When it was announced yesterday that Elizabeth Taylor had died, it took my breath away. Not that it wasn't expected: she had been very ill for a long time. But Taylor had been a movie star, a major star, as long as I have been alive. I have always loved her, especially her early roles like National Velvet and A Place in the Sun. Who can forget that kiss with Montgomery Clift on the balcony, which has got to be one of the most romantic moments in movie history?
During the 1960s, when she was a major star and even a bigger tabloid fodder, I really didn't pay much attention to her. That may have been because her roles during that time were very adult and I was still a child at that time. Her first Oscar-winning role, Butterfield 8, was a very mature role and I don't think my mother would have ever allowed me to see that one. By the time I became an adult in the late 1970s, Elizabeth Taylor was divorced for the second time from Richard Burton and, as an actress, almost passe. She never did recoup the acting clout she had after she won her second Oscar for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.
When I started to watch more movies and study film in the late 1990s while I was at Smith College, I started to appreciate her roles more. Part of that was sparked by learning that Virgina Woolf was filmed at Smith, and I could walk by the residential house where it was filmed every day. It was at Smith that I watched Virginia Woolf for the first time, and it floored me.
How intimidating it must have been for her: She was an actrees known more for her beauty than for her acting chops, and she took on a role as a frumpy, bitchy, furious matron, and she acted against her real life husband Richard Burton, who is arguably the finest actor of the 20th century? She did it, and boy did she.
I think I loved her for her guts more than anything else, and not only for the movie roles she took on. She was one of the first celebrity activists in the fight against AIDS, and the one who stood by Rock Hudson when he publicly came out about his illness. She supported Michael Jackson through some of his dark days, and even though we may question his behavior through this period, the fact that she stayed by him says a lot about her character. She was a true friend, even though it could cost her in the public's eye.
Even though she suffered through dozens of ailments, married eight times, and was cursed with a beauty that always undermined her acting talent, I think she lived exactly the way she wanted to, and died triumphantly, knowing that she had never compromised. This, more than two Oscars and a stunning face, is what I will remember about Elizabeth Taylor.
That “Old Book Smell”
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