Thursday, March 24, 2011

losing liz

Lord Byron was not speaking of Elizabeth Taylor when he wrote: "She walks in beauty like the night."

That would have been far too subtle for an actress who was literally a force of nature -- somewhere between the warmth of the sun and the destructiveness of a hurricane.  Whose face filled movie screens as fully as her bosom filled her bodice.

I had just crossed the border into teendom when I fell madly in love with her.  She represented everything I knew would get me into trouble for the rest of my life.  The woman whose beauty and presence would freeze frame any room she entered.

And then, of course, there was the obvious sexuality.  Which she wore as a tool of conquest.  For a boy raised on some very fundamentalist principles, she was the very temptress of Proverbs.

I did not know her when she was a young actress.  That would not come until the release of Cleopatra.

I have already introduced you to my rather eccentric younger self.  One Saturday afternoon, I put on my James Bond white dinner jacket and called a taxi to take me to the Paramount theater in Portland.  I was 13. 

When I got in the cab, the driver looked back at the house expecting an adult to accompany me.  To this day, I am convinced, I leaned forward and told him in a rather imperious tone: "Drive on."  Too many Leslie Howard movies, I fear.

In the movie, Cleopatra makes her first appearance when rolled out on the floor from a carpet.  Watching her transform from that rather ignominious entrance into the queen of Egypt addressing Julius Caesar was enough to set off my young testosterone.  I had bonded.

The movie is not a very good vehicle to show off acting skills.  Too many sets.  Too many costumes.  Way too much Roman Empire.

But none of that mattered.  The fact that she seemed to end up playing the same part with the same skills in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf? or Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew did not register on me. 

She was Elizabeth Taylor.  The Woman.  The Earth goddess.  And no one would ever live up to her.

At some point, Hollywood started hiring actors rather than movie stars -- and she moved into that odd category of celebrity.  The world of Zsa Zsa Gabor and Paris Hilton, where talent is not important.  

Better yet, she received America's greatest accolade.  She was now known by a truncated version of her first name: Liz.  Universally.

She even took a short role acting as the wife of a United States senator from Virginia.  I can still see her at the head table of fund raisers lecturing her celebrity husband.

But supporting roles were not for her.  It was just one of her seven divorces.

I last saw her in the 1990s at a movie premiere.  She showed up in one of her trademark caftans looking like a ship under full sail.  But she still had the grace of her younger self.  Liz had arrived. 

It is far too easy to remember her in her odd stage.  As the defender and good friend of Michael Jackson.  Or acting as his date at the marriage of one-name Liza to the even-odder David Gest.  A photograph that still causes my spinal cord to suffer frost bite.

But none of those images are what I remember when I think of her.

She will always be the lonely figure at the top of a golden pyramid carried through the streets of Rome in triumphal entry.  A woman determined to take on the entire Empire to restore the power of Alexander the Great.

The perfect woman.  Strong.  Beautiful.  Independent.

And now -- gone.

Good-bye, Liz.  It was a good run.


LeslieLimon said...

Beautiful! (Liz and your post.)

Francisco said...

Had you visited Puerto Vallarta in the mid sixties, you could have met her and Burton at the Ocean Bar. Another icon from our generation bites the dust.

Calypso said...

She deteriorated way too fast; as often happens. The Burtons were not many miles from here - she was there behind the scenes (or the scene) at the making of one of my favorite films, "The Night of the Iguana". Must have been quite a run.

Marie-wolff said...

A beautiful tribute to a beautiful person.

Glorv1 said...

She will be missed. Everything you said is true of her. RIP Dame Elizabeth Taylor.

Steve Cotton said...

Thank you, Leslie. Parts of the past still make good stories.

Steve Cotton said...

And that was when Puerto Vallarta was still worth visiting -- the town that helped attract me to Mexico.

Steve Cotton said...

It was almost like watching the Tower of Pisa collapse. When the tipping point is hit, the tower tips.

Steve Cotton said...

Hers is the classic tale of faded beauty. Having never made a living off of my looks, there is nothing to fade.

Charley said...

Well, at least now I know what her attraction was to some. I never "got it".
My mother is her age. Mom's physical beauty and sex appeal in youthful photos leaves ole Liz biting dust. And momma aged gracefully, inside and out.
No mysterious allure in Liz, if you had asked me.

Steve Cotton said...

