Even in death, Elizabeth Taylor provoked an unabashed awe that bordered on embarrassing, with every eulogizer (even yours truly) falling all over themselves in gushing tribute to her beauty, her larger-than-life persona, and the legacy she leaves behind. And yet in nearly every obituary, her acting—her supposed claim to fame—was something of an afterthought. This shouldn’t be taken as a slight, but rather an acknowledgment of something that was always true: All her life, Taylor’s presence was far more interesting than whatever role she played onscreen. She was a true “movie star.”
After all, if we’re being honest, in spite of a career that spanned more than half a century, Taylor’s filmography boasts only a handful of good to great performances—and if you were to ask famously contrarian critic Pauline Kael (not now, but while she was still alive), she would have told you that Taylor peaked at the age of 12, playing a girl who loves horses in National Velvet, and that she was never so convincing again. And while there’s no denying that Taylor became an icon through films like A Place In The Sun or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, it’s a chicken-or-egg conundrum, with each of these films relying less on Taylor’s creation of a character than the way she wielded her already-celebrated extraordinary beauty. Initially, she was incandescent and untouchable in her many roles as some sort of elusive socialite. Then she turned sultry and seductive as she blossomed into one of the most confidently sexual women ever to appear onscreen. Even those who point to what has become arguably her “signature” role, as the regal object of worship in Cleopatra, tend to overlook the fact that the film is a turgid, melodramatic bore that would have been more entertaining had it been an extended shot of a smirking Taylor in full headdress, blithely feeding 20th Century Fox’s $44 million into a bonfire.
And of her two Oscar-winning roles… Well, Taylor herself dismissed BUtterfield 8, famously noting, with typical candor, “I still say it stinks.” Indeed, it was a campy turn in a sordid little movie (How many other Academy Award winners have delivered a line as trashy as “Face it, Mama—I was the slut of all time”?) and it’s no secret that much of the audience interest was driven by Taylor’s off-screen romancing of Eddie Fisher away from her friend and former maid of honor, Debbie Reynolds. As for that Oscar? Taylor herself later called her victory “a sympathy award,” spurred by her coming down with a case of life-threatening pneumonia a month before the ceremony. Her illness so swayed the Academy that Reynolds herself admitted to voting for her, while Shirley MacLaine—whose loss for The Apartment that year ranks among the all-time great Academy mistakes—famously joked, “I lost to a tracheotomy!” And years later, Taylor’s well-deserved win for Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (a role that similarly traded on her personal life, this time with co-star Richard Burton) became the exception that proved the Elizabeth Taylor rule, recognizing an aggressive, warts-and-all performance that was lauded for featuring Taylor—after so many years when her eyes and hourglass figure did all the work—truly acting.
And yet, even with an oeuvre relatively light on memorable films, Taylor was inextricably intertwined with the golden age of Hollywood, and heralded upon her death (again, even by me) as one of its last true stars. Some of the bolder among us went so far as to call her “The Last Movie Star,” a label that various biographers and commentators crowned her with decades before her death. It was an idea floated way back in the 1970s, in fact, when Andy Warhol perhaps best summed up his onetime portrait subject and occasional Studio 54 pal:
She can act but isn’t a first-rate actress. She has energy, and her money shot is the close-up, the camera in her face. Her coloring—the violet eyes, dark hair, and flawless skin—is what made her. That’s what people pay to see… She’s the last in a line of great Hollywood stellars. Not in her profession, necessarily, but at playing herself.
A manufacturer of iconography who predicted that celebrity would one day be every idiot’s province for at least 15 minutes, Warhol obviously knew something about the difference between fleeting and lasting fame, and which kind Taylor represented. And by the time Warhol offered his assessment of Taylor, the idea of “fame” had already begun to lose import, taking on a cheapened meaning that was mirrored in Warhol’s own work, in which he turned random hustlers and “poor little rich girls” into what he pointedly called his “superstars.” Theirs was a playacting version of celebrity that continues to this day, as seen in our strange fascination with reality-TV lunkheads, sex-tape-starring socialites, and the various nightclubbing wastrels climbing the New York and L.A. ladders to nowhere. Well before the likes of Jersey Shore and Peaches Geldof, Warhol was astute enough to recognize that the fame he once worshipped was fragmenting into a hundred lesser definitions, diminished to the point where some form of it was achievable by virtually anyone. He also knew that people like Taylor represented the dying light of the true stars—and everything that followed was just a pale reflection.
