Elizabeth Taylor: A Survivor’s Tale
As our first example, the influential playwright Lanford Wilson, whose writing since the early 1960’s resulted in such gritty urban dramas as The Hot L Baltimore and small town family angst fests as Fifth of July, died last week. His plays were briefly mentioned, with nary a word devoted to his personal life. This brings us to our second example: screen goddess Elizabeth Taylor. In our feeble attempts to capture Taylor’s life with mere words...where does one begin?
Let this be said now: all of the articles and tributes published about Taylor reflect the fact that she lived a long, full life. How full? She was an Oscar-winning actress, iconic film star with a rocky personal life that expanded the boundaries of tabloid news reporting, cosmetics entrepreneur, and last but certainly far from least, humanitarian.
Elizabeth Taylor was the last of what we may consider to be the old-school movie star. As a point of reference (and reverence), think of her fellow colleagues in this school: Cooper, Bogart, Tracy, Hepburn, Wayne, and Monroe, among others. Her longevity in show business — from her breakout role in National Velvet (1944) to guest shots on television up to 2001 — certainly attests to a large quantity of work. In between there was magnificent quality — A Place in the Sun, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — with which she enriched our culture and, in turn, she was rewarded with two (out of three) Oscars for her acting achievements.
Naturally, the obituary writers could not downplay Taylor’s personal life. Indeed, there was so much to cover that our local newspaper devoted a second article just to her marriages. The reports recounted all of the details of all eight of her marriages to seven men. In my reading of these accounts, I have concluded IMHO that, in addition to several high-profile friendships with gay actors (Montgomery Clift and Rock Hudson), Taylor had two great loves: Michael Todd and Richard Burton.
Fate cheated Taylor and Todd out of God knows how many years of happiness when he died in a plane crash. Burton was lucky enough to be invited back to her marital bed, even after their divorce was final. They married again, and concluded again, that a contractual living arrangement couldn’t work for them.
In between the marriages, there were bouts of grief, scandal, alcohol binges, and ultimately recovery. The American movie-going public exhibited a love/hate relationship with Taylor throughout it all. The public loved her as a teenage actress in Father of the Bride, wanted to scratch her eyes out when it appeared she stole Eddie Fisher from Debbie Reynolds, warmed up to her sympathetically when she had a near fatal bout of bronchitis (indeed she felt her Oscar win for Butterfield 8 was more for her illness than her performance), then turned on her again when she began cavorting scandalously with Richard Burton during the filming of Cleopatra. Sometimes it seemed like Liz couldn’t win for losing! Fortunately, all of the tabloid columns and condemnations would fade from memory as Taylor moved from this second act of jet-setting materialistic debauchery to a third act of redemption.
In her later years, Elizabeth Taylor devoted more time to humanitarian causes, chief among them raising funds and awareness for HIV/AIDS research. Oh, she was still hounded in the press for a few more marriages, stints at the Betty Ford Center, and hospitalizations, but they seemed to take less importance when she became a leader against a disease (and its corresponding prejudice) that nearly decimated an entire generation. The results must have been gratifying to her: satisfaction in waging a war against AIDS; her reputation restored to one of high esteem; a humanitarian award from the Academy, and made a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth.
All these details from her life make her succinct suggestion for her own headstone inscription — “She lived” - seem like a massive understatement. More than anything else, Elizabeth Taylor was a survivor. Could we have asked for anything more? I seriously doubt it.
(Thank you for reading. Rest in Peace, Liz.)