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Gloats / March 25, 2011

 

So, Elizabeth Taylor’s dead, you might’ve heard! They planted her yesterday. Thank God that’s over.

There are a lot of tributes out there, praising her to the skies. What a fabulous broad, the Last Great Star, and all that guff. It takes a tremendous amount of willful forgetting to consider Elizabeth Taylor “fabulous” any time after 1966. Forty-odd years of aging Liz Taylor looking as purple and swollen as an overripe plum, with a face ever meaner and more imperious, doing terrible films, then terrible TV, wearing hideous bedazzled clothing, hung with rocklike jewels, dating George Hamilton, befriending Michael Jackson, carting around an unhousebroken Maltese dog named Sugar that reportedly shat everywhere, granting endless interviews with slavish interlocutors who’d ask her variations on the question, “What is it that makes you so eternally wonderful?”

She was always happy to answer that one in detail.

Okay, sure, AIDS activism in the ’80s, before it was popular among celebrities, we’ll give her that. But otherwise she was ghastly embarrassing, like so many once-big film stars who won’t go away.

If they’d only retire, buy an island and stay on it! But no, they hang around, selling product (White Diamonds perfume in ET’s case), doing camp-comedy parts in bad movies (Wilma Flintstone’s mother in the last dreadful Flintstones movie) and television (the soap General Hospital, the “voice” of Maggie Simpson on The Simpsons, saying her first word, an unforgivably coy, cooing “Daddy”), giving all those sickening interviews, and generally smearing their own star image which made them famous in the first place.

The Last Great Star tributes mostly ignore the really interesting point about Elizabeth Taylor. It’s not that she was inherently fabulous, it’s that she was designed to to be fabulous. She’s one of the last survivors of the old star system, a manufacturing process to create and sustain films stars, practiced by the old Hollywood studios from the 1910s through the 1950s. And these people are fascinating to the extent that they’re freaks, like the children of Hitler’s old Aryan Race eugenics programs. You naturally want to know how they coped with the monstrosity of their creation.

 

Taylor was of particular interest because they got hold of her when she was a nine-year-old child, so they could really perfect her down to the last eyelash-flutter. Then she managed to hang onto stardom through adolescence into adulthood and on to eternity, meaning she was the most optimal product of the system, a perpetual star. Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Lana Turner (taken over at 13, 7, and 16 respectively) were her peers and fellow star-freaks at MGM, the starriest studio, and they all wound up with similar problems: scads of marriages (Taylor 8, Garland 5, Rooney 8, Turner 8), epic drug and alcohol dependency, legendary public scandals, and an inability to function outside the framework of stardom, meaning they could never retire, they felt compelled to go on and on staging comebacks in various media (movies, theater, concert halls, autobiographies, television, endless interviews). Generally, more and more grotesque comebacks, till the merciful release of death.

 

All of them seem to have learned the same way of presenting their “real” selves, in response to the sheer artifice of their manufactured, PR-ordered lives: they were all “really” barrelhouses of earthy fun once you got to know them. All bawdy, racy, lively, forthright, unpretentious, inclined to self-deprecating humor. It’s a little suspicious, how they were ALL that way, when not putting on the snooty airs stardom required. Also a little suspicious, how you hear exactly the same guff about seemingly too-perfect stars today, like Natalie Portman and Angelina Jolie: they always turn out to have terrific senses of humor, frank appetites, bawdy laughs. The post-Black Swan interviews with Natalie Portman are like verbatim quotes right out of the Liz Taylor handbook.

(Must get ahold of one of these handbooks someday, because there are clearly chunks of received wisdom being passed down somehow from one generation of star to the next. The chapter on “How to Seem Like a Regular Person” is probably even better reading than “How to Disguise Your Rampant Drug Addiction, Then Reveal It for the Big Comeback,” “The Best Getaways for Non-normative Sexual Practices,” and “Bribing Your Servants.”)

After Judy Garland died way back in ’67, Taylor stayed the Most Famous of the old crowd until her death on Wednesday. Her particular claim to fame was Beauty; everything else about her, whatever talent she had, whatever hullaballoo in her personal life, was meaningful in relation to Beauty. And that was in the old days when Beauty was systematized in movies, as much as Genre or Stardom. Scouts went around the world hunting for photogenic Beauty, Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman from Sweden, Dolores del Rio from Mexico, Hedy Lamarr from Austria via a Czechoslovakian film Ecstasy that became a must-see because of her nude swim.

