Despite my penchant (a nicer way of saying nerdy obsession) for Hollywood’s Golden Age, I was not a huge fan of Elizabeth Taylor. Partly it comes from my admitted prejudice against the so-called great beauties. I prefer the actresses with interesting faces bursting with talent. Who prefers Grace Kelly’s bored-uppercrust movements to Bette Davis’s idiosyncratic twitching. Who needs Lana Turner’s dead eyes when you could be watching Judy Garland’s luminous ones?
That Liz was beautiful is undeniable, as was her luckiness in growing from a cute child actor to glamorous leading lady (a transformation many child starlets struggle with). If you can look past her famously ‘violet’ eyes to notice her short stature and soft jaw line (no jutting Gwyneth Paltrow/Keira Knightly chin here) you might consider that she may not have been considered one of the most beautiful women in the world during our era of photoshop and fashion endorsements.
I mostly know her work from films in which she was overshadowed by method-acting (and closetedly queer) leading men like Montgomery Clift (in A Place in the Sun and Suddenly, Last Summer) and James Dean (in Giant). Giant also stared Rock Hudson, who became a close friend.
I don’t think she was a particularly good actress. Her voice, despite being born in England, was weak and a bit nasal. Although one of my favourite things she did was with her voice in two very brief cameos on The Simspons: one lampooning her star persona (after her security guard informs her of kicking out Bart and Lisa, Liz says “Good” and goes back to polishing her Oscar) and the other time as the voice of baby Maggie uttering her first words.
Then there’s Cleopatra, the film that almost broke 20th Century Fox, symbolically ended the studio era and enshrined Liz as an iconic queen of a completely different sort than the one she was playing. Despite the fabulous sequined costumes and technicolour eye shadow, despite the insane sets and thousands of extras, Cleopatra is so long, poorly-paced and dull it can’t even be rescued for its camp potential.
As multiple reporters have written today, Liz Taylor was a transitional figure. She became a star during the last hurrah of Old Hollywood, when the studios still maintained strict control over stars’ careers and public personas, but by the time of her affair with Eddie Fisher, who left good girl Debbie Reynolds for her, and her dropping him for Richard Burton, everyone knew everything about the stars’ private lives. The Burton affair was so talked about that, while filming Cleopatra in Italy, the Vatican denounced her and a United States congressman toyed with the idea of banning her from re-entering the country due to her ‘immorality’.
But, like Angelina Jolie (an actress she shared many similarities to) she repaired her image through charity work and interesting roles, the best one being the boozey, shrill but oddly sympathetic Martha in that dark funhouse mirror of ‘American Gothic’ matrimony, Who’s Afraid of Viginia Woolf?
When her close friend Rock Hudson died of AIDS in 1984, not only outing him as gay but giving a recognizable face to a disease many still knew nothing about, Liz helped found the American Foundation for AIDS Research, later becoming their National Chair. In 2006, she donated $40,000 dollars for a van specifically to service the AIDS-afflicted and HIV-positive residents of post-Katrina New Orleans.
Like Audrey Hepburn and her humanitarian work, Elizabethan Taylor demonstrated that the most beautiful thing to do with a beautiful face is do what you can to help people.