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Liz Taylor Lightens Up : Screen Star’s Tale of Self-Esteem Revealed in New Diet Book

Times Staff Writer

The hedge-lined road leading to Elizabeth Taylor’s Bel-Air home winds past places that are as much like palaces as can be found in America. To gain an audience with Queen Elizabeth, visitors announce themselves into a private telephone alongside the entrance way. A light snaps on, a video camera surveys the scene and a big gate swings open on a short, hairpin driveway leading to a large, well-lighted home.

Three walls of Taylor’s living room are museum quality--sculpture, ceramics, paintings by Degas, Van Gogh, Modigliani and Monet. The windows of the fourth wall overlook a pool, beyond which the city of Los Angeles, from Downtown to the Westside, sparkles in the cold winter air.

Contrary to reputation, Taylor makes her entrance on time, gliding into the large white room like an apparition in a maroon sweater, skin-tight jeans and pointed black boots. Her face is perfect, reflecting the child in “National Velvet,” the adolescent in “A Place in the Sun,” the sensuous Maggie of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.”

More deity than royalty now, she extends her hand. The essence of stardom, celebrity, glamour is there at her fingertips. Then she looks down at her feet.

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“Is that what I think it is?” she asks.

Chen Sam, her longtime publicist, grimaces, confirming that one of Taylor’s dogs has indeed left an unglamorous artifact on the perfect white carpet.

Taylor tosses back her head and lets out a lusty, “Who-the-hell-cares?” laugh.

The goddess is gone. In her place is a middle-aged woman with a relaxed, naughty girl grin, who claims not to care a whit that some might see sacrilege in her descent this month from deity to diet book author.

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In past decades, people took La Liz seriously. But after four decades of stardom, six husbands, almost 60 films and two Academy Awards, the classic femme fatale suddenly had become “Miss Lard” and America gleefully began tearing her down.

At the nadir of the culture’s collective contempt, John Belushi dressed in drag and portrayed Taylor in a notoriously tasteless skit on “Saturday Night Live.” Stuffing food in his mouth while responding to an interviewer’s questions, Belushi as Taylor began choking, performed the Heimlich maneuver on himself, and--barely missing a beat in the interview--wound up spitting hunks of food across the table.

Now Belushi is dead “of his own excesses,” Taylor writes in “Elizabeth Takes Off"--her half how-to, half-confessional discussion of “weight gain, weight loss, self-image and self-esteem"--and the object of his satire has resurrected herself, losing 60 pounds and arguably regaining, at age 55, the title of fairest in the land.

A Strong-Willed Woman

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For whole generations, Taylor is still La Liz, a Joan Collins-like figure trivialized by Robin Leach, People magazine and their trashier cousins. The fiery, strong-willed woman with the stirring screen presence has become a cultural bauble who does crummy TV movies.

But Taylor’s heroic struggle against drugs, alcohol and overeating gives the legend a dramatic new twist, and as “Elizabeth Takes Off” hits bookstores, her incredible shrinking woman tale--180 pounds to 120 or so--will have been permanently Today’d and Oprah’d and Donahue’d into the collective mythology.

To a skeptical sub-category of Taylor buffs, the star’s reason for writing the two billionth diet book of the decade (with the help of ghostwriter Jane Scovell) is as simple as the advance of “roughly” $750,000 Taylor’s publicist says she received.

But Taylor cites more noble intentions.

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“Too many people would come up to me on the street, in airplanes, in restaurants and gather the courage to say, how did you do it?” she says. “I devised a way that works for me and I wanted to share it. Obesity is a big problem in this country.”

Her self-help yarn and the low-fat-diet-with-exercise plan she concocted--in consultation with experts--will help others to regain self-esteem and create a body with which they can feel comfortable, she says.

And the full-circle transformation that occurred, for the most part during her seventh marriage, to Sen. John Warner, is indeed inspirational.

As Taylor explains in the book, she stumped up and down the state of Virginia for Warner. No one doubts that her presence went a long way toward assuring his election in 1978.

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But when Warner “headed for the Senate, I zeroed in for self-destruction,” she writes. ". . . Being a senator’s wife is thoroughly debilitating. . . . After sharing everything with my husband during the campaign, I found myself in a kind of domestic Siberia once he was elected. . . . I don’t think I’ve ever been so alone in my life as when I was Mrs. Senator. . . .”

Social commentator Max Lerner once equated Taylor to Keat’s La Belle Dame Sans Merci . Her romance with Richard Burton was on a par with the grand passions of Tristan and Isolde. Taylor might have been a part of the classical Greek hetaerae, he wrote.

“To join the hetaerae was a gesture of making the break for intellectual and personal freedom, which was denied to wives. Girls with beauty and spirit dared make the break.”

Something of that underlying free spirit radiated from each role Taylor played. In “Giant,” for instance, Taylor’s young ranch wife character, rebuffed by her Texan husband (Rock Hudson) for trying to enter a men’s political discussion, puts the men in their place with a burst of acerbic derision, then whirls around, eyes flashing, and shouts “Boo!” at other wives hovering timidly in the background.

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“John wasn’t quite that much of a chauvinistic pig, but he does belong to, like, all-male country clubs,” Taylor says. “He is an old Southern gentleman who believes the woman’s place is in the home, ‘barefoot and pregnant on the farm,’ as he used to put it.”

So, soon after the election, the temptress found herself sitting home evenings, with a busy politician husband who would suggest, “Why don’t you go upstairs and watch TV, Pooters?”

Oddly enough, Taylor tried to comply.

“I didn’t try to do my own thing--my own thing became being a senator’s wife,” she says. “I wanted to forget Elizabeth Taylor but people wouldn’t let me. . . . I was a celebrity who was trying to retire, and shrink into the background, and the media were not letting me.”

