At Elizabeth Taylor’s funeral – which started fifteen minutes late, in deference to her own habitual lateness – Colin Farrell recited ‘The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. In the last two years of her life, when he was in his thirties and she was in her late seventies, Farrell had become one of Taylor’s closest friends. They met in an LA hospital in 2009 (she was there for a heart procedure and he for the birth of his child). After that encounter, Farrell asked his agent to send her some flowers, realising how important it was for her to be treated as an old-fashioned Hollywood star. His agent replied that Taylor had just sent him some orchids.
Nearly eighty years after she first starred in a film, Taylor is famous for two things: her intense screen beauty and her many marriages (eight of them, two to Richard Burton). But at least as central to her life were her close and enduring friendships with men, some gay (like Rock Hudson), others heterosexual (like Farrell). Sometimes, Farrell took her to the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, where she had been going since she was a child star in National Velvet and where she liked to order caviar and chocolate-covered strawberries – ‘all the things a woman like Elizabeth should be dining on’. Farrell told Kate Andersen Brower that he got a sense when he was with her of how ‘magical it may have been to have loved her in a romantic way’. Taylor said he was a ‘true Celt’ and reminded her of Burton. When he visited to give her a volume of Yeats, she kept him waiting for an hour before emerging in a wheelchair, her hair ‘as high as the Sears tower’.
You get a pretty good idea what you are in for with Brower’s biography from its subtitle: ‘The Grit and Glamour of an Icon’. She has interviewed more than 250 people, starting with the late John Warner (Taylor’s penultimate husband, a Republican senator) and her book reads like an extended feature for Vanity Fair. We learn that Bob Dylan adored her in Raintree County and that David Lynch kissed her after the 1987 Oscars (she was a fan of Blue Velvet) and that she resented Andy Warhol for making millions by turning her face into a silk screen image. What the book doesn’t do is discuss Taylor’s film performances in any depth. This starts to make more sense when you see that one of its recurring themes is Taylor’s own mixed feelings about film acting. Some movie stars – Ingrid Bergman, say, or James Stewart – are excellent in almost everything they do. Others have glory years interspersed with disappointments. And then there is Taylor. Although technically superb as a film actor, having been schooled since her childhood on the MGM lot, her performances could be disengaged or wildly hammy (in 1977 she told some Harvard students she loved to ‘scream and tear up the scenery’). She often said that there were things she would rather do than act and spoke of ‘yawning’ her way through parts that offered little but ‘glib dialogue’. Despite her ambivalence, however, there were a handful of movies, especially in the 1950s, in which she was more commandingly magnificent and alive than anyone in cinema.
What did Taylor love more than making movies? Jewels, for one, for which she developed a taste while married to her third husband, Mike Todd, and which perhaps took on a disproportionate importance for her after his sudden death. Despite her wealth, Taylor had a habit of trying to get gifts out of people; according to one of her sons, Chris Wilding, she could be ‘pretty shameless’ and ‘embarrassing’. She asked Joan Collins if she could ‘borrow’ some of her jewellery (Collins refused). She asked a young Tom Cruise for a diamond tennis bracelet (made up of many identical settings), but Cruise didn’t know what she meant and sent some cash instead. Farrell, however, was in sympathy with what he called Taylor’s ‘appetites’ and bought her a diamond pendant from Harry Winston.
‘The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo’, which he read at the funeral, was Taylor and Burton’s favourite poem. It starts:
How to keep – is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?
Ó is there no frowning of these wrinkles, rankèd wrinkles deep,
Dówn? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?
No there’s none, there’s none, O no there’s none,
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair.
