Elizabeth Taylor: A life less ordinary

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The death of Elizabeth Taylor has been heralded as the end of an era. Why don’t today’s stars shine as brightly? Steve Rose says it’s not just the pictures that got small

So that's the green light on the Liz Taylor biopic then. Of course, we're still in mourning for the loss of "the last great star," as every newspaper is obliged to describe her, but don't imagine the race to commit her grand and bizarre life to the screen isn't already on. It was on even before her death, partly fuelled by the publication of a book based on her love letters entitled Furious Love: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and the Marriage of the Century. Everyone already knew the plot outline; this florid correspondence at last provided the missing dialogue. For example, Burton to Taylor: "I am forever punished by the gods for being given the fire and trying to put it out. The fire, of course, is you."

Taylor to Burton: "I worship you. There is no life without you, I'm afraid."

Burton to Taylor: "If you leave me, I shall have to kill myself. There is no life without you."

Admittedly, these lines were compiled from random letters in the book, but what screenwriter will be able to resist?

The next problem, though, is who could possibly play Taylor? The usual suspects were being bandied around before Taylor's death – Angelina Jolie, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Natalie Portman. Jolie looks to have made a head start by embarking on a Cleopatra movie, but measuring these contemporary actors against Taylor only puts into perspective what a different age we now live in. They're celebrities; Taylor was a star, darlings.

What's the difference? One might paraphrase Gloria Swanson's famous line in Sunset Boulevard: "I am big; it's the pictures that got smaller." Yes, we still make vastly expensive motion pictures today, but inflation-adjusted or otherwise, nobody in Hollywood can afford to do "Hollywood glamour" any more. Not by the definition that Swanson had in mind, and not by Taylor's definition either. If you were to seek the moment when "the pictures got smaller," you could do worse than Taylor's infamous 1960s epic Cleopatra. It made Taylor the first actor to take home a million dollars, but having invested so much in her, the rest of the production mushroomed in scale and budget – and in deference to its star.

Suddenly Taylor had to have scores of expensive costume changes, including a dress woven with 24-carat gold. The whole production had to be put on hold due to one of her many illnesses, and by the time she got better, the other leads had to be recast and the whole production moved to Rome. When the original director, Robert Mamoulian, was fired, it was up to Taylor who should replace him. She chose Joseph L Mankiewicz, who had directed her in Suddenly, Last Summer, and who later described Cleopatra as "the toughest three pictures I ever made". The movie made money in the end, including another $2m for Taylor herself, but Cleopatra's hellishly expensive production history represents the movies straining to stay as big as their star, and losing. The beginning of Taylor's scandalous relationship with Burton on Cleopatra also marked a turning point – in the public's relationship with actors offscreen. You could call them the Brangelina of their day but it doesn't quite fit – and not just because Eddie Fisher doesn't have hair to match Jennifer Aniston's. Brad Pitt and Angelina's love affair has been played out in the pages of Heat and National Enquirer; Taylor and Burton's was condemned by the Vatican, no less (for "erotic vagrancy") and discussed in the US House of Representatives. The paparazzi, christened just a few years before in Fellini's La Dolce Vita, followed Taylor and Burton around Rome just as they swarm around today's celebrities, but they never seemed to catch them off duty.

When they were snapped, Taylor and Burton were invariably embracing on speedboats, skiing in Gstaad, stepping out of fashionable restaurants, never looking less than fabulous. Let's not forget Taylor was already a mother of three when she was getting together with Burton. You're more likely to see today's celebrities wheeling a pram with a Starbucks cup in their hand, or hiding under a baseball cap from an aggressive arrow screaming "NO MAKE-UP!"

There's a disconnect when we see the same people all glammed up on the red carpets, or draping themselves around giant perfume bottles. They're actors portraying Hollywood glamour like it was another role; Taylor, it seems, was never off duty. There's too much guilt associated with celebrating wealth and fame like Taylor and Burton did in their prime. If you bought matching his and hers Rolls-Royces or snapped up gemstones like they were jelly babies today, you wouldn't be considered a "star", you'd be considered vulgar.

You can hardly blame her, though. Here is a woman who was adored and admired and scrutinised for pretty much her entire life. Elizabeth danced for the royal family at the age of three, the myth goes. She was a star in National Velvet and Lassie Come Home before she hit puberty, and like most child stars that sheen of youthful innocence made the postwar generation feel like she was one of their own children. She was constantly surrounded by an industry invested in her own beauty, groomed through MGM's studio process, never far from a swooning article praising her violet eyes, her extraordinary beauty, her sex appeal. Here was a woman who shared movie sets and occasionally beds with James Dean, Marlon Brando, Katharine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy and Paul Newman – when the latter died last year, weren't we describing him as "the last great Hollywood star" as well?

In complete contrast to her goddess-like public persona, though, Taylor excelled on screen in the earthiest of roles. At her best, she played against her beauty, or made it feel like a curse. In an era where sex appeal was very much something to be inferred between the censorious lines, Taylor left a little less to the imagination than most, both in her confrontational roles and her conspicuous voluptuousness. As Camille Paglia later put it, "she wields the sexual power that feminism cannot explain and has tried to destroy. Through stars like Taylor, we sense the world-disordering impact of legendary women like Delilah, Salome, and Helen of Troy." In her grown-up breakthrough, 1951's A Place in the Sun, she held her own against Montgomery Clift's method intensity and more than convinced the critics that she's put her animal-movie days behind her.

