Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Elizabeth Taylor, 1932 - 2011

Elizabeth Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, USA 1959)

Some 20 years ago I came across John Parker's book, Five for Hollywood, in which Parker compares the lives and careers of five Hollywood stars who dominated Hollywood during the 1950s: Natalie Wood, Rock Hudson, James Dean, Montgomery Clift - and Elizabeth Taylor. The chapter on Taylor concludes Parker's book. It is entitled 'The Last Survivor'.

Today, the last survivor died in Los Angeles at the age of 79.

Considering what Elizabeth Taylor had gone through over the course of her life - e.g. over 30 major surgeries, including a brain tumour removal 14 years ago - I was confident that she would live up to 90. At least. She seemed invincible indeed. Like the proverbial rock in the surf.

The use of any kind of pathos at this stage would be cheap, nor would it do her justice. Hence, I deliberately refrain from saying that Taylor's death equals the death of an era for that era, Hollywood's Golden Age, already died a long time ago. But there surely can't be any doubt that she was the last true, bonafide, Hollywood star, with everything that term entails and connotes. And yet, I admired Taylor not so much for her films, although she does have a small handful of masterpieces to her credit, neither more nor less than do most other so-called Hollywood stars, but for Taylor's persona, her personality. For someone of her stature, she had the admirable - and possibly rare - trait of not taking herself too seriously. She had the ability to laugh at herself. Her wit was unmatched. My favourite Taylorism goes: "If people say they don't have any vices you can be sure they have some pretty annoying virtues", or something to that effect.

And it fits Taylor's unique personality to have stood up for the likes of Rock Hudson, when he was stricken with AIDS, when very few others were prepared to do so. It came naturally to Taylor. After all, she had done the same some thirty years earlier for her friend Montgomery Clift when she fought on his behalf when producers were already reluctant to cast him on account of his alcoholism.

The fabulous Elizabeth Taylor, such as she was in the early 1970s

It didn't matter that she hadn't made any films in at least 15 years, anything Taylor did or said was still considered newsworthy. In fact, if there's one reproach I have on her, it is that she wasted her considerable talent and didn't make more (good) films. Taylor's active career in films more or less ended when she was only in her forties. I wondered sometimes, if it was for a lack of parts or if she simply didn't want to. She certainly didn't need to, for she was one of the wealthiest actresses ever to come out of Hollywood. And not just because of the diamonds Richard Burton so lavishly bestowed on her. She was the first actress - or actor, for that matter - to command the princely salary of $1,000,000. It was unheard of at the time, and the story goes that Taylor asked for it just by sheer audacity, simply to annoy the producers and, in fact, never expected to actually get it. But she did!

For all of the above I confess that Taylor's death touched me more than a death by an actor or actress whom I never even met usually does.

Elizabeth Taylor was more than just a movie star. Much more. She was the icon of an era, who, in her prime, lived life to the full. Her name is synonymous with glamour, beauty and excess. But reducing her to that would be unfair. For Elizabeth Taylor also stands for unbridled passion. Besides, Taylor wouldn't be the same without her wit, her sharp mind, which many weren't aware of since the glitter of her diamonds often threatened to outshine her intelligence.

Elizabeth Taylor truly was in a league of her own.

Her departure leaves an irreplaceable gap in more sense than just one. She'll be greatly missed.

Elizabeth Taylor after her brain tumour removal in 1997, in a photo taken by the late Herb Ritts