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With her sense of self-worth undermined for the first time, Taylor went on a “gluttonous rampage.” Her weight went up and down, but mainly up.

The last straw in her marriage came, she writes, when Warner announced, without consulting her, that he’d sold their Georgetown house and she would have to get rid of her pets.

Taylor moved to Bel-Air in 1982. She got divorced. Then, in December of 1983, while she was hospitalized for colitis, her family and friends arrived at her bedside and “intervened,” bearing emotional witness to the harm her drug and alcohol addiction was causing them and her.

A few days later, Taylor checked into the Betty Ford Center, where she eventually kicked the drugs and booze.

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Her battle with overeating came later.

“After years of trying this diet and that, I finally worked my own miracles. I heard what I call the ‘click,’ that little bell that goes off in your mind and says, ‘Enough, time to stop.’ ”

Referring to a photo from her 50th birthday, she writes:"My eyes have disappeared into suet.”

Five years later, after disciplined dieting, she looked in the mirror on her birthday and said: “That’s not bad for a 55-year-old woman.”

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“I believe my comeback is a victory for anyone who has ever felt unloved, unwanted and ineffectual,” she writes.

Taylor is even more beautiful in person than in the recent photographs that are circulating. And a whole folklore of fat-fighting techniques has been circulating to explain the amazing remake. The most common wisdom is that a troop of cosmetic surgeons should have been listed in the book’s acknowledgments.

“I’m getting so sick of being asked that question!” Taylor shrieks, bowing her flawless face and firing her fingers out alongside her Jose Eber-spiked hair.

“This is the last time I’m going to answer this question, because it’s nobody’s damned business,” she says, real anger and disgust tangled up with what seemed like more histrionic emotion.

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“The next time somebody asks me I’m going to strip all of my clothes off! This really is beginning to cheese me off! I lost weight by dieting!

“I did have a chin tuck, because there was so much skin,” she says, flicking that area with a finger. But “I haven’t had suction. I haven’t had a face lift. I did it the old-fashioned, hard way, with suffering, boredom and determination triple. And that is that.”

Outburst over, Taylor becomes friendly again. Little compliments actually seem to affect a slight flutter of appreciation. Her famous eyes put a person at ease, even as they mesmerize.

When Taylor is in interview mode, though, most questions seem to flick a switch in her brain. Her eyes drift off to some point in infinity, glazing with the deep weariness seen in pictures from her drug and alcohol-addled days. Her tongue goes on autopilot, reciting, with requisite upbeat inflection thoughts and phrases straight out of her book.

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One subject that seems to bypass the ennui reaction is her work against AIDS. The American Foundation for AIDS Research, which Taylor created in 1985, has raised $13.7 million to date, and now Taylor is expanding its program to include funding for education and the creation of hospices. Ten percent of Taylor’s cut from her Passion perfume sales go to AMFAR, and activists give Taylor a lot of credit for loosening purse strings in Washington.

Skeptics have suggested that finding “the good cause” is just another phase of a public relations master plan thrown into gear back before “National Velvet,” when Taylor’s stage mother began orchestrating the minutiae of her 9-year-old daughter’s career.

Taylor says simply that her AIDS work is “the most important thing in my life. It has been for three years. And that won’t change before it’s cured.”

And while every aspect of her career was managed during the studio contract era, Elizabeth Taylor herself never was, she says. “I was never a product of the Hollywood system. I was always a rebel. I had a sense of privacy and a strong sense of identity. I could take acting or leave it. I was not ambitious. I was not driven. Being a human being has always meant more to me.”

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Acting is still a profession rather than an integral part of her identity, she says. She just finished filming a new Franco Zefferelli film, in which she portrays an opera singer. But she doesn’t worry much about the fact that “there aren’t really many great roles for somebody my age lying around.”

Besides, “I’m so busy doing other things,” she says.

And she’s happy. “That sounds awfully smug, to say, ‘Gee I’m happy with myself,’ but I feel at peace with myself. I enjoy life enormously. I look forward to tomorrow. I find life a wonderful adventure.”

“Sheer tenacity” has helped her survive other Hollywood icons, she says. Slipping into a W. C. Fields impersonation that gets Chen Sam whooping like Ed McMahon, she makes a cock-eyed face and mutters: “The old broad won’t give up! We try and we try, but she won’t roll over.”

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As she talks, Taylor’s 5-year-old grandson, Caleb, the son of Christopher Wilding, wanders in. Grandma’s ice cube-sized Krupp diamond sparkles against his Donald Duck sweat shirt as the boy hugs her, whispering that dinner is served.

Taylor doesn’t see her wealth and acquisitiveness as a final indulgence, an addiction to wretched excess. “The more you have the more you can give away,” she says.

But then judging from a single glimpse, her home life, away from the paparazzi, is not all that glitzy. Taylor does have a second home in Switzerland. But if you strip away the art collection and a few hundred square feet, the Bel-Air house wouldn’t look out of place in Granada Hills. Taylor’s Aston Martin Lagonda is in her two-car garage, but Hondas, a Continental, a Ford and a Jeep clutter the driveway.

The people who see La Liz as a tacky, jet-set icon won’t believe it, nor will those who would envision her as some ageless Aphrodite, but Taylor views the whole legend business as bunk.

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If she wants the public to know anything, it’s “That I’m not an image, I’m not a legend. I’m a real person. And that I . . . I care,” she says.

But really, she’d just as soon not explain anything.

“I regard my privacy with a great sense of protection,” she says, with a sigh and a candid, matter-of-fact smile. “With all the interviews I’ve done for the perfume and the book, I have bored myself witless now for several months. And I’m sure the public must be bored sick. The perfume people and the book people insist. But I get sick of talking about myself, I really do.”

Peter F. Johnson in the Times library contributed to this story.

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