By Eleanor Ringel Cater
To me, it’s never too late to speak of Elizabeth Taylor, who died last week, age 79, of congestive heart failure.
She was the most beautiful girl in the world, and she had the husbands — and the jewels to prove it.
But as she grew older and the film roles fewer and the health problems accelerated and the husbands (7; one, Richard Burton, she married twice) became less important, Taylor proved her beauty was much more than skin deep. She became a passionate and tremendously effective crusader in the fight against AIDS, a battle she joined as early as the mid-‘80s.
Taylor played many roles. Sex symbols (“Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Butterfield 8”) and shrews (“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,” “The Taming of the Shrew”). Dream girls (“A Place in the Sun”) and dreamy little girls (“National Velvet”). Sexy queens (“Cleopatra”) and Southern belles (“Raintree County”).
But the role she played most brilliantly was Elizabeth Taylor. Nothing she did in movies could match her tumultuous life of-screen, with its romances, tragedies, affairs and near-death experiences.
Perhaps ultimately, Taylor will be remembered as the ultimate survivor. Not just because of her operations (over 40 by one calculation) or her marriages or her awards or her fame — which endured long after her film career was over. But because there was something indomitable about her. As one British journalist noted, “It would be hard to conceive of a world without Elizabeth Taylor.”
She was called “The Last Star” with good reason. Not only was she one of the few hold-overs from the studio system, but her life was one extreme make-over after another, often depending on the man in her life at the time (though Burton, always Burton remained somehow a constant, even after his death in 1984).
Whether she was a great actress or a great star is still a matter of debate. Andy Warhol thought there was something tawdry about her…that she could act but “wasn’t a first-rate actress.” Yet, he concluded, “The money shot is the close-up, the camera in her face. Her coloring — the violet eyes, dark hair and flawless skin — is what made her. That’s what people pay to see when they attend her films.’’
Burton, when he first met her on the set of “Cleopatra,” famously said, “Has anyone ever told you you’re a very pretty girl?”
She made her last theatrical film in 1980 (“The Mirror Crack’d”). After a four-decade run — and enough prizes to last her four more — most movie actresses would’ve retired. Not Taylor. She did Broadway. She hawked perfume. She did “The Simpson” and “General Hospital.”
Truman Capote once remarked that Marilyn Monroe was a celebrity, but Elizabeth Taylor was a legend. And legends never really die. As delicate child star or nubile ingénue, grieving widow or scarlet woman, Oscar-winner or activist, battling Burton or AIDS crusader, Elizabeth Taylor was indelible, an icon of stardom no matter which stage she chose.
Perhaps her best epitaph are the words she spoke to an unsympathetic Senate Committee in 1992 as she lobbied for AIDS funding.
“I am here to speak for all those people with AIDS and HIV infection and for all of those who love them…I will not be silenced. And I will not give up. And I will not be ignored.
She wasn’t. She didn’t. And she couldn’t be.