Decades before Nicole Kidman uglied up with a prosthetic nose to play Virginia Woolf in The Hours, Taylor was despoiling her legendary looks with 30lb of extra weight and a greying wig in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That celebrity disconnect works the other way round in her movies: here's what we take to be an ordinary person portraying real emotions in real situations, but at the same time, it's Liz Taylor!

Few of us can know what Taylor was really like, and none of us can know what it was like to be her, but that between her untouchable celebrity and her earthy screen roles we can fool ourselves by viewing her life through the prism of her movies. When we hear how she screamed in grief and had to be prevented from committing suicide on hearing that her third husband, Michael Todd, died in a plane crash (in his private plane named Lucky Liz – no screenwriter would try and get away with that), we can only picture it as a scene of primal melodrama out of one of her Tennessee Williams adaptations.

When we read how she told husband Eddie Fisher to shut up playing the piano because she wanted to flirt with Richard Burton, and how Fisher then stormed off and played records at top volume through the walls, we can picture it as a deleted scene from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Taylor's life has enough episodes for a mini-series, let alone a biopic.

After the 1960s, Taylor the star was definitely too big for the movies. She barely turned in another memorable performance. Had she reached her forties or fifties today, on the other hand, Taylor would doubtless still be better known for her acting than her private life. Unlike the 1970s, female actors are not thought to be past their prime when they hit 40, but coming into it. Look at Cate Blanchett, Julianne Moore or Helen Mirren. By the same token, despite the gossip-mag intrusion, actresses today are judged on their performances far more seriously than they were in the patriarchal golden age.

Nobody would dream of describing Anne Hathaway or Mia Wasikowska, say, purely in terms of their physical assets. In interviews, today's women are treated as serious actors. had the same been true for Taylor, she might have done more serious acting . As it was, by the 1970s, the roles were no longer there for her and she gradually lost interest – which explains why she ultimately stooped to cameos in television soap General Hospital and 1994's The Flintstones film.

When the celestial aura did start to fade and Taylor descended from Mount Olympus, though, she began to set a different standard of Hollywood stardom – the one that's become a template for today's generation. Her Aids campaigning, in particular, won her admirers and a gay following, even if it never put her in too close contact with the great unwashed. Of course, she did a great deal to counter the stigma of what was still considered a gay sinner's disease in large areas of the US. Even recently, she campaigned against California's anti-gay marriage Proposition 8, and she spoke out against George W Bush at the beginning of the Iraq War, but she always carried out her charitable duties with a certain saintliness, in the same way that Princess Diana did. And all the while she was still snapping up gemstones like they were jellybeans and wheeling herself out in expensive couture – literally in her latter stages when she could no longer walk unaided. What we once took for Hollywood glamour now looked like grotesque vulgarity – but Taylor had earned the right to it, so nobody mentioned it.

Taylor was not "the last Hollywood star" – Lauren Bacall's still alive for a start – but more than any other she made the transition between the golden glamour age and the modern celebrity one. In the ultimate act of celebrity ignobility, Taylor even conducted an excruciating interview with famous-just-for-being-famous Kim Kardashian in last month's Harper's Bazaar – accompanied by a photoshoot of Kardashian channelling Taylor's Cleopatra look. They talked about their shared love of diamonds, clothes and marriages, and not much else. And for the past year "Dame Elizabeth" has used her Twitter feed to reassert her normality, professing to like Twilight, Susan Boyle and "brie on a baguette, well toasted". Brie on a baguette? Didn't she mean caviar spooned into her mouth by an oiled young man in a loincloth? Last July, she even addressed the rumours about her own biopic on Twitter. One tweet says it all: "No one is going to play Elizabeth Taylor, but Elizabeth Taylor herself."

'Fun when the sun shines'

By Susannah Frankel

Elizabeth Taylor once famously said that the three great loves of her life were Mike Todd, Richard Burton and fine jewellery or, as she put it rather more brilliantly: "You can't cry on a diamond's shoulder, and diamonds won't keep you warm at night, but they're sure fun when the sun shines."

Burton, in particular, was clearly in cahoots, although Taylor would later say, with customary audacity, that successive husbands' jealousy over their predecessor's gifts would only "encourage them to give me more". The spectacular 33.19 carat Asscher-cut Krupp diamond that Burton gave her in 1968 was just the first in a long line of increasingly grand – not to mention high-profile - gifts that added to the glamour of the couple's famously stormy relationship, but also signified more naively joyful, less politically correct times. A veritable monster of a stone, Taylor had it set into a ring. Four years later, when she turned 40, Burton gave his wife a heart-shaped, yellow diamond called the Taj Mahal. He would have liked to buy her India's most recognisable landmark itself, he said, "but it would cost too much to transport. This diamond has so many carats, it's almost a turnip."

By far the best known of his purchases, however, was the 69.42-carat, pear-shaped stone that came to be known as the Burton-Taylor diamond, sold to him by Cartier after he failed to land it at auction for over $1,000,000 in 1969. Even then, the jewellery company stipulated it be allowed to set it into a necklace and display it as part of the deal. "Diamonds are an investment," Burton explained, demonstrating to the world that there was rather more than romance – or high camp – to his side of the equation at least. "When people no longer want to see Liz and I on the screen, then we can sell off a few baubles."

The actor, of course, is long gone, but with a money-spinning scent (White Diamonds) named after her favourite stone and a small fortune to her name, Taylor was never forced to do that. Instead, her by now legendary collection – it's reportedly worth in the region of $150,000,000 – will be sold to raise awareness and funds for those living with Aids/HIV.

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