It may seem strange that I am moved to write this piece, despite the fact that I had not seen a single movie with her in it until today (you'll be getting a very special Filling the Gaps piece in the near future). She's the old type of Hollywood star, the type that we only know today through soundbites, little pieces of data about her many marriages and her odd friendships. But the outpouring of remembrance for her has astounded me. The amount of genuine love for her seems passé in this post-ironic age; people don't love her because she's a train-wreck, they love her because she's Elizabeth Taylor.
I find this all the more striking because, until today, her films weren't really talked about. They hadn't transcended time and space like Casablanca or Gone with the Wind or any number of French films, but she was wildly successful in her era, and was duly recognized by the Academy. In fact, the only times you really heard about her movies was when people discussed biggest flops of all time (Cleopatra ahoy!).
I wrongly believed that she was just a tabloid identity, a Paris Hilton of her times. But it's astonishing how much of her tabloid persona was in fact created by the studios (Taylor was one of the last actresses to be indentured to one studio). They knew that keeping her chaotic personal life on the front page would lead to sales, sales, sales. Which is a shame, because it overshadows her output. If you scan her IMDB, you realize the number of quality films she starred in was immense. As an actress, she created a cultivated career the likes of Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep or Katharine Hepburn, not of Angelina Jolie, her match in tabloid success. You don't get offered that sort of role again and again, screenplays written by Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, by just being a dilettante.
I'm also struck by how much women adore her (and gays, but we'll come to that). She was stunningly beautiful, but possessed neither the lusty beauty of femme fatales nor the girl next door attraction of contemporary Doris Day. There's something different there; her beauty is not superhuman but in fact alien. Simply put, she does not look American. Her beauty seemed universal, equally treasured in the dirty South, in the dark reaches of Africa, or anywhere in Asia. You can find actresses in any world cinema today; there's always one that looks a bit like Elizabeth Taylor. So while her films are perhaps not as influential or well remembered as they ought to be, her looks seem to have transformed what the world thinks of beauty.
So in that respect, she did finally become Cleopatra.
But she wasn't just a pretty face. Her AIDS activism is well-documented, and she was involved well before it was socially or politically acceptable to do so. Her long time and committed friendships to troubled stars such as Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift and Michael Jackson signal an affinity for the downtrodden.
So here's to you, Mrs. Taylor.