It isn’t hard to see why someone who carried around the burden of being named ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’ might feel drawn to this poem. What’s less clear is whether these lines were a confirmation to Taylor that beauty was something to hold onto at all costs or an avowal of its insignificance. She seems to have been equally capable of both thoughts. Mike Nichols, who directed Taylor and Burton in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, once asked her whether it was ‘a pain in the ass’ being so beautiful and she replied: ‘I can’t wait for it to go.’ Her part as Martha (for which she won an Oscar) required her to gain weight and to be made up unflatteringly to look fifteen years older than she was. There is a rawness to her drunken arguments with Burton – while munching cold pieces of chicken from the fridge – which is almost unwatchable.
She also seems to have had plenty of Sunset Boulevard moments in which she tried to ward off the ‘sad and stealing messengers of grey’. Tim Mendelson, her personal assistant for the last few years of her life, said it took her two hours to do her make-up; an hour devoted just to her eyes. It was complicated for Taylor to have built a career on being an exemplar of beauty – women of her generation sometimes recall the sense of inferiority they felt at the sight of her tiny 1950s waist – while also being judged and found wanting against her own earlier looks, whether by Hollywood producers, critics, gossip columnists or herself. Her perfectionist mother – an American actress with the stage name Sara Sothern – worried excessively about her daughter’s appearance. During the making of National Velvet when Taylor was twelve, Sara stopped the filming of one scene, convinced that her daughter’s hand looked fat.
When, in the 1980s, Joan Rivers made Taylor’s weight gain the subject of a string of jokes, it was a more aggressive version of the body scrutiny she had been dealing with all her life. Rivers aimed to shock, but her anti-Taylor jokes feel cheap and bullying:
Mosquitoes see Elizabeth Taylor and scream ‘Buffet!’
Elizabeth Taylor pierced her ears and gravy ran out.
Elizabeth Taylor’s so fat, she puts mayonnaise on her aspirins.
Elizabeth Taylor was so fat that whenever she went to London in a red dress, thirty passengers would try to board her.
Taylor herself repeated a version of this last joke in 1988 when she made an appearance on Aspel and Company, the ITV chat show hosted by Michael Aspel, one of a handful of Alan Partridgesque men who for decades had a monopoly on interviewing film stars on British TV. Taylor had recently completed her second stint at the Betty Ford Centre, where she was treated for alcoholism and other addictions and where she met her seventh and final husband, Larry Fortensky, a construction worker. ‘You are looking slim and lovely now,’ Aspel began, ‘but of course as the world knows, there was a time when you weren’t quite so sylph-like … Were you always obsessed with food?’ After showing the studio audience a photograph of Taylor at her fattest, he asked if she could remember the ‘most unkind’ joke ever made about her weight. She looked slightly uncomfortable but gamely complied: ‘There’s one rather funny one. Elizabeth Taylor was seen in town today wearing a yellow dress and a group of children at the bus stop ran towards her and boarded her.’
At the end, members of the audience asked questions. She answered with a camp humour and the well-polished indulgence of someone whose relationship with her fans went back even further than her marriages. How do you bring up tears, asked one woman. ‘Just squeeze them out!’ Can you tell me what your hobbies are? ‘Collecting things … like diamonds … people.’ If you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be? ‘Vanilla ice cream with hot chocolate fudge sauce.’ What do you think about when you are lying in the bath? ‘Well, it depends on whom I’m dating!’ – an answer that generated uproarious laughter. My favourite contribution came from an ardent young film enthusiast. ‘Everybody’s talking about your appearance, but I think you are one of the greatest actresses in the world. Last week, I saw Suddenly, Last Summer … I thought you were incredible.’
Suddenly, Last Summer (the script is by Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal) is a stagey picture with a gothic plot in which Taylor’s aunt, played by Katharine Hepburn, tries to have her lobotomised to prevent her from revealing that her late son, Sebastian, was homosexual. It features a 27-year-old Taylor as Catherine Holly looking almost impossibly beautiful in a range of outfits, including a chest-hugging dark sundress and a clinging white one-piece swimming costume. Her character’s beauty is central to the plot because in the flashback sequences we learn that Sebastian is using her as bait to seduce young men. The script alludes to Catherine’s swimming costume becoming transparent in the water but the Production Code warned that it must remain opaque. Someone reported there was concern on the set that Taylor had gained too much weight for the part, at which the producer, Sam Spiegel, sent a telegraph that said: ‘If Elizabeth Taylor is overweight I for one am at a loss to suggest what there should be less of.’
