Tom Sutcliffe: How a star shines on in the memory

The week in culture

Share
Related Topics

Let's perform a modest experiment into what happens when a star goes out – one that can only be conducted for a very short time and which, I regret to tell you, is already out of your reach. As you read this, sometime on Friday, your mental picture of Elizabeth Taylor will probably have been overprinted a hundred times already, by obituaries, news reports, tributes and replayed film clips. As I write it, though, I've just heard – and in a little under two hours I will have to surrender my copy. Given a bit more time it would be possible to be a little more systematic, to mine the biographies and trudge through the indexes in search of the kind of material that never made it to Wikipedia. I bet Kenneth Tynan has some stories to tell. And I bet Pauline Kael would have nailed precisely that odd way in which Taylor always seemed to sit a little proud of the films she was in, as if the fictional space had been unable to entirely accommodate the fame she brought with her.

That isn't really how former stars live on, though. The last two days have been the equivalent of a supernova explosion, the sudden burst of brilliance with which some stars expel their remaining mass, before slowly fading away again. And the normality – less luminous, distorted by distance, flickering oddly because of the effects of memory – is what will eventually return. It is – barring the knowledge that she has died, which introduces its own distortions of tact and nostalgia – pretty much where I am now, my knowledge confined to one editorial telephone call and the BBC News website's Breaking News headline and promise of "more details soon".

Your perception of Elizabeth Taylor is almost certainly better informed, more nuanced, more detailed and more accurate than mine. But it isn't what she really looked like three days ago, or will look like again in another three months.

I think I thought of the Andy Warhol portrait first, which may be significant in itself. Because he didn't paint her as a young woman, but a middle-aged one – and the calculated roughness of his technique (the way the colours spread beyond the lines they are notionally attached to) seemed as well-suited to her as to any of the celebrities he depicted.

Taylor was a Warhol portrait before the event, those famously dark eyebrows and red lips always in danger of overrunning their borders, because we understood that excess was part of her allure. She couldn't entirely control what she had – her desire, her wealth or the application of talent – but that unsteadiness didn't ever really threaten her glamour. It was an integral part of it. It's probably why I thought of The VIPs next, a film in which as I recall she played a film star attempting to reconcile with a romantic partner played by Richard Burton. The film takes place in the VIP lounge of a fog-bound airport, and is a perfect example of the way in which Taylor's most memorable roles (whatever you think of her acting ability) teased us by offering biography by other means. Of course, you think of National Velvet, without prompting – the film that (despite her age at the time) proved that she would bridge the gap between child and adult star – but it's Cleopatra and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? that surely come next.

Did she ever do comedy? I have a memory that she could be funny in interview but my image of her as an actress is of a woman in tears or in a fury, the wreckage of a relationship around her feet and her mascara blotted like Warhol shadows. And all the other recallable facts – the preposterously expensive jewels, the friendship with Michael Jackson, the Aids campaigning – are comparatively tiny parts of her spectral signature.

I don't pretend that any of this is true to the woman who has just died. It's a kind of cartoon or logo. But then that's what film stars are, and the fine detailing of career and biography that's been filled in over the last two days will only temporarily obscure it. The imperfect memories, the unprompted ones, are what will survive longest.

A little too much reverence for cave paintings

Did cave artists ever make mistakes? I ask the question because I saw Werner Herzog's cherishably batty 3-D film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Chauvet cave paintings the other day and was struck once again by the unquestioning reverence these images often provoke in people.

The reverence isn't entirely misplaced, of course. The vigour and beauty of some of these images, and the sheer age of all of them, is wonderful. It's the unquestioning bit that I wonder about. After all these works are regularly identified as the very earliest instances of human art. And since discrimination is inalienably part of appreciation (to know that one thing is great you have to recognise how it might be less great) and failure is inalienably part of artistic endeavour – it should be possible to say "Our paleolithic artist must have been having a bad day when he or she painted this image". And yet I've never heard such a thing. More to the point, what do you practice on if a cave wall is your medium? Isn't it at least conceivable that such an artist might have wrestled with getting a bison's nose right first? Or started an image and then thought "Oh hell, that eye's completely wonky!"

At one point in Herzog's film, the camera passes over a particularly crowded section of cavern wall – which includes a hopeless painting of what I took to be an elephant (you really can't be sure). Like everything else it was treated with a grave and religious solemnity by the lens. But isn't it possible it was the cave painter's equivalent of scrap paper?

Egan provides pause for thought

Jennifer Egan's new novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, comes with the kind of rapturous book-jacket recommendations that tend to stir recalcitrance in me. Well, I think, the Los Angeles Times may believe it's the "smartest book you can get your hands on this summer", but just how smart is the LA Times? In fact, Egan's book turns out to be seriously good – very readable and stylistically inventive – the latter best exemplified by a chapter that is presented entirely as a set of Powerpoint slides.

These not only work surprisingly well as a vehicle for character depiction (the notional narrator is a chippy teenage girl), but also introduce a great nerd's list: her brother Lincoln's compilation of the greatest pauses in rock history. I'm hopeless at this kind of thing, but I was instantly reminded of a much-loved moment in Elvis Costello's song "Impatience" (3'.37" in), when he pulls the tempo to a near stop before releasing it back to full speed with a delirious slither of strings.

As in Egan's novel – which hides a lot in the gaps between chapters – there's a world of feeling in that moment of suspension. Lincoln's list includes "Bernadette" by the Four Tops, Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and Bowie's "Young Americans". Suggestions for other blissful hiatuses welcome.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

React Now

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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Terry Sue-Patt as Benny in the BBC children’s soap ‘Grange Hill’  

Children's TV shows like Grange Hill used to connect us to the real world

Grace Dent
An Indian bookseller waits for customers at a roadside stall on World Book and Copyright Day in Mumbai  

Novel translation lets us know what is really happening in the world

Boyd Tonkin
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine