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60 years of Elizabeth Taylor

From ”Lassie” to Larry, the actress has reigned as the queen of America’s most passionate dreams

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Where else could she have held it? Elizabeth Taylor celebrating her 60th birthday bash at Disneyland is the kind of collision of pop fantasies that seems unnervingly inevitable. With its Sleeping Beauty Castle and Tomorrowland, the world Walt built is the paradigm of American escapism, paradise with souvenirs, a gaudy, self-contained, ongoing myth. So, of course, is Elizabeth Taylor.

Why does this woman continue to obsess so many of us, as much if not more than she did when she and Richard Burton ruled as the royal couple of pop culture? Yes, she’s been nominated for five Oscars and won two, but her continuing stardom flies in the face of all reason. It has been 12 years now since Liz Taylor appeared in The Mirror Crack’d, the last of her movies to play in U.S. theaters. Her last indisputably great film was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, way back in 1966; despite a recent handful of TV films (Between Friends, There Must Be a Pony), her days as a working actress seem far behind her. Yet her celebrity sails on, a soap bubble wafting along in a state of perpetuum mobile, buoyed by personalized perfumes, a diet book, charity work, illnesses, and romance, always romance. She has joined Michael Jackson and Jacqueline Onassis in an eternal Warhol silk-screen pantheon, in which we no longer need movies to need her. Like Elvis, Elizabeth Taylor left the building some time ago, but we’re still standing at our seats.

Why? What is the mystique?

Our entanglement with Elizabeth Taylor has always been pretty superficial, more concerned with what she does than who she’s really like. One of her biographies is titled The Last Star, but that’s not quite right either. She was one of the last stars to be packaged from childhood by the Hollywood studio system, but she was also one of the first to blow that mold to smithereens, not in rebellion but out of eccentric willfulness. Much more than Marilyn Monroe, she laid the groundwork that made people like Madonna possible. Far from being the ”last star,” she was the first modern star.

Taylor’s appeal as an actress and celebrity lies in a teasing paradox: She often hides her volcanic emotions behind a cool, impassive exterior. ”Let them come to you,” Montgomery Clift told her by way of advice early on, and she listened: A main source of the young Liz’s almost ungodly beauty is that eerie sense of remove. Director George Stevens saw it when he cast Taylor as the rich girl whose very existence leads Clift to murder his pregnant fiancée in A Place in the Sun; the role, Stevens said, was ”not so much a real girl as the girl on the candy-box cover.”

Yet glamorous allure is only half of her power. Passion and conviction are the rest. In National Velvet, the movie that made her a star at age 12, Taylor so visibly throbs with emotion as the horse-crazy Velvet Brown that one British reviewer was unsettled, writing that ”whenever she speaks or thinks about horses…her strange azure eyes gleam and her whole frame trembles with the intensity of her passion.” This disturbing persona — a woman living on the knife edge of her senses — was never smoothed away during her teenage tenure in MGM froth; even in Father of the Bride a suppressed volatility peeps through the suburban window dressing. Yet it wasn’t until she teamed up with Burton that she felt free to really cut loose: In movies such as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Taming of the Shrew, even bombs like Boom!, the distant goddess finally was replaced by an actress taking chances, stirring things up, having fun.

And by the time she realized her film career had taken a less fortunate turn and become a self-indulgent shambles filled with duds like The Sandpiper, Doctor Faustus, and Night Watch, it didn’t even matter anymore. Her life had become more interesting than any movie.

After visiting her on the set of 1949’s The Conspirator, a reporter for Screen offered this blandly prophetic assessment of the 16-year-old Elizabeth Taylor: ”She’s the kind of girl, it seems, to whom nice things just happen. Which isn’t to say she doesn’t have a mind of her own.” Take away one word — ”nice” — and you have Taylor’s life with a bow on it. Things do happen to her, partly because she seems to be a magnet for events, partly because she does have a mind of her own.

That’s a big reason for her durability: Her life is the luxe drama that movies only promise. An attempt to catalog even a few of her many faces demonstrates both her infinite variety and the public’s fickle lust for the latest on her, good or bad.

The Nature Girl: At first, in the wake of National Velvet‘s success, MGM promoted its startling new discovery as a small pantheist — a nature freak who literally talked to the animals. She even wrote a children’s book, Nibbles and Me, about her pet chipmunk. All very cute, even if (as author Brenda Maddox has noted) Taylor described returning Nibbles to the wild in terms that perversely predicted her future attitude toward husbands: ”(I knew a new one) would come to me — not to take his place, but to bring the same sense of love to me, and he did — and I knew him immediately, and I named him Nibbles — not Nibbles the Second, but just Nibbles — my favorite chipmunk.”

