Elizabeth Taylor was not a sex symbol in the usual sense: neither spawn of 1940s pinup culture, like Marilyn Monroe, nor herald of 1960s sexual revolution, like Brigitte Bardot—both of whom were her contemporaries. Taylor may not have been a sex symbol at all, if by that is meant a figure upon whom the desires of an age are projected. She seemed too frank and restless pursuing her own desires to be captured in that way.
When she died on March 23, the tabloids called her a “Hollywood goddess.” That is half right. She was Hollywood the way some people are Jersey. A luminous presence on the screen from girlhood, Taylor went on across the decades amassing a portfolio of unforgettable movie stills, a working life’s list of credits from movie classics to soap opera schlock, an archive of scandal-sheet headlines and triumph-to-tragedy-and-back-again stories, a few stunning roles, more than a few husbands, more hair and makeup and jewels than even that unseemly town found seemly and two Oscars, her second for a performance of such seismic force that it should have forever settled the question of whether she was an actor with a capital A. But “goddess” is too airy a term for someone who so embodied sex and enacted its complications, with all the gritty commonness that implies.
Years ago the film critic Vincent Canby wrote that “Elizabeth Taylor represents the complete movie phenomenon—what movies are as an art and an industry.” She also represented, in her work and in her life, the arts and industry of sex, the varied ways sexuality was being worked out, or not, in fantasy, commerce and ordinary life during the second half of the twentieth century.
Hollywood was part of Sex Inc.—midway on the conglomerate chart between advertising and Wall Street—long before Taylor cruised past Montgomery Clift in a 1949 Cadillac Series 62 convertible and into postwar America’s dream for more. More pleasure, more freedom, more beauty, more space, more… possibility? It was 1951 when she starred in A Place in the Sun, the story of a poor man’s careless ambitions, based on An American Tragedy. But Taylor’s style-setting society girl, Angela Vickers, is no mere update on the classic unobtainable object of desire, a goddess, like Daisy Buchanan or Sondra Finchley, on water skis. She is naïve and selfish and clueless about the world beyond her privilege, but she is hungry too.
Taylor once said that in acting she strove to extract maximum emotion from minimal effort; her Angela is molten in silence, breathing a mix of excitement and apprehension on the balcony outside her parents’ choked ballroom, whispering to her lover just before they kiss, “Tell Mama, tell Mama.”
She was barely 18 years old when that was filmed. Perhaps it was the hunger of youth and the time, both on the cusp of furious change. Taylor was hardly a rebel, not “ahead of it,” only with it enough to contain or conjure up the passion below the surface of rude awakenings. Playing Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof eight years later, she prowls with sexual frustration. A woman with a man with problems, she loves him, taunts him, loves him, loathes him, and herself. Beyond dialogue, her body betrays a longing for the comforting lie but also a rage at the scaffolding of lies that would make this one no comfort at all.
Taylor had been married three times, divorced twice and widowed by then. She was 26. It’s been said that she got her ideas about love from growing up on Hollywood sets, rapt by the movies’ melodrama and improbably happy endings. If that is true, then her rough ride with romance provided a public service. Maybe people didn’t exactly know that Conrad “Nicky” Hilton beat her and left her sexually wanting, or that she traded swats and barbs with the men who followed, but even the most adept publicist could not make Elizabeth Taylor’s love life a Rorschach for “storybook.” On a TV interview with Mike Todd, whom romantics still like to think of as the good true love, she seems infantilized. After his plane crash, no sooner had she come out of sedation and the care of her hairdresser than she was cuddling with her chief consoler and Todd’s married best friend. For that she was branded a scarlet woman, but no amount of tut-tutting over the fate of the third leg in this triangle, “America’s sweetheart,” Debbie Reynolds, could conceal that it was 1959; estrangement was no longer so strange.
Taylor made it all larger, and Hollywood gave it starker lighting and better lines, but in big and little houses, within good and not-so-good families, experience was unraveling old axioms about sex, love and human nature. People were in marriages that had become killing jars. They were falling for the other man, the other woman, betting on love while knowing better. They were procuring rent boys. They were hooking or half-hooking because BUtterfield 8 beat hanging tobacco in Connecticut and usually didn’t end in a high-speed chase over a cliff. Their Mama’s boyfriend did seduce them. Their families did lock them in sanitariums because they were queer or sexed up or prone to obscene babbling. Randy young women did walk the night streets, drawn by the erotic pulse of the city, as JFK’s sister Rosemary did not long before the lobotomist scooped her brains out with a spatula. Tennessee Williams, whose sister’s lobotomy influenced Suddenly Last Summer, and Gore Vidal, who wrote the screenplay, were much later blasted for creating a monster freak show. They were not even contenders against real life: a woman of 23, saying the Lord’s Prayer, singing ditties, counting down numbers while surgeons dig in her skull until she falls mute, and this from the family that would bring us Camelot!
The country was going crazy, and Taylor was just with it. When the ’60s exploded, old Hollywood was marooned. Joan Crawford sniffed that everything would be better if girls just grew their hair and boys cut theirs. Elizabeth Taylor’s passion with Richard Burton, the excesses of their spending and their drinking and their need, now appear rational by contrast. They got aroused playing Scrabble, she once said; “That’s love, baby.” When they worked together, Taylor’s feel for the struggle between people bound by sex rescued something even when the lines were silly and the plot a mess. Love is a mess. When the lines were strong (or cruel, comic, feral—how many words describe Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) no one had such strength and fragility mixed. In her solo movies, even when the lines were awful, as in the weird 1973 plastic surgery saga Ash Wednesday, she conveyed shades of pain with a look, of a body wracked, of a woman’s fear approaching marriage’s dead end.
Taylor explored just about every trope of female heterosexuality in the movies, and once finished with them and with a brief, lonely stint as a senator’s wife, it was as if she said, “Goodbye, baby” to all that. Her hair got bigger, her eyeshadow bluer, her clothes more spangly and bright. She became a kind of drag queen earth mother just as the drag queens were dying, as hairdressers and stylists and designers and actors and friends were dying, as a great swath of Hollywood lay down in death with a great swath of humanity because AIDS didn’t fall for illusion. She got loud about condoms and clean needles and indifference because in this theater subtlety could have no impact. The old Hollywood people in the White House kept silent. Most of Hollywood, most liberals said nothing. She made noise; she was a pro at sex and survival.