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Elizabeth Taylor let the story melt away and just gaze

She was her own montage seven husbands eight marriages diamonds beyond the counting scandals like forgotten promises two Oscars for films that showed the immense creative journey she could take soaring as if on a single breath from the ridiculous Butterfield 8 playing a hopelessly oldfashioned Hollywood whore to Martha in Edward Albees and Mike Nicholss Whos Afraid of Virginia Woolf? a defiant wreck out of the true heartland of American tragedy. She had the range nerve and instinct that only Bette Davis had had before – and like Davis Taylor was monster and empress sweetheart and scold idiot and wise woman. We went in awe of her but with one word or a knowing smile she assured us she was one of us. So beautiful she could go crazy too – and then move on.

Those two Oscars were only six years apart and it wasnt so much that they used a different Elizabeth Taylor for she had always grasped the affinity of trash and class in her art and business. It was rather more that in that interval there had come the folly of Cleopatra her first neardeath in the London Clinic as they tried to film the Egyptian epic in Britain and then the fateful meeting in Rome with Richard Burton the Antony she carried into life as if at last the romantic actress had found her real passion.

She was in awe of Burton – his class his Welshness his reading his literary ambition his ruthless pessimistic candour to say nothing of his exceptional instinct and nature as an actor. There were plenty of people especially in the London theatre who predicted she would ruin him. And some of them asked What did anyone expect? when Burton died too young and maybe with too few grand credits to his name as well as no Oscar.

But Burton was always in charge of his own demise and ruin and he recognised that Liz was not just his equal as actor and selfdestructive force but much his superior at surviving. To read Melvyn Braggs biography of Burton which quotes extensively from his journals is to see how passionate and turbulent their love was – to say nothing of their pioneering of the thing we now call celebrity. But Burton ached with respect for her. He had seen the real thing the last star and a camera actress who had been born knowing more than he could ever learn.

So she went from childhood when her violet eyes were one of the touchstones for Technicolor to being a devoted patron in her later years to those who were sicker than she was. She gave up acting because I think she knew that without her astonishing youthful glamour and sexuality she was in grave danger of betraying her own past and her own dreams for herself. After all to millions she had been the most beautiful woman on screen for a couple of decades and when she was only 18 in A Place in the Sun she had entered into one of movies modest exquisite romantic auras with her partner in that film Montgomery Clift.

Its a film based on Dreisers An American Tragedy and in the book Taylors character is the rather empty rich girl who takes the hero away from a first love Shelley Winters in the movie. But as George Stevens made the film Winters is a drab whining figure – someone dreamers almost want to have removed … and murdered. Liz and Monty are the prince and princess in an impossible love story that ends on Death Row.

ut thwarted love stories are the best and at 18 Liz could look at Clift the camera and us and convey the magic words that inspired classic American cinema – If only!
Clift was just one of the adored figures who could not really stay with her. They were so in love on screen that it may have surprised them to notice in life that they were not quite of the same sexual disposition. But Taylor had a great gift for friendship and she looked after Clift as best she could – she was there when he had his terrible car crash in Los Angeles and did her best to hold his broken head together.

She lost the impresario Mike Todd after a brief marriage. She lost screen partners like James Dean and she lost Rock Hudson. There was a turning point for in Hudsons tragedy she seemed to see a new role and so she helped raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Aids research and relief. Along that way so much of her early trashiness was forgiven by the public so that at her death at last – for hospital was one of her longrunning roles or duties – there is much grief and sorrow for her.

About Yashwa Malik

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