They brought back boatloads of hopefuls, groomed them, taught them how to walk and speak and dress, did camera and lighting and and make-up and wardrobe tests with them to find  to find their best angles, put them in bit parts to see if the fan mail showed a response. Who was that incredibly-built girl wearing the tight sweater, who got killed after the first scene? (That’s how Lana Turner got her start.) Who was that gorgeous guy playing the shell-shocked soldier? (Robert Wagner’s big break.)

Taylor was rare in that she started off at the top of the heap, beauty-wise, so fabulous-looking even as a child, she freaked people out. Everyone who saw her said she must be in movies, immediately.

 

 

That accomplished, there must’ve been a lot of pervy tension around her teenage development, with studio execs and production heads examining footage of her, wondering if she’d develop a body to go with the amazing face. What if she turned out short and squat, flat-chested, with no waist? Even surgery and corsets and falsies can only disguise so much.

But not to worry, the gods favored Taylor below the neck as well as above. When he first met her, Richard Burton referred to her romantically as “Miss Tits.”

 

 

The big drama of Taylor’s life after the studio system busted up was always: how far she had degenerated from her youthful, studio-fostered beauty, and how close she could get again to any semblance of that beauty? So the endless, massive weight gain and loss, presented to the public as an ongoing marvel, starting with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in 1966, with its stunt-casting of still-youngish Elizabeth Taylor as blowzy, grey-haired Martha. See how far she’s willing to go to to prove she’s a real actress? Or wait, maybe she’s just aging and plumping up like any peasant, and this is as good a cover as any.

 

 

Then she did indeed age and run to fat, but she could still periodically draw on the old MGM discipline and diet herself down to an hourglass figure and, with the help of artful plastic surgery, present a sort of blurry semblance of her old self, with an occasional, artful white streak in the teased-up hair to indicate a mature acceptance of the aging process.

But by the end, the last ten years, even that drama was over. She was dumpy and spherical, increasingly wheelchair-bound, and getting dottier by the day. Sometimes she couldn’t remember her much-practiced gracious-star speeches with proper MGM-diction (remember the fiasco the last time she showed up for Oscar night and tried to talk?). She was running out of comeback energy and material. She’d already told all about her drug addictions. What else could be used to keep the spotlight on her? Well, there were always intimate, personal secrets that could be revealed “for the first time” about her love life. For example, she told about the time Eddie Fischer pulled a gun on her because she was cheating with Richard Burton, then how Fischer reassured her: “Don’t worry. I’m not going to kill you. You’re too beautiful.”

She started playing up the old greatest-love stuff about her and Burton, granting access to his old love letters, a source from beyond the grave attesting to her unearthly beauty, her unappreciated acting genius, her status as his One True Love.

 

Polishing up the ol’ legend, see—that’s the last act of a true star. Even Katharine Hepburn did it at the end, trotting out her love affair with Spencer Tracy to hordes of once-shunned reporters, making sure that the last idea everyone had of her was the crowd-pleasing one that planed the edges off her androgyny.

The next phase: now the dirt comes out. There are already biographers waiting in the wings, clutching their manuscripts containing the dirt that couldn’t be dished on Elizabeth Taylor while she was alive and litigious. It’ll probably be fascinating and sordid and ultimately so depressing it will be rejected by the general public, who will then re-embrace the fabulous Legend of Liz.

But the really heartening thing is, she’s dead! We can now remember without undue interference that she was a beautiful design, once.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

32 Comments

Add your own

  • 1. Soj  |  March 25th, 2011 at 1:08 pm

    AMEN!

  • 2. Erik  |  March 25th, 2011 at 1:18 pm

    She looks like my former mother-in-law. Gross, drunk and self-centered like at gyroscope, but the photos of her in her twenties takes your breath away.

  • 3. techno  |  March 25th, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    True story. I had Kennedy’s chief economist, Walter Heller, for a professor in 1970. He loved to explain how he taught Keynesianism to JFK. For an economist, Heller was surprisingly witty but told the lamest jokes imaginable. My favorite was, “An economist is someone who would marry Elizabeth Taylor for her money.”

    While that line might have cracked up JFK in 1962, by 1970 it had a group of students looking at each other in genuine puzzlement as if to ask, “Why ELSE would anyone marry Liz Taylor?”