I had my own Elizabeth Taylor epiphany only recently. As a child in the 1980s, I just couldn’t see the appeal. The only Taylor films I knew were either too early or too late in her career for me to perceive her magic. I remember watching The Mirror Crack’d (1980), based on an Agatha Christie story, in which she plays a murder suspect, overacting wildly and wearing a strange purple hat. Watching her as a child star in Lassie Come Home and National Velvet, I was far more interested in the animals.
The Taylor I grew up with was the one on talk shows with bouffant Dynasty hair, whose relationship with Burton – the drinking! the arguments! the passion! – was constantly being picked over in the British newspapers, even after he died in 1984. I couldn’t see what was so fascinating about this soap opera. Cleopatra – the bloated 1963 film in which they first acted together – was regularly on TV when I was a child. I never watched all four hours, but often glimpsed it in segments. Taylor, wearing many variants of glossy Egyptian-style bobbed wigs, earned the Guinness world record for the largest number of costume changes in a movie (65), but she was equally wooden whatever she wore, not helped by the clunkiness of the script. In the embrace of Rex Harrison as Caesar, she whispers: ‘My breasts are filled with love and life. My hips are rounded and well apart. Such women, they say, have sons.’
The film that showed me how little I had understood of Taylor’s screen appeal was A Place in the Sun, a 1951 noirish film directed by George Stevens and co-starring Montgomery Clift. It tells the story of George Eastman (Clift), the poor relation of a wealthy family who is torn between two women: Shelley Winters as Alice, who works in the same factory and to whom he becomes engaged, and Taylor as Angela, a beautiful socialite, who symbolises the affluent life he covets. To preserve his chances with Angela, he murders Alice, who is pregnant with his child, in a boating ‘accident’.
In cinematic terms, at least, the Clift-Taylor pairing is much more compelling than the Burton-Taylor one. The performances of all three leads in A Place in the Sun are extraordinary – Winters and Clift were nominated for Oscars – but the scenes between Clift and Taylor as their characters fall in love have an otherworldly and dreamlike quality that is as thrilling as anything in cinema. The critic Andrew Sarris wrote that watching their close-ups was like ‘gorging on chocolate sundaes’. His face is as sculpted as hers is soft. ‘Do I make you nervous?’ she asks him as she enters a pool room wearing a pale strapless gown with flowers all over the bosom. How would she not make anyone nervous? Peter Bradshaw has written that Taylor and Clift ‘are almost like reflections of each other; when they kiss, something incestuous and thrillingly forbidden throbs out of the screen.’ Charlie Chaplin told Stevens it was ‘the greatest film ever made about America’. David Mamet called it a ‘perfect film’. It is certainly one of the few films, along with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which Taylor is so dazzling that the memory of her eyes (violet or not) carries over into everything else you see her in, even if she is never quite as good again. There is something about the way she comforts Clift’s character that reflected the maternal attitude she adopted towards him in real life.
The relationship between Taylor and Clift was one of the most important of her life, off screen and on (Suddenly, Last Summer was their last film together). Clift was the first of many gay or bisexual men she loved; and the first person to show her that film acting could be worth doing for its own sake rather than for money or fame or contractual obligations to a studio. In 1949, even before they started shooting A Place in the Sun, they were bullied by Paramount (his studio) into going on a date to the premiere of The Heiress, in which Clift starred. He resented the way the studio expected him to appear in public with female stars and only agreed to the date on the condition that he could bring his acting coach. Clift was 29 and Taylor was 17 and he expected to have a boring evening, but they hit it off. He was surprised to find that this tiny porcelain creature was witty and foul-mouthed. They stopped the limo en route to eat hamburgers, laying paper napkins on their laps to protect their clothes. When they finally had to face the press together a journalist congratulated Clift on being with the beautiful Liz Taylor and he joked: ‘Is she beautiful?’ As soon as they were inside the movie theatre, however, his mood changed. He could not bear to watch himself on screen and slumped down in his chair, squeezing her hand and muttering: ‘I’m so awful, Bessie Mae.’ When she asked him why he called her Bessie Mae, he said: ‘The whole world knows you as Elizabeth Taylor. Only I can call you Bessie Mae.’
