Julie Burchill: Farewell then, Liz. You knew your beauty was a fuel worth burning

view gallery VIEW GALLERY
Share
Related Topics

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!

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there