  • 4. Derek  |  March 25th, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    God damn she was hot! I wasn’t even alive before she went all Norma Desmond, so I actually had no idea she was actually that good looking ever. Aging is such a sin in Hollywood, I’m surprised that all faded actresses haven’t gone the same delusional route.

    I think pop-stars are filling the role these actresses once did, though. Abducted by the industry at young ages (Britney, Miley, Lohan, etc…), molded by a thousand paedophilic hands into dancing and singing cashpoint machines, and then left to their own devices once puberty left them jaded and miserable.

    Debbie Gibson and Tiffany had the decency to bow out gracefully (weird SyFy made-for-TV movie aside) once the only thing of value they had to offer (their youth and beauty) was extinguished, finding something else of value (I assume) to do with their time. These other kids are perfect clones of the type mentioned in this article who know nothing except the life of stardom and so will be consumed by it to the bitter end.

  • 5. Senator Bulworth  |  March 25th, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    She should have married Robert Shaw. There was serious mashup energy between them. Think Jaws monologue x Cleopatra: “Three hundred of us started the production, thirty-five thousand finished. At lunch I’m standing in line and my buddy Herbie says ‘This isn’t for craft service, it’s Liz’ dressing room.’”

    Great column, Eileen.

  • 6. Hannibal  |  March 25th, 2011 at 4:31 pm

    Does anybody know what Eileen Jones looks like? Since I first read her, I’ve been trying to put a face to the delicious prose.

  • 7. Jon  |  March 25th, 2011 at 7:05 pm

    I’ve never understood this obsession with mourning celebrities’ deaths. Firstly, the vast majority of them, as Ms. Jones points out, are completely useless once their time in the spotlight (usually a cruelly short interval) expires, as the traits for which they were admired tend to be ephemeral (beauty, athletic ability, rakish charm, etc.) and relevant in only a certain context (i.e., the fashions of their time). The people we tend to honor the most are not necessarily famous for genuine accomplishments; they are famous primarily for the image of fame they project. So while many of the actors, musicians, and athletes we mourn may have been genuinely worthy of admiration in their time, by the time they pass the only thing being honored is an image; the spectacle, which depressingly may have been more of a factor even in the productive days than we dare admit, takes center stage.

    And secondly, I simply cannot for the life of me comprehend attending a memorial for a person whom you didn’t know personally. Aside from “proving” to others that you feel something–that is, increasing your own worth through parasitic association with someone more significant than yourself–and contributing to the spectacle, there is nothing done in public that cannot take place privately.

    Although I know that this is not a uniquely American phenomenon, the spectacle that occurs whenever a celebrity passes only reinforces my belief in the absolute hollowness of the American psyche. It seems that our lives (I do not exempt myself from this characterization) are so empty and devoid of meaning that the only way to fill the narcissistic void is to attach ourselves to anything/anyone with ostensible significance, in the hope that our attachment to the rich, famous, and glamorous will somehow make us important–that the sheer act of sucking up to someone, even after they’re dead, will make us popular as well. What a sad fucking society; what a sad fucking world.

    /end rant

  • 8. Homer Erotic  |  March 25th, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    What Jon said.

  • 9. Longtimer  |  March 25th, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    Thanks Eileen!

  • 10. Eddie Fiskars  |  March 25th, 2011 at 10:31 pm

    ‘Shat’?

    ¿Qué demonios se supone que significa eso?

  • 11. allen  |  March 25th, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    I don’t get the beauty cult thing. I mean by now the program has mostly succeeded. Diet routines, expensive hair salons, make up, even plastic surgery, ect …

    I mean if you look at girls in the 18-25 range there are plenty who are more or less gorgeous looking. So I don’t see anything that remarkable about Taylor even in her prime.

    (Then again I guess I have to give her something since she is operating in the pre-airbrush era.)

  • 12. jack kane  |  March 25th, 2011 at 11:19 pm

    Very good article! As Eileen notes, the most interesting thing about ET is that ET was a manufactured star. Taylor was hot, but so are millions of other women. She wasn’t a very good actress. Her life, though probably enviable in many senses, holds a certain banality. She wasn’t a complete human being – instead, she was an organic part of Hollywood, something like a walking talking aging corporate logo.

    Her consort Richard Burton was a far more interesting character. He was working class, the 12th of 13 children, a regular smoker and drinker at 12, he quit school at 16, served in the RAF, made his name doing serious acting in London and New York, frankly admitted to homosexual experimentation, drank stunning amounts of vodka, and was a thoroughly literate man. Burton is the kind of guy worth reading about, because he might teach you something. The only thing Taylor can teach you is that if you were a hot girl in Hollywood in the ’40s you might have lucked out and become a big star like Judy Garland.

