USA TODAY US Edition
The biggest star ever?
An icon of old and new Hollywood, she defined modern celebrity — and America couldn’t take its eyes off her
It could be said of the death of Elizabeth Taylor: Now she belongs to the ages. But the truth is, Taylor has always belonged to the ages — it’s why her absence is so significant to millions. Howcan it be that Dame Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor won’t be around to admire, envy and gawk over, ever again?
Taylor, who died Wednesday at age 79 of congestive heart failure after weeks in a hospital in Los Angeles, once said she wanted her tombstone to read: “She lived.” And oh, did she ever.
“She embodied everything it is to be a movie star,” says Turner Classic Movies weekend host and film expert Ben Mankiewicz. “There’s such a tendency to diminish her talent while looking at her stardom. I don’t think they have to be separated, they’re one and the same. But you can’t escape the awesome power of her stardom.”
Her legacy is lengthy: three Oscars, several memorable films ( National Velvet, Cleopatra, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Butterfield 8), her role in encouraging more acceptance for gay people, and her clarion call for more attention to the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic at a time of widespread indif-
ference. She has been iconic virtually since World War II, one of the last products of the old Hollywood studio system. And, thanks to her friendships with the likes of Michael Jackson and Elton John, she has been a forerunner of today’s celebrity-driven pop culture. Her last important movie was in 1966, and still her star power endured.
Liz (she actually disliked the headline-friendly nickname) Taylor is the gold standard, says Nancy Schoenberger, co-author of Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century. “The level of her fame and glamour and the sheer dazzle of the woman was unparalleled. I don’t know if we’ll have that kind of movie stardom again.”
There are actresses who aren’t stars, and stars who aren’t actresses — “and she was both,” says Howard Bragman, longtime Hollywood publicist and author of Where’s My Fifteen Minutes?
Superlatives usually failed to capture the Taylor aura. She was the most beau- tiful woman in the world, she was the greatest movie goddess in the world. She also suffered from multiple medical ailments and nearly died several times in her nearly eight decades.
“Elizabeth Taylor is immortal — as long as we’re speaking about Hollywood, we’ll be talking about Elizabeth Taylor, the pre-eminent cinematic star of the 20th century,” says one of her biographers, C. David Heymann, author of Liz: An Intimate Biography of Elizabeth Taylor. “She was a comet, an 80-year comet.”
‘We got it all with her’
But the biggest star ever? “Who more than Elizabeth Taylor?” says another of her biographers, William Mann, author of How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Tay
lor in Hollywood. “She was so remarkable at making us care equally about her personal life as much as we cared about her movies. We got it all with her.”
She was the most notorious, the most tempestuous, the most bejeweled, the most generous, the most blessed, the most tragic screen star in the Hollywood firmament. She was a supernova celebrity who pioneered a new standard of fame even before 24/7 media. As one of the first stars to live her life almost entirely in the global public eye, she could teach Angelina, Lindsay and Gaga and, yes, Charlie, a thing or two about grace and gauche under pressure.
“Today, you can’t be a big celebrity unless we know everything about you, and that goes back to Elizabeth,” Mann says. “She showed that you take the parts of your life that will resonate with the public and use them to your advantage. Everything that is standard about celebrities today can be traced to Elizabeth Taylor, whether it’s causes or personal lives or the marketing.”
But she didn’t court the attention. “She wasn’t a calculating diva,” Mann adds. “She got the media exposure because of the way she lived her life. She wasn’t out there seeking it. It came to her.”
Popular to the end
Why do many feel such sadness at her departure? Because so many followed her life so closely for so long.
“She was an Anglo-American queen, but at same time she was like the girl next door, and we followed her life on a daily basis at times because she lived it so publicly,” Heymann says.
Indeed, Taylor did not have the typical Hollywood burnout: Almost to the end, she was tweeting merrily on Twitter, raising millions for charity, and still selling millions of magazines when her picture was on the cover (her last appearance: Vanity Fair in July 2010).
“Up until the end, she sold for us, and I’m not surprised,” says Peter Castro,
People’s deputy managing editor. “She was iconic, she was gorgeous, she was everything a movie star should be, and our readers really grew up with her and loved her.”
She understood the power of her stardom, Bragman says. “When her friends started dying of AIDS, at the time people wouldn’t even mention the word ... she not only mentioned it, she shouted it from the rooftop. She had an extraordinary moral compass.”
But what will most people remember? Her breathtaking beauty, those huge violet eyes and voluptuous figure. All those marriages and divorces (eight marriages to seven men). The eye-popping jewels, all her years of lavish spending and fighting and drinking and lovemaking in between movie-making.
“She had great lust for life — when she fell in love, she fell in love hard,” says Schoenberger, whose book is about Taylor and Burton, the hard-drinking Welsh actor who was the love of Taylor’s life, the man she married twice but couldn’t actually live with.
Time and again, people point to Taylor’s appetite for living.
“Hers was the fully lived life,” says Frank Farley, a psychologist at Temple University and former president of the American Psychological Association. “To me, her life spelled passion. She lived by her heart and died by her heart.”
She loved “fiercely, blithely and sometimes rashly — but we should all be lucky enough to come to the end of our lives knowing that when love was offered, we leapt at it,” says Eloisa James, author of When Beauty Tamed the Beast. “And in her advocacy for AIDS patients, she taught us that love is not merely a matter of wedding vows. She showed a deep love of humanity even at its most fragile.”
Taylor was liberated before women’s liberation was much of a movement, Heymann says. She lived as she pleased.
“That Sinatra number, My Way, could have been written for Taylor,” he says. “Young people think of her as an icon, too. There are very few names from that era that they would recognize, and she certainly is one of them because she was such a giant and had such a legend.”
Howshe changed Hollywood
Taylor wasn’t a bad businesswoman, either. “She was the first female actor to get a million dollars a picture, for Cleo
patra,” Mann says. “And she got a percentage of the profits. That’s how they do business in Hollywood today, and that also goes back to her. She created the business of fame.”
Later, Taylor made millions selling her perfume and jewelry lines. “Her importance is the fact she’s the last dinosaur, a graduate of the studio system and the last huge figure to go through that system in which the studio (practically) owned you,” Heymann says.
But she wasn’t always beloved by the suits in Hollywood, especially after Taylor and Burton’s wildly overwrought af- fair (both were married to others at the time) on the set of Cleopatra sent the picture into overtime and cost overruns that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox.
“Let’s not mince words — she was a sacred monster; Burton, too,” Heymann says. “She didn’t give a damn. These people were not your everyday flowers. That’s why they played such a large part in our consciousness . . . because of the splendor and the tragedy and the success of their lives.”
And whatever her sins and mistakes, she was by all accounts an outstanding mother. She had four children, who survive: sons Christopher and Michael Wilding (from her marriage to British actor Michael Wilding), and daughters Liza Todd-Tivey (from her marriage to producer Mike Todd) and Maria BurtonCarson (from her marriage to Burton). She had 10 grandchildren and four greatgrandchildren.
Americans could spend the next week rehashing Taylor’s life and their favorite memories of her. One of her lesserknown qualities was her sense of humor and her arch sense of her own fame. Bragman remembers standing with her in an elevator on their way to an auction of her personal jewelry to raise money for AIDS.
“We get in this grungy elevator, and I was so embarrassed about it. She said, ‘Ah, the bigger the star, the worse the entrance.’ ”
What a dame.