Clift once said that Taylor was the only woman who turned him on and that she felt like ‘the other half of me’. She said he was ‘the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen’ and that she understood that he was meant to be with a man before she even knew what being gay meant. She introduced Monty to Roddy McDowell and they dated for a while. Her protective attitude towards his sexuality would be replicated in her friendships with Rock Hudson and James Dean, forged on the set of Giant in 1955. Much later, in an interview in 2000, Taylor spoke of the way men such as Hudson and Clift were ‘blamed for so many years for a behaviour that was perfectly natural, that they were born with’. Eva Marie Saint, who acted with Clift and Taylor in Raintree County said they had ‘a mother-son relationship’. Taylor herself thought she and Clift got on so well because they shared a perverse sense of humour. ‘How did you ever get into movies with a face like that?’ he asked her when they first met.
They had both grown up as theatrical prodigies with overbearing mothers. But whereas Taylor’s upbringing was in Hollywood, Clift’s early career was on Broadway, making his debut aged fourteen in the comedy Fly Away Home. It was more than ten years later that he starred in his first Hollywood film, Red River with John Wayne, directed by Howard Hawks. Clift was one of the first and most serious method actors in Hollywood. He put in such a convincing performance in The Search, as Steve, an army engineer, that the director, Zinnemann, is said to have been asked: ‘Where did you find a soldier who could act so well?’
By the time Taylor met Clift, she had been acting on screen for seven years. Yet it was only when working with him that she realised acting could be something deeper than make-believe. ‘He could make himself shake and he couldn’t stop after the director said “Cut” … And I thought, I’ve just been playing with the toys.’ Together, they spent hours working on scenes; Clift told Taylor that she had to consider her character’s motivation, something that seems not to have occurred to her. He taught her, she said, that when acting ‘you had to feel it in your guts and your guts had to get in an uproar.’
When it came to the studio system, they were polar opposites. Taylor spent eighteen years under contract to MGM – with occasional loans to other studios – and starred in numerous pictures she had no respect for. Clift refused to become trapped by signing a long-term contract with a studio and was picky about the projects he took on, as shown by the parts he turned down, which include the lead in Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder had written it with him in mind) and the Marlon Brando part in On the Waterfront. Meeting Clift gave Taylor a vision of an acting life in which she could call some of the shots.
Taylor’s parents were both Americans – her father, Francis, was an art dealer – but they were living in London when she was born. Her godfather was a rich Conservative MP called Victor Cazalet who helped the family live a more upper-middle-class existence than they would otherwise have been able to afford. When she was three, Cazalet gave Elizabeth a pony called Betty. Riding Betty prepared her for the role of Velvet in National Velvet, but it was also, as Brower writes, ‘the only time she was allowed to be a child’. Sara had aspirations for her daughter and enrolled her in the Vacani School of Dance. Aged just three and a half, Taylor performed in a white tutu and butterfly wings at the Queen’s Hall in front of Princess Elizabeth. At the end, all the other dancers left while Taylor sat alone in the middle of the stage. Sara remembered her own pleasure at that moment: ‘I knew that day that there would come a time when she would want to follow in my footsteps.’
