Monday, March 28, 2011

Elizabeth Taylor: The Last Hollywood Icon

As I’m sure you all know, Elizabeth Taylor passed away last Wednesday at the age of 79. I have to admit that it wasn’t much of a shock for me. She had been ailing for so many years. But it’s still sad to see the passing of the woman who was the epitome of classic Hollywood. So here’s my little tribute to the great actress and icon.

There are really just two types of stars that most people think of when they are asked about Hollywood of old – the ones who died too soon like Marilyn Monroe or James Dean…or the ones that were the essence of glamour and American royalty like Taylor. That sure is what Taylor has always meant to me. She was amazingly beautiful, a wonderful actress who managed to move from child to adult star (a rare feat in Hollywood), and had a private life just as dramatic as her films.

Born in England in 1932, her American parents decided to move the family back to the States when the threat of war was imminent in the UK. And their choice of cities? Los Angeles, where almost immediately a friend suggested the strikingly beautiful Taylor make a screen test. This won her her first contract…but not to MGM, the studio that would make her a star. No, first it was Universal Studios, but they dropped her contract after one picture (“There’s One Born Every Minute” (1942)).

But Taylor’s mother took her to see Louis B. Mayer of MGM, and the gentleman was captivated by the little girl with the bright violet eyes. (Taylor was actually born with a double set of lashes, which just made her vibrant eyes pop even more.) At MGM, she had a couple of small parts in “Lassie Come Home” and “Jane Eyre” (both 1943) before landing the role that made her career, “National Velvet” (1944). MGM kept her busy but she would never have that same success again, not until her first marriage.

That marriage was to Conrad “Nicky” Hilton (great-uncle to Paris Hilton) in 1950. It really was a loveless marriage, a publicity stunt pushed on her by the studio for her new film “Father of the Bride.” Yes, that film would start her on the path to adult stardom but it would also be the beginning of a sea of marriages. After her short union with Hilton (less than a year), it was Michael Wilding, then Mike Todd. However, it was Todd’s sudden death that would propel Taylor into the world of the paparazzi, a relatively new fascination, unlike today.

Todd died a little over a year after they were married in a plane crash. Taylor’s best friend Debbie Reynolds and Todd’s best friend Eddie Fisher were her companions during mourning. Only Fisher consoled her a little more than was appropriate, leading to the biggest Hollywood scandal to date (much like the Jennifer Aniston-Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie scandal of today, as Reynolds’ daughter Carrie Fisher often likes to compare). Taylor broke up “America’s Sweethearts” (also another studio-pushed marriage) and became the black widow. Reynolds and Fisher divorced, and then Taylor and Fisher married (her fourth if you’re keeping track).

Yet it was her next romance that made Taylor more famous for being herself than an actress. She signed on to make “Cleopatra” (1963) for a record $1 million (unheard of for actresses of that time). This would lead her to the love of her life, a lesser-known Welsh actor named Richard Burton. After the grueling production was completely moved from England to Rome, Burton was signed on to replace the first Anthony to Taylor’s Cleopatra. Their chemistry was instantaneous to all around. And thus began Taylor’s second public scandal in a row, as still-married-to-Fisher Taylor started her biggest affair with married Burton.

It was a romance for the ages. Taylor fell head over heels for the harsh, rough Burton with a voice of gold. She divorced Fisher but remained Burton’s mistress. Burton in turn had no idea what he was getting into as well. Quoted as saying about their affair and the mass media that followed them constantly, “How did I know she was so f*&%ing famous?” But he was hooked, and though he had always stated in his many affairs beforehand that he would never divorce (being a devout catholic), Taylor was too much for him, and he finally divorced his wife. Taylor and Burton then married and had ten rocky, passionate, roller coaster years together before divorcing. They would then remarry a year later, only to divorce once again in less than a year. But Taylor stated for the rest of her life that Burton was the love of her life…and Burton the same of Taylor. They would keep in touch for the rest of Burton’s life.

So maybe now they can be together in peace, free of the prying eyes and pressures of life. May you be in peace, Ms. Taylor. You were a bright star on earth and are now one in the heavens. Until next time, everyone.

(Post-tidbit: The day after Taylor died, she was buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale. Per her instructions, the ceremony was delayed 15 minutes. She wanted to be late to her own funeral. She had a sense of humor to the end. She now lies next to her good friend Michael Jackson.)

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