Thursday 24 March 2011
Julie Burchill: Farewell then, Liz. You knew your beauty was a fuel worth burning
With the death of Elizabeth Taylor, the last of the Hollywood greats is finally gone. True to form – never a lady, barely ever a girl – this tough broad supreme battled on against ill-health for decades after her contemporaries overdosed on barbiturates, booze and self-loathing. And at a time when professional beauties seem terrified to show any sign of ageing lest they be shunted into character cameos in favour of some fresher flesh, Taylor was fascinating for being far less interested in leaving a good-looking corpse than in wringing every drop of the juice from every inch of the ride.
If that sounds a somewhat lewd metaphor, all the better. Married eight times, she was the anti-Marilyn; rather than combine a child's face with an adult body and be prey to all the weirdos who might be attracted to such a pervy paradox, Taylor was a woman of the world from the get-go. Child stars are notorious for spending a couple of years on the ugly step while the studios wait for them to outgrow adolescent awkwardness, but she went straight from hugging Lassie to snogging Montgomery Clift, it seemed.
To see the teenage Taylor draw Clift towards her in the masterpiece A Place In The Sun (from the book of Theodore Dreiser's An American Tragedy) with the words "Tell Mama – tell Mama all" is to witness one of the most extraordinary portrayals of lust ever created. And it didn't stop when the cameras did; years later, according to her housekeeper, Marilyn Monroe would become obsessed with the apparently gay Montgomery Clift and repeatedly complain; "Liz Taylor has the Oscar, she has children, she even has Monty – she has everything!"
From being denounced by the Vatican in the Sixties as "an erotic vagrant" (I think they meant it as an insult, but it sounds gorgeous to me) to being hailed by the director of the UCLA Aids Institute as the "the Joan of Arc of Aids activism", Taylor lived her life according to her own rules – more Wife of Bath than untouchable ideal of feminine perfection. Looking at the insipid contemporary film-star likes of Gwyneth Paltrow, for whom eating half a cupcake seems a walk on the wild side, this cursing, drinking, swashbuckling goddess is a reminder of when hell-raisers didn't automatically have to be as mad, bad and sad as Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson.
When a famous man does what he wants, he's a Bad Boy; when a famous woman does what she wants, she's a suitable case for treatment. These days, your Britneys and Lindsays choose rehab as the secular penance which signifies that they have accepted that they have sinned against decency and that they are sincere in seeking a second chance from society to behave like good little girls.
Taylor merely thumbed her nose at her denouncers – instinctively recognising that they judged her more out of envy than out of moral revulsion, as is true of Kate Moss in modern times – and lurched from one riotous spree to another. She worked out early that beauty is fuel, to be burned, more than fruit, to be preserved, and that bad health in later years is more than a price worth paying to ensure than the prime of life has every last inch of lushness squeezed from it.
All her life Taylor lived with accusations of being a home-wrecker and husband-stealer and all the other insults generally used by those sad-sacks travelling on the HMS Ain't Getting None. With the exception of the time Ingrid Bergman was denounced from the floor of the American Senate and her films pulled out of cinemas for the "crime" of being married to one man and pregnant by another, such hysterical misogyny has rarely been directed at one female public figure with such force. Like she cared!
There was something almost regal about the wantonness of Elizabeth Taylor – never explain, never complain! She was, despite her ceaseless devotion to and display of furs and jewels, a fine feminist role model in that she refused to be shamed by the chief hypocrites of her time – "What do you expect me to do – sleep alone?" the young widow challenged a gossip columnist when accused of taking up with her dead husband's best friend.
She was cheeky, with no respect for rank; "Is that the famous diamond? But it's so large – how very vulgar!" Princess Margaret is said to have sneered on seeing the gem which Richard Burton bought for Taylor for $1.1m from Cartier, 69 carats and one inch thick. "Yes," said Elizabeth. "Ain't it great?"
Margaret then asked to try on the huge stone. "It doesn't look so vulgar now, does it?" remarked Taylor laconically.
Equal parts goddess and sailor on shore leave, there won't be another one like her. She lived it large and even in death is larger than life. To quote Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, it's the films (and the film stars) that got small.
Does every single thing we watch have to be 'gritty'?
Goodness knows I cuss as much as the next person, but am I alone in resenting the way that coarseness is now almost force-fed to us by institutions that should know better? (Unlike me, who left school at 16 only to be immediately immersed in the swirling, sweary cesspool of journalism.)
Fresh off the back of Marie Stopes advising that pregnancy can be avoided by taking "one up the bum", it now transpires that RADIO 3 is to air a version of Wuthering Heights – on a Sunday evening! – which will contain more effing and blinding than breakfast at Buck Pal when the latest red-top revelations re Airmiles Andy drop from the corgi's jaws.
Really, no one could call me a prude – I'm not so much Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells as Blasé of Brighton. But it is my very worldliness, I feel, that makes me resent how "grittiness" is now forced on us, like the artistic version of being moaned at about eating one's five-a-day. What classic are the po-faced gritters going to darken up next? The Very Bulimic Caterpillar? The Cat In The Hat On Crack? Speedballs with Rosie?
In the way that trains have a quiet carriage, is it too much to expect a few institutions NOT to feel the need to get down with da kidz?
There's no nice way to sell yourself to an advertiser
When I was young, hip and gorgeous in the 1980s, I was occasionally approached to endorse products for sizeable amounts of money. Though a great fan of filthy lucre, I found it easy to say no because I am with the late, great Bill Hicks on this one: "By the way, if anyone here is in marketing or advertising... you have no rationalisation for what you do, you are Satan's little helpers."
If people want to prostitute themselves for the advertising shilling, that's their business. But I do resent it when they insist on digging up an innocent corpse and touting it out into the gutter with them. In a current print advert for the luxury brand Dunhill, the "artist and author" Harland Miller not only whores his own ass, but also drags Joseph Conrad and the Beatles into his wretched endeavour by quoting them. Shameless!
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