Elizabeth Taylor was the living definition of “movie star” during my moviegoing lifetime — from age 5 onward. I’m not asking anyone to take my word for it, but I believe if you spoke to anyone in the media who covered “Hollywood” during the 50s and 60s, and well into the 70s, and asked them which movie star — which celebrity — attracted the most camera flash, they would mention one name: Elizabeth Taylor.
No other celebrity of the era — not even Jackie Onassis — got more ink or more photogs following them. Yes, Jackie attracted the first paparazzi in America, but that was largely the result of the dogged determination of a solo photographer, a paparazzo — Liz was the first to attract hoards of them with every public appearance — even after the studio publicity machines were dead or dying. She was the last movie star to attract that kind of attention EVEN WHEN SHE WASN’T INVOLVED IN SCANDAL or CONTROVERSY. I shout those words because otherwise I don’t think anyone under 40 will believe such media attention, then or now, to be possible without the pungent odor of sleaze.
No movie star or entertainment celebrity from Mary Pickford onward received as much public attention — and I don’t mean American public, I mean global. And Liz Taylor, when she DID do something scandalous such as her affair with a still-married Richard Burton, it was an international event. Yes, having an affair, or having it revealed, while still married was a significant lapse of morals in the early 1960s, before the invention of “free love” in the waning years of that decade. It was only the beginning of their long, tumultuous relationship and its blanket international media coverage — while they were making the costliest movie ever (and that was already a huge story in itself). Their relationship was a story the media followed for the next 20-plus years, up until the death of Richard Burton in 1984, and by then they had been divorced for the last time, for years. In between, every breakup, every reconciliation and every new rift or rumor of a rift, was documented and, for maybe the first time in the history of journalism, their marriages and divorces made the front pages, with pictures and bold headlines, of every newspaper in America and around the planet.
Would it be fair to say, or even possible to conclude that Elizabeth Taylor was the first modern celebrity in the sense that while she preceded the digital age, she was actually the blueprint for celebrity and celebrity digital media coverage of today? This must have been the bond that she shared in a long friendship with Michael Jackson, each saw so much of themselves in other. The talent, the looks, the acclaim, the money, the scandal, the degradation, the redemption — they shared the same experiences, all except one, until now.
With hindsight, it is obvious to me that she represented the pinnacle of what we have called “movie stardom,” a term that loses relevance with each passing decade and the fracturing of our media and our interests and the multiplying forms of entertainment. I haven’t even made mention of her acting ability, her great roles, her worst or her best films, her child stardom.
I haven’t mentioned my own particular favorite accomplishment of Elizabeth Taylor: her use of the curse word, GODDAMN, venomously spewed by her character, Martha, in response to her husband George who, before answering the doorbell to let in their party guests, asks her to please “not sound like a subhuman monster yowling at them” — which is exactly what she sounds like just as he opens the front door to see the crestfallen faces of their party guests in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” :
Listening to it now, you can hear the overdub of “Goddamn” added to an over-emphasized “You!” — a remnant of the original reading of the line in the film and in the original play, “Screw You!” Nevertheless, substituting “Goddamn you” for “screw you” at the request of the MPAA only highlighted the anachronistic idiocy of institutionalized censorship in the America of the mid-1960s. It was more than enough to bring the remaining, crumbling facade of the production code down upon the ruins of what remained of the Hollywood film studios in 1966. No she didn’t write the words, she merely spoke them. Some might see it as the height of irony, but not me. I see it as supremely just — that the last true star created by the studios helped hammer shut the moldy corpse of old Hollywood in its coffin.
Future generations will pass judgment on our society, our values, as we have done to those before us.. But if they correctly understand us and our times, they will recognize the meaning and the importance to us of such cultural cornerstones as “movie stardom,” and that Elizabeth Taylor was the last-born, true, pure example of that uniquely 20th Century phenomenon.