The necklace around Elizabeth Taylor’s neck shimmered in the light of huge chandeliers, the same chandeliers that reflected in the mirrored sunglasses worn by Michael Jackson, who sat at her side. And then the lights dimmed.
Suddenly, Elizabeth Taylor was an image on a screen, a dainty-looking girl in a 1942 movie called “There’s One Born Every Minute.” She was singing alongside another child star of that era, Carl (Alfalfa) Switzer of the “Our Gang” comedy series. It was Taylor’s first screen performance.
As she sat in the darkened ballroom of the Beverly Hilton Hotel, surrounded by 1,000 friends and admirers ranging from movie moguls to aging actors to AIDS activists--and even former presidential contender Ross Perot--other film clips appeared and vanished: “National Velvet,” “Father of the Bride,” “A Place in the Sun,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
Then the lights went up and the crowd at the American Film Institute dinner honoring Taylor burst into applause. She smiled, but her reaction was reserved, perhaps a lesson learned from half a century of playing the star.
Accepting the AFI’s 21st Life Achievement Award, she told the crowd that when acting in films: “So much is said in the electricity of eyes, the intensity of a whisper. Less is more.”
Taylor is the fourth woman to receive the AFI honor, after Bette Davis (1977), Lillian Gish (1984) and Barbara Stanwyck (1987).
Although her film career has been supplanted by a lucrative perfume business and volunteer work combatting the AIDS epidemic, the dinner Thursday night was a chance for Taylor and the film community to lock arms again, even though she is no longer a box-office star as in the days of “Cleopatra” and seems content with the current direction of her life.
“You make me realize how much I really do miss it, but my life is full and good,” Taylor told the gathering. “It has taken so many diverse twists and turns, but I have grown into what I do now wholeheartedly. I still think of myself as part of this community with great pride.”
The evening was filled with remembrances, poignancy and humor. And celebrity watching.
From a roped-off section outside the ballroom, photographers’ flashes announced the arrival of such celebrities as Gregory Peck, Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, Dennis Hopper, Fay Dunaway, Meg Ryan, Dennis Quaid, John Travolta, George Michael and Jose Eber, hairstylist to the stars.
Perot, now a celebrity in his own right, said he came at the invitation of an AFI director.
Asked if he knew Elizabeth Taylor, Perot said: “I met her once in Washington, but I’ve admired her. I go all the way back to her childhood films.”
Asked which of her movies he likes the most, Perot replied: “Well, the one with the horses.”
The evening made for some unusual scenes. The close-cropped Perot mingled only a few yards from Michael Jackson, whose own hair fell in curls.
The singer was seated immediately to Taylor’s left at a long table in the center of the ballroom.
“I love her very dearly,” he told The Times in a soft, high-pitched voice. “She’s always there for me, and I try to be there for her--forever.”
To Taylor’s immediate right was her husband, Larry Fortensky, who, like Jackson, made no official remarks during the program.
For dessert, each guest was served a chocolate creation accompanied by a chocolate horse.
The program itself, which will be aired this spring on ABC, was hosted by Carol Burnett, who co-starred with Taylor in the 1983 HBO movie “Between Friends.”
Burnett drew laughs when she noted that in 1944 a casting director wrote that Taylor’s “eyes are too old” and she “doesn’t have the face of a kid.”
Throughout the program, celebrities stood and gave personal tributes. Hopper told Taylor that, as a boy growing up in Kansas, “you were my pillow mate” and he drifted off to sleep thinking of her.
Caine quipped: “You were never late. You had a contract that said you didn’t have to show up until 10 o’clock in the morning, but you were never late.”
Some of the evening’s more electric moments were left to the films themselves, from the still-poignant love scene with Montgomery Clift in “A Place in the Sun” to Taylor’s Oscar-winning performance in “Virginia Woolf.”
Near the end of her speech, Taylor gave a tribute to “four magnificent men,” now dead, who had co-starred with her in films: Clift, James Dean, Richard Burton and Rock Hudson. “Oh, I was so lucky to have known them, to have learned so much from them, to have loved them,” she said.