The last star in the firmament

Untoppable, unstoppable, uncloneable, unforgettable, Elizabeth Taylor is 65 today. By Emma Forrest
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The Independent Online
Elizabeth Taylor was still recuperating from her near-fatal brush with pneumonia when she won the Best Actress Oscar for Butterfield 8. "They gave it to me as a consolation prize for not dying," she laughed. She thought the film was "a piece of shit", and that her performance wasn't much better: "They should have given it to me for Suddenly, Last Summer". On both counts she was right. The film was lousy and she has never been an especially good actress.

She was perfect as the spoilt but sensitive heiress in A Place In The Sun, funny in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and mesmerising in Suddenly, Last Summer. That isn't to say she was good, but somehow that's irrelevant. Even when she was rotten, Taylor was still mesmerising - like an acid- green Versace dress or a car crash. And, unusually, people always wanted her to be good. Even the critics willed her to greatness, feting her for Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? They said that Mike Nichols had made her examine the darkest corners of her soul and completely changed her voice.

This is absolute nonsense. Watch Virginia Woolf and what you have is Elizabeth Taylor in a grey wig, talking louder. No Meryl Streep style accent challenges for Liz. It doesn't matter that she isn't the world's best actress. The good actress versions of her - Stockard Channing, Sherilyn Fenn, Suzanne Pleshette - never quite cut through. She is, like Sharon Stone, a star as opposed to an actor. She is the greatest of the Hollywood studio-system era. And almost the only one who is still alive.

Just about everyone who became a major star in the Fifties died too soon: Natalie Wood, Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Rock Hudson, Montgomery Clift, Mike Todd. She not only made it through, but her star has not waned, despite the fact that she hasn't worked in years. One can't imagine Gwyneth Paltrow being on the cover of The National Enquirer 20 years after her last hit film.

Apart from the outcry over her relationship with Eddie Fisher (it was felt that she had stopped grieving for Mike Todd too soon and broken up Fisher's story-book marriage), Taylor has always been the star we love to love. Though you could never look like her, she has this earthy quality and sense of humour that makes her seem like one of us.

Even her incredibly bad taste in clothes is endearing. Anne Bancroft, for instance, is a paragon of Armani good taste and ageing well. Taylor, meanwhile, is photographed in green velvet kaftans, with two candyfloss dogs that look like cats under each arm, and a huge ugly brooch smack in the middle of her coat. Nobody is going to go into a hairdresser's and say "I want hair like hers". Her taste is so heroically bad that, although you might want the money to buy them, you wouldn't even want one of her massive diamonds.

She means so well. Even when she married a construction worker she met at the Betty Ford clinic - her eighth marriage - you couldn't help admiring the triumph of hope over experience. The innocence of the Fifties has stayed with her. That was the opposite of the roaring Twenties: Fatty Arbuckle raping a girl to death with a Coke bottle, Jean Harlow dying of peroxide poisoning brought on by bleaching her pubic hair. Taylor's was the Disney generation, the Eisenhower post-war economic boom feel- good factor. The worst thing a film star ever did in the Fifties was to drink too much champagne.

Aside from Natalie Wood, she is the only child star of the era who successfully made the transition to adult roles (the minute she started developing her much-admired bust MGM put her in low-cut gowns and swimsuits faster than you could say "I'm alive! Maggie the Cat is alive!"). At 17 she despaired of ever getting her schoolwork done: "How can I when Robert Taylor keeps sticking his tongue down my throat?"

Taylor has survived so long after her career largely because of her soap- opera life and also because of her incandescent beauty. Her beauty (perhaps all great screen beauty) is about definition - the clarity of the violet eyes, the paleness of the skin and the darkness of hair. However, when asked what it was like to be married to the most beautiful woman in the world, Richard Burton scoffed "She is not the most beautiful woman in the world. Elizabeth is over-developed in the bust and too short in the leg".

Her affair with Burton practically spawned the paparazzi phenomenon as we know it. Burton dubbed the relationship "Le Scandal". Her reputation as a sexually voracious man-eater is not fair. She was desperate to get out of Butterfield 8 because "I don't like what the girl stands for. The sleazy emptiness". Despite the fact that the Vatican accused her of "erotic vagrancy" and Eddie Fisher incorporated a song into his Las Vegas cabaret act entitled "Cleo, The Nympho Of The Nile", Elizabeth Taylor is the patron saint of "frigid slags". With the exception of Stanley Donen and Henry Weinberg, anyone she slept with she then married, even Jack Warner and Larry Fortensky. To have slept with only eight or nine people in your entire life is practically virginal, especially by Hollywood standards. Her MGM costume designer, Sidney Guilaroff, insists that she was "absolutely in love with every one of her husbands".

Two things are certain about Taylor: if she marries she'll get divorced, and if she's seriously ill she'll recover (as her recent brain tumour trauma demonstrates). Michael Jackson was at her bedside for the operation and has asked her to be godmother to Mike Junior. At her recent birthday celebrations he sang a ballad of his own composition entitled "Elizabeth, I love You". Hello! magazine reports that it had the audience, which included Madonna, Cher and Roseanne "in tears". It doesn't add "of laughter".

When Taylor announced that Michael Jackson was the "least weird" person she knew, she was probably telling the truth. She was the one who, first to the scene of Montgomery Clift's horrific car crash, pulled his teeth out of his throat to stop him choking. His beauty and career ruined, she insisted he be cast in Suddenly, Last Summer. When wondering how Taylor and Jackson could possibly be best friends, you only need to remember that she always was the guardian angel of sexually ambivalent and confused boys.

Making Giant she forged deep friendships with Rock Hudson and James Dean. It was her love for Hudson that motivated her to become an ambassador for Aids awareness. Long before it was a hip cause, she appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair, condom in hand, under the headline "Liz Aid". At that time no other Hollywood star wanted to get involved for fear they would be marked by it. Thank God for Liz, who, as ever, was completely unswayed by any concept of fashionn