In that sense, it’s downright poetic that Taylor’s last-ever interview was conducted by Kim Kardashian, whose “stardom” illustrates just how hollow that term has become. Yet for all Kardashian’s dubious claims to the world Taylor inhabited, it’s part of a lineage directly traceable to Taylor. That’s because so much of Taylor’s legacy depended not on what she actually did, but on who she was perceived to be. Her personal life fueled tabloid chatter for much of the 20th century and beyond, often feeding directly into her success—something that was true even of her most recognized achievements.
As I mentioned earlier, audiences flocked to BUtterfield 8 to see Taylor steal Fisher away from Reynolds right in front of their eyes, driven by their prurient fascination even as they delighted in despising her. Similarly, the open secret of Taylor’s tempestuous, occasionally adulterous relationship with Richard Burton was the centerpiece of one terrific and several ridiculous movies, yet even the greatness of Virginia Woolf was an appendix to the “Liz ’N Dick” story, a lavish, louche lifestyle that The New York Times caustically condemned as endemic of “The Age Of Vulgarity,” long before the Kardashians had even one reality show.
And throughout her life, Taylor was cheerfully vulgar and unapologetically decadent, reveling in wealthy and powerful boyfriends, draping herself in diamonds, even slapping her name on perfumes—her life the very blueprint for every would-be glamourpuss to follow. Want further evidence of her role as accidental godmother to the modern celebutante? Either illustrating the incestuousness of high society or just an example of life’s coincidences, Taylor first became a fixture of the gossip columns at age 17, when she was swept off her feet by the gambling, carousing Conrad “Nicky” Hilton—best known today as the grand-uncle to Paris and Nicky, two direct descendants of the famous-for-being-famous persona that their onetime consort Kim Kardashian (who calls Taylor her “idol”) so dutifully perfected.
Yet while Elizabeth Taylor can be seen as the unintentional progenitor to today’s scandal-sheet celebrities, she was a true star not only because she had the body of work to back it up, but because she had something today’s celebrities will never, ever know: mystery. Even at her most dogged and exposed, Taylor was afforded just enough distance from the public to hold its fascination—a wall between artist and audience through which the entertainment-biz hacks drilled only the smallest of peepholes, or left the public to make outlandish guesses about what was on the other side. But that wall has been slowly eroding even since Taylor’s heyday, erasing that distance and making the very notion of a “star” a complete misnomer.
When Kenneth Anger first addressed this crumbling of the movie-star façade in 1959’s salacious, quickly banned, only partly factual Hollywood Babylon, the Internet was still decades away from existing, and half a century from becoming the sort of ever-churning mill of celebrity misdeed that made compendiums like Hollywood Babylon totally redundant. Anger’s scurrilous little black book was set in a time when the studio star system (what Anger called “the fatal chimera”) still resembled its name, where the actors and actresses who populated it were glimpsed from afar—celestial objects whose true movements could only be detected years after they faded into oblivion.
Or that was the idea, anyway: As Anger himself documents, in the wake of unforeseen scandals like “Ideal American Girl” Olive Thomas dropping dead in 1920 after accidentally ingesting her husband’s syphilis medication (thus giving rise to whispers about wild cocaine parties and back-alley dope-chasing missions), and Fatty Arbuckle allegedly raping a bit actress with a Coca-Cola bottle, those early studio bosses realized that maybe conferring limitless wealth and privilege upon young narcissists might possibly encourage bad behavior—or, even more pertinently, rampant speculation about their behavior from jealous outsiders and journo cranks looking to make a quick buck.
And that’s nothing new either. We plebeians have always had our faces pressed against the palace windows; just look at Roman historian Suetonius, whose books like The Twelve Caesars—with all their details of orgiastic decadence, emetic excess, and unrepentant stable-boy-fucking—were pretty much the TMZ of their day. (The title of his legendary “lost” book, Lives Of Famous Whores, sounds like it could have been published yesterday, right?) But in those early days of the true “movie star” that Taylor represented, the studio system adopted an entirely new strategy, one that sought to exploit that nosiness. It strove to present an image of its stars as both exalted and relatable—the girl-next-door or self-made man who also happened to be a glamorous living god, and whose excesses had to be extravagant enough to inspire envy, yet without crossing the line into inspiring alienation or violating the morality clauses of their contracts. It accomplished this strange balancing act by throwing everything it could into managing its stars’ offscreen personas—not only throwing around hush money, but also planting magazine articles, newsreels, advertisements, photo ops, and so on, all carefully crafted to give the illusion that fans were getting a glimpse into a star’s private life, while ensuring they never got close enough to spoil the illusion.
