Thursday, March 24, 2011
An incredible woman died yesterday, and I am missing her already. As a small but very well intended homage I wrote this piece for The Guardian film blog:
"Elizabeth Taylor: the icon's icon: Her tenacity, adventures in immorality and profound talent made Liz Taylor the star other stars wanted to be associated with.
Elizabeth Taylor died on Joan Crawford's birthday: a wholly fitting date. The two leading ladies met on the set of Torch Song in the early 50s, a movie Crawford was filming with Taylor's second husband, Michael Wilding. And they did not hit it off; Crawford could see the future, and it was Taylor. When the younger actor declined to treat Crawford as the movie queen she was, the star branded her "a little bitch" and threatened to teach her some manners. Taylor rebuffed her with typical nonchalance, saying how lucky Wilding was to play a blind man in the movie and therefore be spared the horror of looking at Crawford.
If anything sums up Taylor's personality it's probably this meeting of minds, for it perfectly encapsulates her fierce independence, her rebellious nature, and her complete acceptance of her magnificent good looks. In refusing to kiss Hollywood arse, in throwing caution to the wind and her white-hot sexuality in the face of a public often as aghast as they were thrilled, Taylor bucked and redefined modern movie stardom.
She was a child of the studio system, making her debut at 10 years old in the golden era of Hollywood, but she was by no means ruled by it in the way that a generation of stars who came before her were. She lived through the collapse of the old system of movie-making and came through it as the last bearer of its glory and simultaneously as a gloriously liberated standard-bearer for independence and a newly emerging feminist politic. The first woman to be paid $1m (£618,000) for a movie (Cleopatra, 1963) Taylor was representative of the swinging 60s, of female emancipation, of sexual liberation. Yet at the same time she was the last great movie star, a role that traditionally came with a very different set of values.
While some movie stars (perhaps Garbo or Hayworth) may have rivalled her for glamour and looks, and some for that "don't give a fuck" attitude (Bankhead and Hepburn for starters) no one did it so well and so simultaneously. It was exactly this mixture of glamour and "so what?", this incomparable work ethic combined with her legendary party-girl spirit that made her what she became. Liz Smith, the famed gossip columnist, wrote that what excited people about Taylor was, "her vulgarity and her arrogance [as well as] the money". Taylor was a monarch and a rebel at once, this was her unique streak, she rewrote the rulebook and became an icon to icons.
Most famously perhaps, Taylor's lifelong friend Michael Jackson spent his life changing his own looks in imitation of the Hollywood beauty. He also made her the co-star of his hit 1989 music video Leave Me Alone. The video featured vintage footage of Taylor inside a funfair of tabloid rumours, sending up the insane scrutiny both stars had faced during their careers, and positing her as the avatar of celebrity itself. Likewise, one of the 20th century's key iconographers, Andy Warhol, was an avid Taylor fan, drawing on her persona for one of his most famous silk screens, 1963's Liz, which sold for £11.4m in 2007. Warhol used Taylor just as he used soup cans, as shorthand to re-evaluate popular culture, because she encapsulated it.
Throughout her life, Taylor was the star stars wanted to be associated with. When David Bowie first met her in Beverley Hills, in 1975, he was quick to pose with Taylor for Terry O'Neill in a series of suggestive and deeply charismatic pictures. In doing so Bowie conferred some of Taylor's legendary sex appeal on his own personality, and staked his own claim as a superstar equal to the legend.
Things are no different today, as countless Facebook profile pictures and Twitter tributes prove. Everyone from UK glamour puss Paloma Faith to reality TV star Kim Kardashian is claiming her as an idol of beauty, longevity and strength. Nor is it solely mainstream starlets who pay homage to Taylor today, tributes come from the underground, too (including her first posthumous interview on Max Steele's fagcity blog), from artists who respected her dedication to Aids fundraising and her position as outsider on the inside.
What is truly fascinating about Taylor's persona is that in spite of what seems an endless run of ill health, the image that remains of her is that of a virile, devastating screen siren, not that of the frail, bloated old lady unable to walk she has been for the last two decades. The true strength of her iconic image is exemplified by the fact that even the wheelchair-bound reality of her situation could not undermine it. Attending hospital in sunglasses and diamonds, she remained to the last a glamorous symbol of selfhood, a woman who didn't care for convention, who played it as it came and accepted the consequences. Her tenacity, her adventures in immorality, and her profound talent made Elizabeth Taylor the icon other icons mimic, the test they must pass, the bar they must raise if they are to be acknowledged in the same breath as those who were truly great."