    One more thing – about the time ET died, I went to BBC and it looked sort of like this: Huge photo of ET as an old hag with a headline announcing her death; then an airplane and a headline explaining how Libya is being exploded; and last a headline about how Japan is being exploded. So when you guys smash the Koch brothers and their lackeys, don’t stop. The whole mainstream media has to go.

  • 13. tam  |  March 26th, 2011 at 12:24 am

    @Jon

    True to an extent and moreso for those who’ve got famous purely on their fleeting sex appeal, but there are also people like Frances McDormand, Isabelle Huppert, Melissa Leo or either of the Hepburns who had or have an appeal that’s based on something much more enduring…

  • 14. Homer Erotic  |  March 26th, 2011 at 5:11 am

    @jack k: And Burton payed for his hard living by dying relatively young. His epic performance as O’Brien in the latter-day movie adaptation of George Orwell’s 1984 was his last.

  • 15. a  |  March 26th, 2011 at 8:33 am

    “Thank God that’s over.”

    Really?! Who the fuck even knew she was still alive. I don’t think I’ve seen or thought of her since the 80s.

    Jeezus, assholes! I don’t give a shit about her, but she has done good work for AIDs and was harmless. Stick to issues that matter to the world.

  • 16. PsycloneJack  |  March 26th, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Last Great Stars are still around, like Don Rickles, Ernest Borgnine.
    But if you want a great actress, there’s Lauren Bacall.

  • 17. Maya  |  March 26th, 2011 at 11:01 am

    I found you guys just yesterday by clicking a link that led to one of your Koch posts. I read a few of your posts and thought you’d be a great Koch resource, bookmarking the site as such. I was a little put off by your use of “retarded” as a slur, but not enough to write the site off.

    I am clearly in the minority here when it comes to your Liz Taylor post. I find it vapid, puerile, shallow, unnecessarily hateful and frankly, just plain stupid.

    I lived in worked in New York City in the 80′s. I had many, many GLBT friends. And I had many GLBT friends who suffered the horrors of AIDS back then. Not only was it a death sentence with no hope of treatment of any kind, my friends were stigmatized and spurned not just by the rest of the population, but often by their own families and sometimes healthy GLBT.

    The mysteries surrounding AIDS and the ways that AIDS was spread abounded. The fact that it was known as a “gay plague” made it easy for people prone to fear based on nothing but “I heard that…” information. I had friends whose families were somewhat accepting before outright refuse to be in their presence after they tested positive for HIV.

    Elizabeth Taylor played a pivotal part in educating not just the US, the world, about AIDS. She had a pivotal role in removing the stigma associated with AIDS. What you so glibly brush off in one sentence was a 30+ year devotion to AIDS education, funding research, service provision, and more. As her AmFAR tribute noted, when she got involved “she didn’t just help, she changed the landscape forever.”

    How many here who are joining in to disparage Elizabeth Taylor will be able to claim the same on your deathbed?

  • 18. bling  |  March 26th, 2011 at 11:38 am

    what a heartless, sexist pig you are.

  • 19. gc  |  March 26th, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    Thought: The way the horribleness of aging has been a recurring theme in the Exiled (and the Exile) means they’re very well placed for the burgeoning between entitled old people and shut-out-of-the-system young people.

    (Of course, they’ve already touched on that subject a bit.)

  • 20. Maya  |  March 26th, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    I came back to add a couple of things I omitted in my earlier post. My memory was jogged by current amfAR chair Kenneth Cole speaking about Elizabeth Taylor. He made two points I left out:

    1) ET was amfAR’s founding chairperson. KC stated what I’ve heard elsewhere: there wouldn’t have been an amfAR without Elizabeth Taylor. Yes, she was that pivotal and her fundraising was that formidable.