The Virgin Bride: Life imitated art when Taylor played the glowingly perfect young daughter to Spencer Tracy’s Father of the Bride, then shortly thereafter married hotel heir Nicky Hilton. Life laughed at art when she divorced the boorish Hilton just nine months later, yet still played the happy newlywed in a sequel, Father’s Little Dividend.

The Widow-Martyr: After a sedate 4 1/2-year union with actor Michael Wilding faltered, Taylor wed Mike Todd, the garrulous, pint-size, cigar-chomping showman behind Around the World in 80 Days. Then, just after their first anniversary in 1958, Todd died in a plane crash. The ensuing funeral was mobbed by photographers and gawkers while newspapers blared the details of ”Liz Taylor’s Year of Disaster.”

The Home Wrecker: Opinion veered like a bumper car less than six months later, when Eddie Fisher, unhappily married to all-American Debbie Reynolds, took up with the widow Liz. Taylor’s worst sin was that she lacked the prescribed guilt: ”What do you expect me to do?” she asked Hedda Hopper. ”Sleep alone?” She received bags of hate mail, and was denounced in editorials and pulpits. Even her children’s birth by cesarean section was chalked up to spoiled impatience in one newspaper account that stated, ”Gestation was impossibly long from Liz’s viewpoint.”

Camille: Here’s one way to get even with the public: Threaten to croak on them. As shooting on Cleopatra started, Taylor was hospitalized with pneumonia, received an emergency tracheotomy, and came so close to death that some newspapers ran her obituary. One month later, wearing a low-cut dress that defiantly exposed the scar on her neck, she accepted the Best Actress Oscar for the underwhelming Butterfield 8, an honor widely, and wisely, taken as a sympathy vote.

The Adultress: She had always thought him a boor; he referred to her as ”Miss Tits.” Then they met on the set of Cleopatra, her husband Eddie crawled home in abasement, and civilization shook. That’s not much of an exaggeration; when Jackie Kennedy ran into a Hollywood publicist at the White House, her first question was ”Do you think Richard Burton will marry Elizabeth Taylor?” The Vatican denounced the couple for ”erotic vagrancy,” and the ’60s had begun: The unfaithfulness Taylor had been pilloried for two years earlier now simply made her more alluring. When they shot the scene in which the Egyptian queen enters Rome, the extras were supposed to chant ”Cleopatra!” Instead, they shouted ”Leez! Leez!”

The Jet-Setter: Burton and Taylor became welded in the public’s eye into one ridiculously high-living entity called ”Lizandick.” He bought her mountains of jewels: the Krupp diamond, the pearl called La Peregrina, the Cartier-Burton diamond. They made movies. Some brilliant (Virginia Woolf), some lousy (Doctor Faustus). Okay, one brilliant. They divorced. Twenty months later they remarried in a ceremony in the African bush. Then they divorced for good. That they had become a parody of opulence was apparent well before they appeared on The Lucy Show in 1971, playing their showy selves.

The Washington Wife: Having conquered the imagination, Taylor decided to have a go at virtual reality, snaring as husband No. 7 (if you count Burton twice) handsome John Warner, ex-Secretary of the Navy and — who knew at the time? — maybe future President. He gave her an engagement ring made of red, white, and blue gems (it was 1976). Soon, either through unhappiness or relief at not having to play the movie star, Taylor began to grow fat; John Belushi would caricature her stuffing her face on Saturday Night Live. ”We’ve spent half our lives wishing we could look like Elizabeth Taylor,” said one D.C. matron, ”and my God, now we do.”

The Survivor: She’s done with Warner, whom she divorced in 1982. She survived Burton, who died in 1984. Gone, apparently, are the various chemical and alcohol dependencies, through stays at the Betty Ford Clinic in 1983 and 1988. She’s fat-free — some of the time. She even nearly lost her life again, in 1990, through a pneumonia sequel. What’s left? Perhaps simply riding out the legend: Her valuable work raising money and consciousness in the fight against AIDS isn’t so much a new role as it is a canny use of her old glamour. Her marriage to 40-year-old construction worker Larry Fortensky — a commoner! — may be one last willful, stubborn kink in the tail. She holds a birthday party at Disneyland, and irony is not on the menu.

So — why the fascination with Elizabeth Taylor? Why do we keep cocking our eye toward the tabloid headlines even as we scoff, claiming to prefer her as Velvet Brown or Maggie the Cat or Edward Albee’s virago, Martha? Simple: She has so consistently confounded expectations — of how a star should behave, of how she should behave — that she has earned our dazed and bedazzled respect.