While most point to the 1960s as the end of the “star system,” it’s actually surprising how long that boundary between star and fan prevailed. As recently as my own childhood in the ’80s, if you wanted to communicate with a favorite celebrity, you had to send your carefully crafted personal message to a nondescript studio P.O. box, and what you got in return was inevitably the same sort of form letter, autographed 8x10, and invitation to join an “official fan club” that studio flacks have been churning out since the turn of the century. The manufactured distance was part of the allure—the impossibility of ever really knowing them made them all the more desirable.
And ever since said flacks started cranking out those invented personas for their celebrities, that obfuscation has made the few stolen, peeping-Tom glimpses of what those idealized boys-and-girls-next-door were really getting up to even more titillating. In the days before dedicated gossip blogs, for example, thousands of people flocked to street corners just to buy mimeographed copies of Charlie Chaplin’s divorce proceedings and read about the Little Tramp’s “degenerate perversions,” like his shocking insistence on asking ex-wife Lita to perform oral sex. They also snapped up the newspapers running steamy entries from Mary Astor’s diary about her adulterous dalliances with playwright George S. Kaufman. It hardly mattered that neither of these so-called “scandals” qualified as truly outrageous, even in their day. It was the shattering of Chaplin and Astor’s respective illusions that was truly shocking, not the acts themselves.
Thus the modern cycle of showbiz news was born: The harder the publicity machine worked to build a wall around its celebrities, the more determined those on the outside became to tear it down. And as Anger documented in Hollywood Babylon, those walls slowly crumbled as the years wore on—and he even predicted their total collapse, again, decades before the Internet:
America’s movie industry has declined; the public gets more mindless gossip than it can absorb daily on TV, and, moreover, its shockability quotient has diminished. There are no longer more stars at MGM than in the Heavens. If that studio can be said to exist at all anymore, it is as an empty planetarium. The few remaining movie celebrities are more than thankful to attract some attention by discussing their foibles themselves.
It’s strange to think that Anger wrote those words nearly half a century before things like Twitter even existed. Because today, it’s more evident than ever that what’s pulling stars down to earth isn’t the insistent tugging of gossipmongers; in fact, ever since Robert Harrison’s landmark rag Confidential, it’s been the scandal sheets who have kept up the appearance of “celebrity” by detailing all the luxurious lifestyles and odd peccadilloes that can only be attributed to the rich and strange. No, the real culprit—the reason the stars began to fall from the sky—is the transparency with which many celebrities conduct their lives, and how they now more than ever play a part in their own demystification.
And in fact, some of that blame can be laid directly on people like Taylor, who surely ranked among those “few remaining movie celebrities” Anger dismissed as attention-whoring open books: She made frequent, blasé discussion of her various personal sins. Taylor didn’t actually appear in the pages of Hollywood Babylon, which Anger made up for by slapping her on the cover of Hollywood Babylon II years later. Yet the very year of its publication, Taylor gave interviews where—rather than demurely deflecting questions over her affair with Fisher so soon after the death of her husband (and Fisher’s best friend) Mike Todd—she quipped, “What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?” Taylor was among the last to straddle the divide between those manipulated images of the studio system and the new, current iteration of celebrity, one where the stars are no longer worshipped from afar, but are repeatedly, even willingly dragged into the “just like us” gutter. Those doing the dragging aren’t just the round-the-clock paparazzi hoping to catch them at their most unflattering, but the celebrities themselves, who defiantly control their own image and attempt to paint themselves as normal, forgivably flawed people through increased transparency, often to their detriment.
