Tim Blanks On Elizabeth Taylor: “It Was Her Own Life That Was Her Greatest Role”
Audrey Hepburn in her little black dress is about as iconic as fashion on film gets, but my icon money will always be on Elizabeth Taylor lolling around in a white satin slip in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She brought the heat, the devil to Audrey’s angel. Color me ardent fan, I loved her in everything, even long-forgotten tosh like Secret Ceremony and Night Watch. She was hypnotically watchable, and when the part and the personality coincided, she was untouchable. But, clichés be damned, it was her own life that was her greatest role. The multiple marriages, the adoptions, the jewels, the booze, the breakdowns, the bandaged wrists…she fearlessly played to the gallery. Avedon mirrored some of those high/low points in a ten-page shoot for Bazaar in 1962 with Suzy Parker and Mike Nichols duplicating Taylor and her amour fou Richard Burton (with Taylor, above, in 1966) in the midst of the paparazzi frenzy that was generated by their affair while they were filming Cleopatra in Rome. It’s a spectacular aide-mémoire for a pop cultural moment that paved the way for so much to come. I think even the Pope got busy with some harsh words at one point. Which, to a Liz-fixated pre-teen in New Zealand, only made the illicit lovers seem even more Olympian, untroubled by dull, daily, judgmental, little-people-and-papal concerns. Liz and Dick just got on with their sex and squabbles and spendy brilliance.
Kitty Kelley’s 1982 dissection of Taylor was subtitled The Last Star. That’s no less true now than it was three decades ago. They still come and they go, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone living as large for as long as Taylor did. Hopefully, it helped her push away the physical pain that perpetually dogged her. I interviewed her 20 or so years ago, when she was promoting her perfume White Diamonds. Taylor was in a wheelchair then, right till the moment when she had to meet and greet. Then she was on her feet, delivering. Never meet your idols, they say, but she was as bawdy and funny and engaging as you’d want a dame to be. And if there was triumph, too, then that was what made her Elizabeth Taylor.