Great Moments in Liztory

May 1, 1939
Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor, 7, arrives in America from her native England with actress mother Sara and big brother Howard. Her art-dealer father, Francis, soon follows. She signs a movie contract with Universal two years later, then with MGM in 1943.

Spring 1949
As princess of the Diamond Jubilee of the Jewelry Industry Council, young Liz is crowned with a $22,000 tiara and asks, ”Can I keep it?”

September 1949
17-year-old Liz catches the eye of eligible bachelor and hotel heir Nicky Hilton during a night out at the Hollywood hot spot Mocambo. They marry on May 6, 1950, divorce nine months later.

January 26, 1950
Receives high school diploma at Los Angeles’ University High School. Giggles uncontrollably during ceremony.

February 8, 1951
Named the first recipient of the Harvard Lampoon‘s Roscoe award for ”so gallantly persisting in her career despite a total inability to act.”

January 1, 1952
A year after divorcing Hilton, Liz announces she’ll marry actor Michael Wilding: ”It’s leap year, so I leapt!” she tells reporters. By 1955 they have two sons, Michael and Christopher.

May 13, 1956
After a party at Liz’s house with Rock Hudson and Kevin McCarthy (above, far right), a groggy Montgomery Clift wraps his car around a pole. Cradling his head at the scene, Liz threatens the photographers, “If you take as much as one picture of him, I’ll make sure every damn one of you is banned from every studio in town.”

OCTOBER 4, 1956
Files for divorce from Wilding; marries producer Mike Todd (Around the World in 80 Days) the following February; daughter Liza Todd is born August 6, 1957.

March 23, 1958
Shortly after Liz starts filming Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Todd dies in a plane crash in New Mexico. Debbie Reynolds baby-sits Liz’s kids.

Labor Day 1958
Liz and Eddie Fisher, Debbie Reynolds’ husband, have a well-publicized tryst in the Catskills. The following May, Eddie divorces Debbie and marries Liz in Las Vegas.

September 1, 1959
Agrees to do Cleopatra for $1 million — a record fee for an actress at the time.

March 4, 1961
Has near-death experience — and a tracheotomy — during a bout with pneumonia in London. She refuses plastic surgery on the scar.

April 17, 1961
Recovering from a blood clot in her leg, Liz limps up to accept her first Oscar (it’s her fourth nomination), for the 1960 film Butterfield 8. Afterward, she faints in a backstage restroom. ”Hell, I even voted for her,” says Debbie Reynolds. Liz will receive one more nomination, and take home a second statuette for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

January 22, 1962
Liz and Richard Burton shoot their first Cleopatra scene. Producer Walter Wanger writes in his diary, ”You could almost feel the electricity between Liz and Burton.”

March, 1964
Liz and Dick marry in Montreal, nine days after her divorce from Fisher becomes final. The Fishers’ adopted German orphan will later be known as Maria Burton.

June 26, 1974
After 10 years of marriage, 11 movies together, and an estimated $30 million in living expenses, Liz and Dick break up their double bill. In October 1975, Liz and Dick remarry in Africa, then redivorce the following summer.

December 4, 1976
Liz weds Sen. John Warner on a Virginia farm. During the next two years the 5’3” actress balloons to her top weight, over 150 pounds, and is parodied by a chicken-chomping John Belushi on Saturday Night Live.

November 7, 1982
After an awkward union, which included her publicly booing his speech on women and the draft, the Warner-Taylor ticket splits.

December 5, 1983
Taylor enters the Betty Ford Clinic, kicks her drinking habit, and drops to 122 pounds. She will return five years later to fight an addiction to painkillers.

August 1984
When Liz breaks her engagement to Mexican lawyer Victor Luna, his family throws a celebration party in Guadalajara.

October 2, 1985
Friend and Giant costar Rock Hudson succumbs to AIDS. Moved by his and other friends’ deaths, Taylor becomes founding cochairman of the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) that same year.

June 1987
Liz launches her own perfume, Passion, which is soon grossing $70 million a year (”Bee to the blossom, moth to the flame, each to his passion,” she purrs in the commercials). A second scent, White Diamonds, hits the market in 1991.

September 1, 1988
Franco Zeffirelli’s Young Toscanini, starring C. Thomas Howell as the composer and Taylor as his grand muse, diva Nadina Bulisciov, premieres at the Venice Film Festival. Described by one writer as ”a new landmark in camp,” the film has never been released in the U.S.

October 6, 1991
Self-help guru Marianne Williamson unites Liz and construction worker Larry Fortensky in a $1.5 million wedding at Michael Jackson’s estate, with Jackson giving the bride away.