And in what would surely have caused Louis B. Mayer to have an apoplectic fit, more and more famous people—and fittingly, even Elizabeth Taylor herself—have accomplished this by gravitating toward Twitter, viewing it as an unfiltered voice that lets them communicate directly with the public and create their own spin. It’s an unfiltered voice, all right—one often given to woefully inarticulate, occasionally offensive ramblings, strange bouts of paranoia, and accidental revelations, but more than any of these, unmitigated banality. Even when it does offer something genuinely revealing—like the unguarded meltdowns of a Lindsay Lohan or a Charlie Sheen, for example—the sheer crush of attention that follows renders any resultant scandal exhausting and ultimately deadening. When Anger pointed to our diminished “shockability quotient,” he was partly right: He never could have predicted the speed with which the Internet can still incubate scandals, stir up outrage, and send careers spiraling out of control, even as it provides far more mindless gossip than Anger ever could have dreamed. And it comes at a pace and frequency that renders even the craziest flameouts yesterday’s news before 24 hours have passed. (And yes, as the site’s dedicated showbiz-bullshit reporter, I recognize my own culpability in this.)
After reading Marilyn Monroe’s melodramatic journal entries in a recent Vanity Fair, I wondered what would have happened to her if—like her most vocal idolizer, Lindsay Lohan—she’d lived during the Twitter age, and whether her tendency toward endless self-examination would have played itself out in public. If she’d been allowed to share every fleeting insecurity as it occurred to her, or gab about every disastrous romantic entanglement with the public at large instead of just her psychoanalyst and her diary pages, would we still regard her with such reverence and awe? Like Elizabeth Taylor, Monroe was one of Old Hollywood’s most doggedly pursued tabloid subjects, each successive high-profile romance chronicled in minute detail, yet every passing year since her suicide continues to yield new speculation about “the real Marilyn”—much as we’re surely in store for a rash of “Liz’s Secret Love Letters”-style articles from here on out. Whether she or Taylor ever truly lived lives as fascinating as the legends that have built up around them is beside the point: They were stars simply because they didn’t share every moment with us, leaving us to fill in the blanks. Even though they were real people, enough about them remained a mystery that they could still exist within our collective imagination.
To illustrate how much that’s changed, look at someone like Angelina Jolie, whose narrative has been shaped—either by coincidence or by PR design—to so resemble Elizabeth Taylor’s that Taylor’s death actually sparked several articles comparing the two, as though Jolie were simply the next logical replacement. And granted, there are a few odd parallels: Both are raven-haired beauties whose appearance often supersedes their actual acting ability. Both have had a string of high-profile relationships with their fellow leading men—and the similarity between the Taylor-Fisher-Reynolds love triangle and Jolie “stealing” Brad Pitt away from the modern America’s Sweetheart is, it must be said, uncanny. And like Taylor’s work for AIDS research, Jolie has long used her celebrity to bring attention to humanitarian causes. They ostensibly have so much in common that Jolie is even in talks to inherit Taylor’s role as Cleopatra.
And yet is there any supposed “movie star” so lacking in mystery as Angelina Jolie? Outside of those few early years where she cavorted with knives, wore Billy Bob Thornton’s blood around her neck, and made out with her brother, every minute of Jolie’s existence has seemed like a soberly considered decision agreed upon and notarized by a boardroom full of publicists. She and Brad Pitt have worked so hard to make their fame seem like a relatively unimportant trifle next to the world’s problems, they’ve convinced us as well. Now, other than their natural, alien beauty, there’s nothing particularly celestial or untouchable about Pitt and Jolie—or their friend George Clooney, for that matter, whom Time winkingly declared “The Last Movie Star” in 2008, the joke being that he’s so completely normal and down-to-earth. And something that’s down-to-earth is, by definition, not a star.
I say this not out of some attempt to tear these people down, or to insist, as is the subtext of so much celebrity reporting these days, that they’re no better than the rest of us. My point is that the sort of system that allowed the “movie stars” like Elizabeth Taylor to flourish no longer exists—and thus that term is, as Kenneth Anger argued so long ago, overdue for retirement, once the last remnants of the old guard (people like Sophia Loren, Kirk Douglas, and Lauren Bacall) finally pass on. When they do, we will remain, as always, flush with talented actors, celebrities whose contributions to cinema and pop culture equal and arguably well surpass those of Elizabeth Taylor. But the truth is, they won’t be “movie stars.” Though it sounds like typical fluff and hyperbole, we really will never see Elizabeth Taylor’s kind again. To draw an appropriately lofty analogy, it’s like attempting to spot the constellations from within the city limits—they’re simply gone now, crowded out by much closer, lower-wattage lights.