Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Day Elizabeth Taylor Died

The sky above Los Angeles opened up on Wednesday, March 23, 2011 and wept copious tears for hours and hours. The world had woken up that morning to the news of Elizabeth Taylor's death at the age of 79 from congestive heart failure at Cedar-Sinai in Beverly Hills. It was incredible, the day was dark and cold and finally when the rain came, it didn't stop.

It knocked the wind out of my sails because for as long as I can remember there was always Elizabeth Taylor. And for a good number of those years she was, simply, the most beautiful woman on earth, and an actress who was revealing surprising depth as she developed. I was too young to have seen, or appreciated her early triumphs in A Place In The Sun (1951) or Father Of The Bride (1950) but by the time I was ten, Cleopatra was in production and the circus began. It seemed like it was all anybody talked about. And it just kept getting more famous as production dragged on for three years. They kept re-releasing Cat On A Hot Tin Roof (1958), Butterfield 8 (1960), Suddenly Last Summer (1959), Giant (1956) and even Elephant Walk (1954).

When Richard Burton (right) and Rex Harrison (left) were added to the cast, it felt like the best of Broadway was meeting the best of Hollywood. You see, around 1961, Camelot (1960), and it's original cast album, were on everyone's mind and record players (including President Kennedy's) and Richard Burton was already becoming a household name. Everyone loved Rex Harrison from the original cast album of My Fair Lady (1956) because it was the best selling album of all time, not to mention making a star out of Julie Andrews (both left and right). And they were co-starring with the most alluring woman in the world of film, who's beauty was matched by her talent.

Elizabeth Taylor had already been nominated for four remarkable performances as Best Actress at the Academy Awards, (1957 thru 1960). Won one. A feat only matched by Greer Garson in Academy history. And established herself as a serious actress, one who was clearly on the forefront of an adventurous new emotional cinema. Her talent can be easily discerned and enjoyed in Giant (1956), where she can act, using one scale of notes in her scenes with Rock Hudson and use an entirely different scale of notes for her scenes with James Dean. She was intuitive enough an actress to understand that two different styles were required for two very different actors. And she managed to make them both look good, while quietly delivering the very best performance in the whole film. (And she wasn't nominated for this, while her two male co-stars were!)

In spite of the great beauty and high-profile lifestyle, there was always something both rarefied and accessible about her, at the same time. It seems, from what I've heard and read, that for most people who met her, she was at once friendly and unpretentious. When she retired from her film career, she had reached a point where her fame overcame her ability to be believed in just about any film role, she decided to use that fame to be a spokesperson for AIDS research after the death of actor/friend Rock Hudson from the disease. And her work was tireless.

There was a lot to admire here, for a person who could have chosen to take, take, take, all her life, she chose to raise her kids well, develop into an intelligent actress, and devote her later career to a right and just cause. Plus living out a blatant public affair, with Richard Burton, in front of the world's face, and getting condemned by The Vatican...What's not to admire. I was 13 when I was taken to see Cleopatra in Boston during its nine month reserved seat run (and saw it eight times during its initial two year release), but I never felt more proud of her than when Franco Zeffirelli's film of The Taming of the Shrew opening in Boston in March 1967 and, at the first Saturday matinee, I realized that, not only were they great, larger-than-life stars, but fine artists doing Shakespeare as well. Both were currently nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). They were clearly at the top of their game.

I feel I learned a valuable life lesson from Burton and especially Taylor, who's unabashed lust for life was an inspiration to a shy teen in Massachusetts in the mid-sixties. Trying to live life to the fullest has been a guiding force for me ever since. I've long missed him, now I will miss her too.


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