I was raised to dislike Elizabeth Taylor. My mother, who taught me about the movies, disapproved of her countless men — she never forgave Liz for stealing Eddie from Debbie — and flat-out scoffed at her acting. "She's only beautiful," Mom would snort, a line I found convincing — until I reached puberty. Then, like almost every man in the world, I felt the tidal pull of that violet-eyed, raven-haired beauty, whose ethereal perfection contained within it the promise of carnal delight.
Taylor was only 12 when National Velvet made her famous and she spent the next 67 years in the public spotlight. The obituaries keep calling her the last movie star — meaning she was the last star from that era when movies were the center of American culture — and I sometimes think she was the purest of them all. Not because of what she achieved on-screen — next to John Wayne or Barbara Stanwyck her career was flimsy — but because her glamour seemed to soar over anything so pedestrian as a single movie or single performance.
This isn't to say that she was a bad actress, although she spent much of her career drfting through forgettable films that were delighted to treat her as "only beautiful." She did have a great run in the 1950s, from Angela Vickers in A Place in the Sun to call-girl Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8, a role that won her an Oscar. While she never found the director to properly nurture her — as George Cukor did Katharine Hepburn — she was clearly jazzed by working with the giants of method acting. She did some of her finest work with James Dean, Marlon Brando, and above all, her beloved Montgomery Clift — himself so beautiful that in Steve Erickson's great Hollywood novel Zeroville, the hero's skull is tatooed with the image of Taylor and Clift in A Place in the Sun.
It was Taylor's fate to be at her peak just as the Old Hollywood was dying and the New Hollywood was yet to be born. She became the first million-dollar star when she agreed to do Cleopatra, that great bargewreck of an epic that was both a symptom of Hollywood's decline and perhaps the first movie to become best known for what happened off-screen — Taylor's great love affair with Richard Burton.
Liz and Dick quickly became the Adam and Eve of today's celebrity culture, pursued everywhere by paparazzi, every detail of their lives duly noted. And what details they were. Theirs was a life, we were told, just bursting with booze, humongous diamonds, extravagant fights and equally extravagant make-up sex. They made Puerto Vallarta world famous just by showing up there. So what if their lives often seemed vulgar. Their appetites — their greedy embrace of life — only made their passion grander and more comprehensible to those fascinated by their every split and reconciliation.
Of course, such living took its toll. While Burton died young, Taylor's excesses seemed to be symbolically punished, most visibly in her struggles with her weight, a distinctively American punishment that also claimed other icons — Fat Orson, Fat Elvis, Fat Marlon.
And once the 60s counter-culture took root, she started seeming more like a joke than an goddess. On Saturday Night Live, her eating was cruelly lampooned by John Belushi, whose own unruly appetites killed him at 33. I'm betting Liz felt more empathy for that wayward soul than he ever did for her.
You see, through it all, Taylor didn't simply keep on living as she chose, she helped others live, too. Always close to gay men — perhaps because they didn't view her as a sex object — she was one of the world's leaders in fighting AIDS, helping to raise money through her organization AmFAR and, far more important, being willing to talk about it freely in public at a time when the President — also from Hollywood — wouldn't even say the word. Born of the human compassion that was inseparable from her human appetites, her AIDS work was her life's great achievement.
Still, that's not what will assure her own enduring place in the sun. Watching clips from her films in recent days, I was reminded that she was one of those rare stars who could flood your head with the image of a world richer and lovelier and more magical than our own, a reality outside of time and space that mere mortals could only dream of touching. Which is to say, Taylor embodied the boundless allure that is, or perhaps once was, The Movies. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.