The outbreak of the Second World War set Taylor on a path to Hollywood. In April 1939, Cazalet told Francis to send his wife and children to the US, for safety. It was only a couple of years before the nine-year-old Elizabeth signed her first movie contract, with Universal (she had also been offered one from MGM). The contract was cancelled after a year, with the casting director complaining that ‘her eyes are too old; she doesn’t have the face of a kid.’ Sara was desperate to get her back to MGM and found her chance when Francis befriended Sam Marx, an MGM producer who was working on Lassie Come Home and looking for a little girl with an English accent. Taylor arrived fifteen minutes before auditions ended and after sitting on an empty sound stage, petting a pretend collie, she was given the job on the spot.
By the standards of some of the child stars tormented by MGM, Taylor’s life was relatively serene. She told herself she would never end up like Judy Garland, who was ten years older and who had been pushed by the studio into a series of extreme diets and an addiction to ‘pep pills’ (amphetamines). Stevens, who directed Giant and A Place in the Sun, suggested that MGM was like ‘a domineering parent’ to Taylor, ‘alternately stern and adoring’. She was also constantly chaperoned by her ‘hovering’ mother, who would sit in the corner and make hand gestures:
If she put her hand on her stomach that meant Elizabeth’s voice was too shrill; if she tapped her hand on her forehead it meant Elizabeth needed to stand up straighter and concentrate; if she placed her hand on her heart that meant Elizabeth was not delivering enough feeling in her performance; if she placed her finger on her cheek that meant Elizabeth needed to smile more, and if she put her finger on her neck that meant Elizabeth needed to tone it down.
Sara had plans to make Taylor’s older brother, Howard, into a movie star too – he was said to be as beautiful as Elizabeth – but he managed to thwart her by shaving off all his hair. The relentless maternal direction may explain why Taylor had an automaton-like quality in so many of her early films. When the gossip columnist Louella Parsons met her as a child, she found her ‘very unusual’, but with a face that was ‘completely void of expression’. Unlike Garland, who exuded something real and vulnerable on screen, Taylor often seems to be holding herself tightly in.
Sara Taylor’s micromanaging of her daughter’s life and career did, however, come with certain benefits, Brower suggests. When MGM wanted to pluck Elizabeth’s thick eyebrows, she and Francis refused. They also refused MGM’s request that she change her name to Virginia. Brower speculates that Sara’s constant presence may have saved her daughter from the predators of the ‘casting couch’. Her protectiveness led to Elizabeth’s biggest row with Louis B. Mayer, the studio boss. She had heard a rumour that her daughter was being considered for a role in a film called Sally in Her Alley and asked Mayer to confirm this so that she could start prepping her daughter for the singing and dancing required. Mayer flew into a fury and told Sara to stop meddling ‘into my affairs’. At this, Taylor became angry: ‘Mr Mayer, unless you apologise to my mother right now I am leaving the studio … I would love to go to school, I would like to go to the prom … I don’t give a damn whether I ever act another day in my life. You and your studio can both go to hell!’ MGM bosses told Taylor to apologise to Mayer or be fired. She didn’t apologise and she wasn’t fired. She later said the incident taught her the ‘cynical lesson’ that no matter how she behaved, the studio needed her because of her ‘monetary value’.
While Taylor was making the transition to adulthood, both MGM and her mother continued to exert a creepy degree of influence. When she was sixteen, the studio decided that the time had come for her to be depicted as a romantic being in the film Cynthia. ‘Her First Kiss’ was the slogan on the posters. Taylor understandably hated the idea of being kissed on screen before she had been kissed in real life and so Sara engineered a date between her and a young actor called Marshall Thompson, whose mother came along on the date, as did Sara.
Still more intrusive was Sara and MGM’s handling of Taylor’s first wedding, to Nicky Hilton, the son of the founder of Hilton Hotels, when she was just eighteen. In order to preserve her movie reputation as a sweet-faced and pure girl, Taylor had given interviews insisting that she was saving herself for her wedding night: ‘Nothing comes off until the ring goes on.’ Sara had her doubts and arranged for Elizabeth to be taken to the doctor for a procedure to remove her hymen as well as to check surreptitiously that her daughter was still a virgin.
