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No One Can Play Elizabeth Taylor except Elizabeth Taylor

March 28th 2011

Film - Elizabeth Cleopatra Taylor
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatria

If Hollywood were a building with its own flag, it would surely be flying at half-mast since the news of the death of Elizabeth Taylor on March 23. She had been one of the brightest and most enduring stars in Tinseltown’s glittering constellation.

But why on earth should her death matter to us ordinary mortals who have never known her except as a regular of the gossip columns? This is the question I have been asking myself as I scanned the obituaries wheeled out in the wake of her death.

Predictably, they emphasized the many sensational aspects of her life: the eight marriages, the addiction to drugs and alcohol, the extravagant lifestyle, the succession of dramatic and life-threatening illnesses. For Taylor, life eclipsed the art; in the intervals of this real-life Theatre she acted in a string of unmemorable films -- with a couple of notable exceptions. I saw the film of Edward Albee’s play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when it came out in 1966 and thought her Oscar fully deserved. Critics might say that in the part of Martha, the foul-mouthed, sexually voracious alcoholic, she simply played herself; actually, in a memorable performance  she brought to the part all the intensity, pathos and neediness of Martha and her ruined illusions.

I also learned from the obituaries that Taylor had played Amy, the youngest, most beautiful (and therefore most spoiled) of the March sisters in the 1949 film of Little Women. You could say that she was cursed with her beauty; a potent mixture of physical features, such as her expressive violet eyes, sexual magnetism and willful personality, it dominated everyone about her.

As a secular icon she typified the old Eve, the temptress, the kind of femme fatale immortalized in literature, as in Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci” or Rider Haggard’s “She.” What she symbolized was more potent than the actuality. Even when she was old, bereft of her legendary looks and occasionally photographed hunched up in a wheel-chair, it was impossible not to feel pity for her fall from glamour, rather than Schadenfreude.

Unlike other stars such as Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland, both broken on the wheel of fame, Elizabeth was also a great survivor. Growing to stardom in the atmosphere of Hollywood (she completed her education in Hollywood’s own school) she had no illusions about the film industry. At 31, with four marriages already behind her and about to marry Richard Burton for the first time, she admitted to a friend, “A lot of the mistakes I’ve made were because of the peculiar world I’ve lived in. I’ve been a movie actress since I was 10 years old, so of course I’ve been spoilt and pampered. The most difficult problem for any actress is trying to understand the difference between reality and make-believe.”

Though she could analyze her own predicament, Elizabeth remained trapped within it, living as a grande horizontale in the full glare of publicity, unable to achieve anything like normality behind the fur coats, yachts and diamonds. Her personal tragedy was to find an alter ego in the person of the fiery Welsh actor Richard Burton, to whom she was twice married, yet be unable to sustain a happy marriage to him. Like Heathcliff and Cathy in Wuthering Heights, they seemed doomed to destroy each other. Yet 26 years after Burton’s death, asked if she would marry him again if it were possible, she answered without hesitation, “in a heartbeat.” Apparently she died with his photo at her bedside.

But behind the statistics of the multiple marriages -- and the unhappiness they caused other wives -- the scandals and skirmishes with death, there was also a woman of courage and generosity, loyal to her friends if not her vows. She stood steadfastly by Michael Jackson when others scrambled to desert him as the allegations of his bizarre personal life emerged. She raised money for AIDS charities before it had become fashionable to do so. She loved her four children. Despite the evident domestic instability of their childhood, in adult life they have not hit the headlines in the tabloid press; her oldest son (from her marriage to Michael Wilding) has spoken warmly of his mother and were all present at her funeral. Perhaps they smiled ruefully when they learned of her arrangements: she decreed that she be brought in 15 minutes after the time scheduled; legendarily late for appointments in life, she elected to be late for her own funeral.

When it was mooted that there would be a biopic of her life, acted by someone else, Taylor vetoed it: “No one will play Elizabeth Taylor except Elizabeth Taylor,” she stated. Indeed, who else could play this great diva and drama queen? She had a mordant sense of humour, often directed against herself, once commenting, “I’m a very committed wife. And I should be committed too – for being married so many times.”

As someone who has been interested in her ever since I saw a large poster of her, reclining on a chaise-longue in Hollywood-Egyptian style for her role as Cleopatra, very definitely the embodiment of Shakespeare’s “serpent of old Nile,” I salute the passing of this gallant, troubled old trouper. I understand she had adopted the Jewish religion – in her own idiosyncratic way, of course – of her third husband, Mike Todd, who was killed in a plane crash in 1958. Writing with a Christian sensibility, I ask God to have mercy on her soul. It is what I would want for myself.

Francis Phillips writes for MercatorNet.com, from where this article is adapted. He resides in Buckinghamshire in the UK.

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