rack dress she loved, “a very simple, straight-up-and-down, gauzy yellow print with a white piquet collar and a couple of buttons on the top. She wore that dress and was photographed in it until, with laundering, it became like shreds.”

By the ‘70s, so had her career. Taylor was descending into campy self-parody – as in her 1973 TV movie with Burton,
Divorce His – Divorce Hers – and into one of her most notorious phases of overweight. En route to Studio 54 she was snapped in a baby-blue tent-dress, patting her hair like Mae West as she exited a car. That photo ended up on the cover of Hollywood Babylon II.

To some people, Taylor had become too silly to ever take seriously again.
Then, in 1985, AIDS took her friend Rock Hudson, and the loss galvanized her into action of a world scale. After years of frivolity Taylor had a purpose, and she began wielding her fame and clout for the cause of AIDS before any A-list star got involved. In 1985 she helped found amfAR, the country’s leading organization for AIDS research; six years later came the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation. Earlier on she was a staunch supporter of children’s causes. It’s no surprise she feels so protective of her friend Michael Jackson, the manchild she swears would never harm the young. “We’re very much alike,” she told Larry King. “We both had horrible childhoods; working at the age of nine is not a childhood. He started at three.”

But one doesn’t hear her dwelling on the negative. Like Jackson she loves her toys, and loves sharing them. “I would be on an aircraft with Elizabeth flying from Los Angeles to Paris or something,” says Davis-Benton. “People wanted to see one of her diamonds, she’d take it off and hand it to them.” She employed no armed guard; Davis-Benton walked alongside her carrying her jewels in a box. She loved to tell the story of roaming around Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas fingering the fabled, centuries-old Peregrina pearl, another gift from Burton. She lost it, and worried how he’d react; later she discovered it in her dog’s mouth.

“What you see is what you get,” Davis-Benton concludes. “If she were sitting here now, she would make you feel as if you had known her for fifteen years. You can open your heart to her, tell her your secrets, and she will go to the grave with them.” That, he says, is one reason why “she’s had tons of really good female friends. Natalie Wood, Grace Kelly, Debbie Reynolds. You don’t think of a femme fatale having girlfriends.”

Nor do you imagine this one approaching seventy-five with her gumption so inspiringly intact. Ultimately, what can we do but admire her? Her essence is there in
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, where she plays Maggie the Cat, a never-say-die Southern vixen married to a faded, impotent ex-football player. “What is the victory of a cat on a hot tin roof?” he asks her. “Just stayin’ on it, I guess,” she says. “As long as she can.”