The wedding itself was both staged by and paid for by MGM. As far as the studio was concerned, the timing was perfect. Taylor was starring opposite Spencer Tracy in the comedy Father of the Bride and the cost of the wedding was subsumed in the publicity budget for the movie (which opened in cinemas a month after the real wedding). MGM invited all the actors who had ever played Taylor’s parents on screen to the wedding and seated them at the same table, along with her real parents. While they were filming, Taylor had confided in Tracy that she had misgivings about Hilton – rumours were circulating that he was abusive and alcoholic – but he assured her that Hilton would make an excellent husband. Sara later wrote that she and Francis had a ‘premonition that all was not well … and we talked to Elizabeth, but she was in love with Nicky and he with her.’ Two weeks into the honeymoon, which consisted of a five-month tour of Europe accompanied by a personal maid, seventeen pieces of luggage and a poodle dyed to match Taylor’s eyes, Hilton started drinking again. One night, a few months later, he fell into a rage and kicked her in the stomach, causing her to miscarry. She hadn’t realised she was pregnant. After less than a year of marriage, Taylor divorced Hilton and the legal department at MGM issued a statement on her behalf. ‘I am very sorry that Nick and I are unable to adjust our differences.’
Her next marriage was to Michael Wilding, an actor twenty years her senior. They first met in London, then again at a dinner in Los Angeles, where he told her she should be wearing a sapphire to match her eyes. This time, she got married in a registry office wearing a grey suit. Within a couple of years, Taylor and Wilding had two sons. Clift lavished the babies with presents and friends joked that perhaps they were his, to which he replied: ‘I wish!’ It was during this period that Taylor and Clift acted together for a second time, in Raintree County, a Civil War drama that MGM hoped would have some of the epic appeal of Gone with the Wind as well as recreating the screen chemistry between Clift and Taylor.
A few weeks into filming, Taylor invited Clift to a dinner at her house in Beverly Hills. He nearly didn’t come. He was suffering from depression and often drinking heavily. At the dinner, he went into a bathroom to take a couple of downers and then excused himself early, saying he was ‘feeling none too gorgeous’. He crashed his car on the canyon road to Sunset Boulevard. He survived, but his beautiful face was wrecked. Taylor raced to him and found him covered in blood and choking on his own teeth. She reached into his throat to pull them out before the ambulance arrived. The producers paused filming while his face was reconstructed over months of surgeries. Clift recovered enough to shoot the remaining scenes, but he was never the same again. After years of addiction to pills and drink, he died of a heart attack aged 45 in 1966. When they filmed The Misfits together, Marilyn Monroe said that he was ‘the only person I know who is in even worse shape than I am’.
Meanwhile, for Taylor, the great promise of A Place in the Sun, that she might be given ‘the chance of maybe becoming an actress’, was soon quashed. MGM made her do a string of films she felt were beneath her. ‘I died inside,’ she said, ‘because I realised that it was like walking in molasses, that no matter how hard I tried to get out of that MGM teenage dream, I couldn’t … they were going to keep me stuck in that sort of quicksand molasses, syrupy saccharine image of a teenager. And it’s hopeless, so I gave up.’
She found a way out in the form of her third husband, Mike Todd, the only one she didn’t divorce. As a powerful and wealthy film producer – his biggest hit was Around the World in Eighty Days in 1956 – Todd gave Taylor a new sense of agency. He made a deal with MGM that Cat on a Hot Tin Roof would be the last film she made for the studio. Todd and Taylor gave a joint interview in which Taylor said: ‘I couldn’t really care less about making movies, to tell you the truth.’ In another interview in 1956, when she was still only 24, she spoke of retiring. Todd’s money offered her a way of feeling like a star without the bind of acting. He was the first person to buy her expensive pieces of jewellery, starting with her 29.4 carat emerald-cut diamond engagement ring. To celebrate her 25th birthday, he bought her a mink coat, a Renoir and a diamond tennis bracelet (unlike Cruise, he knew what one was). Taylor described him as the love of her life. In 1957, she gave birth to a daughter, Liza, and they were making plans to move to Connecticut. But on 22 March 1958, a year into their marriage, Todd was killed in a plane crash while flying to New York in his private plane, the ‘Liz’.
