BOOK REVIEW / Diamonds are a girl's best friend
ELIZABETH TAYLOR Donald Spoto Little, Brown £17.50
Growing up, writes Spoto, has been her life's work. Having made her stage debut at four and signed with MGM at 11, Taylor's childhood vanished before she had a chance to live it. Constricted by a relentlessly ambitious mother and a studio that neglected anything like a proper education, Taylor had no experience or ordinary companionship or peer interest. "The fact is that I stopped being a child the moment I started working in pictures", she said, a sure recipe for loneliness which Spoto regards as a clue to her rapport with Michael Jackson, another star who missed out - calamitously, as it now seems - on childhood. Taylor has said of Jackson, "he's the least weird man I've ever known", a remark which reflects a great deal more on her than it does on him. Whisked through a sequence of teen pictures, during which she co-starred with a dog (Lassie Come Home) and a horse (National Velvet), Taylor made her mark at 18 in Minnelli's Father of the Bride (1950) and then with Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun (1951). Her friendship with Clift, and later with James Dean and Rock Hudson, testified to her sympathy with the industry's troubled outsiders, troubled because they were gay in a virulently homophobic town (then, as now, Taylor had no fear of associating with, or employing, homosexual men).
Indeed, it was her taste in heterosexual men that created problems. Her first husband, Nicky Hilton, was a gambler, a drinker and, it later emerged, a wife-beater. "He'll make a very nice first husband", said one canny studio executive, with more foresight than he could have known. Marriage to the actor Michael Wilding also failed, though two children came of it. Her third husband, the bullish producer Mike Todd, died in a plane crash, to be swiftly - and disastrously - replaced by Todd's protg and shadow, Eddie Fisher. As the Fifties wore on she was continuously wasted in limp genre pictures, but in 1960 she triumphed with her first Oscar, for Butterfield 8. The Sixties was definitively Taylor's decade, the era when she was established as one of America's "royals". Nowhere was the excess and melodrama of the time more perfectly caught than in Cleopatra - prior to filming she almost died from viral pneumonia while staying at the Dorchester in 1961, and a variety of other delays meant that the film was a financial catastrophe before the cameras had even rolled. It was a sartorial catastrophe for Taylor once they did - as a friend of mine unimprovably put it, "The hats she barged in, like refurbished thrones/ Bumped on the doorways".
The film was significant, however, for uniting Taylor with Richard Burton. His first reaction to her was unexpected, not to say ungallant: "She's a pretty girl, of course . . . but she has a double chin and an overdeveloped chest and she's rather short in the leg". By the end of Cleopatra he had graciously overlooked these flaws, and one of the great double-acts of the decade was off and running. Whatever it produced on screen - and she won another Oscar in 1966 for Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? - was more or less eclipsed by the breathtaking parade of vulgarity and ostentation the Burtons enjoyed off it. Taylor had long indulged a taste for trinkets - Cartier, Tiffany, Piaget - but it didn't compare with the spending she and Burton did in the Sixties. They bought yachts, jets, a fleet of Rolls-Royces, their nouvelle richesse eventually provoking the New York Times to run a sniffy editorial. "I know I'm vulgar", Taylor responded, "but would you have me any other way?" Spoto reckons the couple earned more than $88 million over the decade, and spent over $65 million. In between they made some terrible films.
By the end of the next decade Taylor was pictured, dumpy and frumpy, on the cover of Hollywood Babylon. What happened? Oh, booze, drugs, divorce, over-eating, frequent illness - the usual suspects. Spoto details the decline with something between candour and compassion. Yet even he can't gloss the terrifying nose-dive her acting took in the Seventies and Eighties. The wonder is she survived at all. Burton, whom she seemed to match drink for drink, died in 1984, at the age of 58. Taylor was luckier, and, despite her fragile health, has managed to come back more than once from the ravages of addiction. Nowadays, she spends her time on charity work for Aids and million-dollar perfume deals. From the evidence of the jacket photograph, the regal glitter is restored, though no longer on screen: who would have thought we'd end up missing it?
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