So it’s farewell my lovely Elizabeth Taylor. Put your hands together and give the girl a round of applause. As Richard Burton said of her, ‘Elizabeth wears her fame lightly, like a second skin’. Rock Hudson proved to be almost correct when he said ‘she’s indestructible’. None of us is but Elizabeth Taylor managed to cheat Father Time so many times in her relatively long life (she was 79 I believe) that I’m sure his patience was wearing thin by now.
Funnily enough, when I was in Botswana with DeBeers, the US press attache was Sally Morrison who was and apparently still is Elizabeth Taylor’s press lady. It is Sally who is issuing statements from the family today. Sally told many stories about ET as she was known; none hurtful and all simply raucous and joyful. Apparently, ET had been through so many narrow escapes from the jaws of death that she developed a gallows humour second to none. When she was breathing through a cork in her throat after one particular near miss, ET would apparently light a cigarette and blow smoke through the hole with a demonic cackle.
There is no shortage of scandal about Elizabeth Taylor but that should rest in peace along with the lady herself…though chance will be a fine thing. In her later years, ET was incredibly kind to her friends when in terrible trouble. It was she who mentored Liza through the Betty Ford Clinic, she who became a second mother to Michael Jackson and she who would send 1st class aeroplane tickets to friends in distress with a hand written note saying ‘come and spend some time with me’.
It shocks me slightly that there is at least two generations who will only know ET as the crazy lady at Liza’s wedding or the automaton in a wheelchair smothered in furs and dripping in her world-famous diamond collection. They have no idea that she was one of 20th century Hollywood’s greatest actresses even if she would dismiss her talents when performing on stage with husband twice over Richard Burton. ‘Richard acts’, she would say. ‘I don’t have to. I am a star’.
Yes you were Dame Elizabeth. Speaking of ETs Damehood, I remember buying two tickets in a box at the Royal Albert Hall for a concert given in her honour when she attended with Michael Jackson and was serenaded by people of varying degrees of talent or suitability for the tribute. At the end of the show, she tottered on stage wearing a turquoise sequin teddy trimmed with marabou and matching palazzo pants. I believe she was wearing the Krupp diamond. Anyway, she was camp, amusing, sent herself up and turned on the sentiment precisely when it was asked for: a true star.
My friend Susan F met ET many a time and only had wonderful things to say about her. I never had the chance to meet her but – as with many movie Queens – one feels a connection through the movies they left to posterity. ET was basically a negative of Marilyn Monroe: violet eyes, raven black hair and a knowing, smouldering sensuality that was the yin to Marilyn’s blonde, sparkling and naive yang. Neither liked each other and Marilyn was fired from her last picture Something’s Got To Give in 1962 because 20th Century Fox could not afford to keep it and Taylor’s Cleopatra in production. That’s why Marilyn shot a swimming pool scene in the nude: ‘to knock that broad off every magazine cover in the world’.
Cleopatra may be one of ETs most famous roles – largely because it was such a white elephant and it was the mis-en-scene for her falling in love with Burton – but there are so much greater roles that the actress made her own. Ten Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Paul Newman in which she played Southern belle Maggie the Cat was a barnstorming performance. So too was her goodtime girl in Butterfield 8 and her definitive performance as mentally disturbed Catherine in Suddenly Last Summer. I don’t think there’s an actress alive who could top ETs hysterical, drunken and nasty performance in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? but that’s not my favourite Elizabeth Taylor movie.
ETs best is another Tennessee Williams script called Boom where we discover Elizabeth as a petulant, reclusive ageing movie star living on her own private island who is visited by a sinister stud (Burton) who it transpires is death. The last scene sees Burton slipping the Krupp diamond from ETs finger as she lies dead in her bower. Boom is basically a three-hander between Burton, Taylor and Noel Coward who plays a mystical character called the Witch of Capri. If you can YouTube it, do get a taster then buy the DVD. It is a strange, disturbing film but you’ll see some of ETs best work on screen in Boom.
Even in stinkers like The Mirror Crack’d, ET shines through. She knows she’s in a piece of crap but perseveres and plays the character with a sparkle in those old violet eyes and a knowing look or two to camera. Now that’s what I call a pro. If there is a tragedy to ETs life, it is her inability to act in the last thirty-years of her life. Her health simply wouldn’t allow the studios to insure ET and so one of the greatest talents Hollywood has ever seen was left to slowly fade away.