Taylor said that until she met Burton, she dreamed that Todd was alive every time she closed her eyes. At his funeral, she was mobbed by a crowd of twenty thousand fans and had to be held upright by her brother, Howard, and her stepson, Michael Todd Jr (who was older than she was) to get through the service. His death left her defenceless against MGM’s demands. They gave her two weeks off before sending her back to work in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. In the film she is so magnetic – by turns kittenish and fierce, pleading and tender – that you would never guess she was in mourning. She lost her appetite and in the birthday party scene Burl Ives, who plays her father-in-law, Big Daddy, arranged that, in place of the usual inedible stage food covered in fly spray, there would be real fresh ham and bread and vegetables and that Taylor’s character should be expected to eat it, in order that she should get some nourishment. She said she never forgot this act of kindness.
One day on set, an MGM vice-president handed her a manila envelope and told her it contained ‘your next project’. She protested in vain that Todd had shaken hands on the agreement that there would be no more films. To make matters worse, she loathed the script for BUtterfield 8, which cast her as a high-class call girl.
The film showed that the studio could also make money out of Taylor’s new reputation as a scarlet woman. After Todd’s death, she fell into the arms of his closest friend, the singer Eddie Fisher, who had been best man at their wedding and was married to Debbie Reynolds, beloved in America for her wholesome role in Singin’ in the Rain. Fisher would become her fourth husband in 1959 (they married in a Jewish ceremony in Las Vegas). Taylor went from being a sympathetic and beautiful widow to a homewrecker. MGM milked this. In BUtterfield 8, Taylor’s character comes between not one but two couples. One of the couples involves a singer played by Fisher, whose girlfriend in the film looks very like Reynolds. At one point, Taylor has to say: ‘I was the slut of all time!’ She won an Oscar for the film, which she felt was a pity vote because the Oscars happened soon after she nearly died of pneumonia. ‘Hell, I even voted for her,’ Reynolds said. Taylor felt – rightly – that her work in BUtterfield 8 was far less good than in Suddenly, Last Summer or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. It was yet another sign that, contrary to what Clift had tried to teach her in 1950, the acting didn’t really matter much.
It did matter to Taylor’s next husband, Richard Burton, who had already had a distinguished career as a Shakespearean actor by the time they met in Rome in 1961 on the set of Cleopatra. Burton, the twelfth son of a Welsh miner, later said he ‘nearly laughed out loud’ because she was so extraordinarily beautiful. He was married with two daughters and she was still with Fisher, although Burton noticed that she always wore her wedding ring from Todd and not the one from Fisher. She said that ‘he was like Prince Charming kissing the sleeping princess.’ Soon, he too would be lavishing her with jewels. Taylor’s father got angry with her when she showed them a $93,000 diamond and emerald brooch Burton had just given her, and insisted she give it back, at which Taylor started sobbing.
The film critic David Thomson has written that Taylor was ‘in awe of Burton – his class, his Welshness, his reading, his literary ambition, his ruthless, pessimistic candour, to say nothing of his exceptional instinct and nature as an actor’ – and that Burton knew she was ‘a camera actress who had been born knowing more than he could ever learn’. Despite this, they made a lot of terrible work together and rubbed each other up the wrong way on set. ‘She’s not the star, I am,’ Burton told Mike Nichols on the set of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The VIPs, about a group of jetsetters stranded at Heathrow, was released in 1963 to scathing reviews. Taylor knew the material was dodgy, but made the film for the money and because she didn’t want Sophia Loren to play Burton’s wife. Weary of his alcohol-fuelled nastiness, she eventually left him in 1973 during the filming of Ash Wednesday, one of her weakest films, about a woman who gets full body plastic surgery to revive her marriage. Burton responded, by letter: ‘So my lumps, You’re off by God!’ The quality of her films did not improve after she left Burton and while married to her seventh husband, John Warner, she took an extended break from acting to be a political wife in Washington, a role which seems to have left her lonely and unfulfilled.
