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.