Such is the mystery of love.

Jonna said...

I too remember when her beauty hit my consciousness, I was almost a teen and saw Suddenly Last Summer one afternoon with a friend. My friend and I spent endless hours trying to figure out what had really happened to Sebastian, was it really what we thought it was. Privately, I spent many hours thinking about her eyes and her intensity. I think she was my first crush.

Aside from her beauty, which was incredible, she seems to have been a woman of not just fiery passion but strong love for her friends and her animals. She did a lot for the world and left an indelible mark in the lives of many. A life well lived.

ANM said...

What does it say about me that I fell in love with Annette Funicello on the Mickey Mouse Club and not Elizabeth Taylor.

Was it her boyish good figure or those mouse ears which attracted me? So hard to know.

Elizabeth was entirely too maternal looking for my tastes. My mother had a thing for exotic tv lounging attire and Liz's Egyptian head-dress was too close to the mark for my anti-Oedipal tastes.

But I do relate to the Leslie Howard affectation and taxi-cabs at too young an age. In the 7th grade, I took my date from the local Natatorium to a friend's house for an early evening party with luau candles -- the Walla Walla ideal of "going all out." She told me later that she had been absolutely "mortified" to have ridden with me from the Natatorium in a taxi to the party, which all of our friends had seen her enter and exit. "No one else was going in a taxi!" she shouted at me. Of course, no one else was willing to pay the fare to not have his mother in the front seat instead of some strange man who couldn't give a flying fig about who I was and who I thought I might be impersonating -- most likely Fred Astaire. And one additional fact: I was not wearing a white dinner jacket, because it was summer, but I did have on bermuda shorts with a banlon sweater and brown loafers.

By the way, you didn't happen to hear the report of a pistol by any chance?


Merida Mikey said...

Everyone I have ever known was aware of the fact that I thought, and still do think, that Elizabeth Taylor was the most beautiful woman in the world. Nothing will ever change that and no one could possibly fill her shoes. I guess she was my first love. Annette Funicello came in a close second! The world has lost a very beautiful, talented, and all around magnificent person. I am truly saddened by her passing. May she rest in peace. Thank you for paying ribute to her.

Steve Cotton said...

Her support for friends was as loyal (and non-judgmental) as any lioness defending her cubs.

Steve Cotton said...

When I included that bit about the taxi, I knew the pistol would once again raise its Edwardian head.

Steve Cotton said...

There is an old Red Skelton joke about a policeman arresting a drunk. The officer says: "Anything you say will be held against you." The drunk responds: "Elizabeth Taylor."

Ah. The days when vaudeville was separated from television by tissue paper.

ANM said...

And now, one can't watch tv without an ample supply of tissue paper.

Steve Cotton said...

Or toilet paper.

(I have been instructed by a group of knowing women that there is a difference -- though it escapes me.)

Mcotton said...

What do you mean, "you never made a living off of your looks?" Don't you remember when you were six years old, they had a personality contest in town. Pictures were taken and displayed on the local theatre screen. Of course I thought a little girl in a frilly dress would win. Was I surprised when you won and received a $25 savings bond. Your dad always teased you that it was the dog in your arms that won.

Steve Cotton said...

This is what I get for having a mother who knows far too much about me.

Charley said...

a scenic post from your childhood elicts a response about my mum.
Yikes. that's creepy. Sorry to have wandered off base, Steve.
My apologies to the blog.

Steve Cotton said...

No apologies required. It was a nice reverie.

Mexican Trailrunner said...

What a great post, Steve, you are SUCH a good writer.
Living in Hawaii allowed us to see Liz and Richard fairly often in the 60s and 70s. Her brother had the Taylor camp on Kauai, next door to my friend Gina. THE couple showed up for dinner one night in Waikiki and Liz was sporting THE DIAMOND. Everyone was aghast. Waiters in tuxedos hovered and Peter spilled the Mulligatawny soup. They were gracious. Always the orator, if Richard had something to say he stood up to do so. They drank alot, sadly. One night in Taos Liz and Richard had a tiff and Richard escaped to the house of a friend of mine. Denny answered the knock to find Richard, bottle in hand, shrouded in floor length white mink framed by a torrential snow storm.
They truly lived in another world than the rest of us. Thanks for the memories.

Steve Cotton said...

At times, they seemed to be a separate species. One destined for tragic extinction.