But what if Taylor was right to think not only that there was more to her life than movies, but that her greatest role lay elsewhere? Brower devotes two chapters to her work to raise awareness and funds for people with HIV and Aids, and when you see this laid out in detail, it’s hard to imagine any Hollywood celebrity has ever put their fame to better use and Brower’s impressive primary research comes into its own when telling this part of Taylor’s story. Taylor used her longstanding friendship with Ronald and Nancy Reagan (also Hollywood stars) and the Washington contacts she made during her marriage to Warner to persuade the president to speak at his first Aids event, in 1987. Five years earlier, Reagan’s press secretary had laughed when he was asked whether there were plans to track the spread of Aids in the US. ‘Mr President,’ Taylor said when she met Reagan in the Oval Office, ‘Ronnie, if you can’t do this for America, please do it for me.’ Reagan’s speech wasn’t everything Taylor had wished for. He announced that anyone with Aids would be refused immigration into the US and said nothing about protecting the rights of people with HIV. On the other hand, he did make a call for compassion and an end to discrimination. In a country where the virus was still described by many on the right as a ‘gay plague’, this was a huge step forward and Taylor was the person who brought it about. Altogether, she raised more than $100 million for Aids charities.
In the summer of 1985, she learned that Hudson, who had remained a close friend since Giant, had Aids. When his publicist announced his illness, it was taken as an admission that he was gay. Taylor was the first person to visit him in hospital. They reminisced about the chocolate martinis they had made all those years ago on the set of Giant: ice, vodka, Kahlua and Hershey’s chocolate syrup. While Clift called her Bessie Mae, Hudson had always called her Betty. Taylor got into his hospital bed with him and held him in her arms, at a time when there was still widespread fear about so much as touching a person with Aids. Hudson himself had been anxious about whether he could pass on the disease through saliva during his final acting job in Dynasty, which required him to kiss Linda Evans. The producers couldn’t understand why he only wanted to give her a tiny peck rather than the passionate embrace the script called for. After his death in October 1985, aged 59, Taylor planned Hudson’s memorial service and sent a red rose to each of the guests, warning them that they must not share the address in case anti-gay protesters showed up.
Taylor was shocked that so many of her famous friends and acquaintances were reluctant to help Aids sufferers, even if all she asked was that they attend a fundraiser. When Barry Manilow agreed to perform at one, she burst into tears because he was the only musician who had said yes. She was horrified by the ‘huge, loud silence’ about the illness. ‘If it weren’t for homosexuals there would be no culture,’ she said. At last, she had a chance to use her formidable acting skills for something that really mattered to her, and to control the script. She spoke before crowds of tens of thousands in rock stadiums preaching the necessity of safe sex and in closed-door meetings in Washington pressing for more funds and support for the Ryan White CARE Act (the largest federally funded programme for people living with HIV/Aids). Working to get her speeches just right, she drew on everything she had learned at MGM. She would underline certain words in her notes and tirelessly rehearse intonation and beat: ‘I won’t give in and I won’t give up because the world needs you to live.’ She came to Washington ‘with her black hair teased high and the enormous Krupp diamond on her finger’, Brower writes. When she spoke in Congress and the Senate, men of a certain age gathered excitedly for a look. Taylor found it ‘disgusting’ that these supposedly serious politicians should be so prurient, but she knew it was something she could exploit. ‘These old guys were just totally enchanted,’ someone who saw her testify told Brower. ‘They were hypnotised.’
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