It takes nothing away from Elizabeth Taylor's considerable talents — which won her two Best Actress Oscars — to acknowledge that no one has ever so thoroughly and comprehensively embodied American celebrity.
Everything it is, she was — only more than most. The good, the bad, the encouraging and discouraging, she was all of it. Her death, announced this morning, seemed almost unreal. Not only because there have been so many reports of various health problems over the years that they have progressively registered less and less, but because she is not just a star, she is ... the star. She is what "star" means. She's how many of us learned to understand fame and famous people, particularly famous women.
Consider the fact that Taylor was a child star in films like National Velvet and Lassie Come Home, elevated by her perfectly childlike wholesomeness. Much later, she played the angry, aging wife Martha in the film adaptation of Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf, and she found herself credited for being willing to look so rough and used-up — in a movie that came out when she was all of 34 years old. She used youth to her advantage, and she used the alleged loss of her youth, which came startlingly early in true Hollywood fashion, to her advantage. And in that, she spoke powerfully to how age, particularly but not exclusively for women, is everything.
And then there's beauty. There are photos of Elizabeth Taylor in which she is impossibly beautiful, in just the way we love for a woman to be impossibly beautiful in the movies. But there were times, too, later in her life, when she was treated like some monstrous gargoyle, all the more tantalizing as a target because of her legendary beauty.
She dared to gain weight, and she found herself portrayed by John Belushi on Saturday Night Live as a total horror-show, stuffing chicken in her mouth until she choked — after being introduced by "Weekend Update" host Bill Murray as the woman whose face "set the standard for screen beauty." After Belushi's Taylor has given herself the Heimlich maneuver, Murray turns to the audience and smugly says, "She looks great, doesn't she?" It was everything celebrity does to everyone with regard to beauty — when you have it, you're untouchable, and when Saturday Night Live decides you've lost it, you're a joke, no matter how beautiful you were, and no matter how many Oscars you have. The only thing we love more than the thing that makes us love you is the part where that thing seems to be lost. And maybe the only part we love more than that is the part where you find it again.
Taylor spent years as a scandalous figure whose personal life had elements that seemed crazy even for Hollywood, as Carrie Fisher explained in her recent one-woman show, Wishful Drinking. In the show, Fisher unveils a huge blackboard full of photos, demonstrating how her father, Eddie Fisher, left her mother, Debbie Reynolds, to be with Taylor — and how much Hollywood drama followed at least in part from those events. You are not a true celebrity, it seems, unless you both repel and attract with your glamorous, constantly shocking life. And you should expect to be, as she was, both followed and vilified — you may be adorably lovestruck one day, and you may be a homewrecker the next day, but you will always be watched. And if you become famous enough, you will never really be alone again.
While Taylor eventually retreated from making movies, she never retreated from popular culture or concluded she was too good for it — not ever. She had a memorable cameo as the voice of baby Maggie on The Simpsons, and she was even on General Hospital long enough to come to Luke and Laura's wedding. She played herself on The Nanny and Murphy Brown. She was high-class enough to win Oscars, but she was lowbrow enough to be on a soap. She was a Dame, but she was a dame, too.
She was also, of course, one of the earliest and most high-profile Hollywood advocates for AIDS-related causes, and she remained one forever. Celebrity has its curses, but when Taylor was older, she picked it up like a thousand-pound hammer and used it to beat fame into money and money into research.
Elizabeth Taylor had celebrity fragrances before everybody had celebrity fragrances. She spoke about being treated at the Betty Ford Clinic. She joined Twitter — where she and Carrie Fisher followed each other. She talked about her cat and her dog to Us magazine.
It's hard to imagine that there's ever going to be an American celebrity quite like her. Our stars now are so known to us, and we devour them with such ferocity, that the idea that someone could be a child star today and die 70 years from now as an icon doesn't feel plausible. It's not clear whether you can do this anymore, this thing she did — mixing elegance and vulgarity and beauty and spectacle, and still writing your own ticket.
But if you wanted to study celebrity, both when it looks fresh and gorgeous like Velvet and when it looks angry and tired like Martha, you could do so much worse than to look at the glamorous, scandalous, spellbinding Elizabeth Taylor.