    2) She is credited with raising over $350 million over the course of her involvement with the AIDS cause. She lobbied “aggressively” for federal research funds and funds for service delivery and education. She worked “tirelessly” to educate about AIDS and raise funds elsewhere. But it was more than that. One paragraph from the amfAR tribute to her addresses her personal touch:

    “As the most famous advocate for people with HIV/AIDS, Dame Elizabeth maintained a personal connection to those affected while continuing to speak out on their behalf. In 1989, she made headlines when she was photographed shaking hands with an HIV/AIDS patient in a Bangkok, Thailand, hospital. The photograph ran in papers throughout Southeast Asia and, at least in that region, probably did more than any other single event to quell fears about touching people with AIDS. On World AIDS Day 1996, she delivered a fervent appeal to the General Assembly of the United Nations, urging all nations to join together in a worldwide attack on HIV/AIDS. Following this formal appearance, she went down to Manhattan’s Lower East Side where she “dropped in” on a local needle exchange program, with little fanfare.Dame Elizabeth always had a comfortable relationship with the AIDS community, their families, and their advocates; she sensed their need for direct support and comfort.”

    People who knew her describe her as bright, funny, forthright, compassionate, and so much more. Sure she had her faults — who doesn’t? So you can look at the tabloid Liz Taylor and ridicule away if you choose, or you can look at the totality of her life, including the last third+ of it that was devoted HIV/AIDS.

  • 21. Leiito  |  March 26th, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    wanna know what Eileen Jones looks like?

    http://www.facebook.com/people/Eileen-Jones/1113162653

  • 22. Blossom  |  March 27th, 2011 at 5:42 am

    I’m more than sure that Liz Taylor was way a better human being than you are…

  • 23. niccolo and donkey  |  March 27th, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Maya, no one gives a fuck about your GLBT crowd of whining shits.

  • 24. ohboy  |  March 27th, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    I’m gonna pretend that I’m upset over alleged “misogyny” because actually I’m paid by the Kochs to try to say something bad about this site. Hope it works, wish me luck!

  • 25. AJ  |  March 27th, 2011 at 9:08 pm

    @maya I think ET’s starring across from Roddy McDowell in some of her early movies scarred her for life. Yes, she was very supportive of gay people. As a gay person, I appreciate that. However, as a reader and fan of this site for several years, I’m afraid your remarks are going to go over like the proverbial lead balloon. You’ve entered a sissy-free zone.

  • 26. Calvin  |  March 29th, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    The article mentions ET’s AIDS work, fourth paragraph down:

    “Okay, sure, AIDS activism in the ’80s, before it was popular among celebrities, we’ll give her that.”

  • 27. Burr X  |  April 20th, 2011 at 5:41 pm

    I had the misfortune of watching “Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf” on American Movie Classics a couple of weeks ago. What a fucking weird movie, but she was still smokin hot.

  • 28. Person  |  August 2nd, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    Wow. This article proves that no matter what you do, in the end people hate you. What if Elizabeth Taylor had done more for the world than what she did, mean people like you would STILL insult her. In this world, you cannot win. You can be the best person or the worst, either way you die alone. And that’s sad. Plus, most people who knew Elizabeth Taylor said she was lovely – she had enough reason to be conceited yet people like Paris Hilton and modern celebrities think more of themselves. I truly feel bad for you and hope that somebody will mourn over your death and not insult you like you’ve insulted Taylor. Death is always a sad thing: we as humans have no proven knowledge of what happens after death, therefore we should always hope that everybody enjoys life and will go on to somewhere good. Death should never be ridiculed and it’s odd that you have to have that pointed out by a 14 year old girl. The only thing that validates such a rude article as such revolving death would be if it was about Hitler or somebody similarly evil. Grow up and don’t waste your time mocking other people: it accomplishes nothing.

  • 29. fuck her  |  August 5th, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    i should stop writing stupid thigs about her and let her wrinkled thigs rest in peace!

  • 30. Forbidden Fruit  |  September 8th, 2011 at 1:56 am

    I do agree with you on the fact that she was way too overrated but you sound really mean!

  • 31. vicki eller  |  January 6th, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    You are so shamefully misguided. Her recent auction brought in multi millions, even for the broken costume jewelry, because people wanted to own a piece of her She lived large, but gave bigger. In this country she literally changed the face of AIDS, and saved lives. The only woman to rival her beauty was Ava Gardner. In the end, she suffered from congenital heart failure and multiple illnesses and deserved her wheel chair and eccentricities. luckily she never gave a hoot what people like you thought!

  • 32. Ramon Jurado  |  August 7th, 2012 at 6:44 pm

    What a pathetic scumbag you are, making fun of Elizabeth Taylor. You are so stupid that you haven’t even realized that you are using a picture that is on an Elizabeth Taylor impersonator. Fucking imbecile.


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