BOOK REVIEW / Diamonds are a girl's best friend

ELIZABETH TAYLOR Donald Spoto Little, Brown £17.50

A book of numbers, this: nine marriages, four children, nearly 50 films, two Academy Awards, two spells at Betty Ford, one suicide attempt, 30 operations, and between 1947 and 1994 no fewer than 73 injuries, illnesses or accidents. Don't bother trying to count the diamonds, or the drugs, or the Jack Daniels. At 63 Elizabeth Taylor has, it's fair to say, lived a little. Donald Spoto tots up the damage and comes out fighting for "Elizabeth" ("nobody", apart from the rest of the word, calls her Liz), a great screen actress, a loyal friend, a tireless campaigner for Aids awareness, A Good Person - and, quite clearly, her own worst enemy.

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?

Anthony Quinn

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

    They fled war in Syria...

    ...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
    From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

    Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

    Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
    Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

    Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

    Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
    From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

    Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

    From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
    Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

    Kelis interview

    The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea