The problem of being a living legend is that the legend can get in the way of the living. Elizabeth Taylor would be on anybody’s short list of the most famous women on Earth. The trials and triumphs of her life and career, illuminated variously by Klieg lights and flashbulbs, are as familiar in Karachi as in Kankakee.
Only recently, as herself, she bobbed in and out of four successive sitcoms one Monday night on CBS, pursuing a supremely thin and silly subplot about a lost string of black pearls. There were ritualistic oohs and ahs from each cast at her presence, and it is probably true that few celebrities would have merited such a necklace of cameos, although invention seemed to flag as the evening went on, and only a hand was seen and a voice heard to signify her whereabouts on the fourth show. Inasmuch as she is about to launch a new series of perfume products--her third, called Black Pearls, from Elizabeth Arden--one critic noted unsympathetically that it was the longest plug in television history.
Exactly, she said cheerfully at her home in Bel-Air a few days before the telecasts. A network executive had proposed the idea and Taylor, who as well as the lavender eyes has a diamond-hard native shrewdness, seized the concept. “They offered me a theme, four shows about a jewel theft. I said, let’s make it black pearls. I was only allowed to say ‘Black Pearls perfume’ once, but it’s alluded to several times. I wasn’t paid a cent,” she explained, “but I was pretty crass about asking for money for ETAF [the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation].” The foundation now primarily supports hospices for AIDS patients worldwide, each rigorously checked by her people to be sure the money isn’t going for expensive overhead.
The living room, where visitors are entertained, looks across a pleasant terrace to the mist-shrouded slopes of Bel-Air below. A cluster of paintings on the way includes a handsome Rouault. A large cocktail table holds an assortment of natural crystals, and a fish tank gurgles happily at one side of the room. “It’s a reef tank,” Taylor says, “and the symbiotic relationships among the fish are absolutely amazing. I can watch it for hours, and I do.
“It was heartbreaking for me to be a cripple for two years and not be able to get up and do anything. I hustled on the telephone, but it’s not the same thing. You have to create events, at which I pay for everything, so that everything they make goes to patient care.”
She has been active in the AIDS cause since 1984. Do the research labs she helps support suggest there is new light at the end of the tunnel? “It’s a long tunnel,” she says. “But I think what’s happened with Magic Johnson is such a ray of hope. The fact that he’s gone back into the sport is so positive. He’s taken such care of his body and soul.”
The television viewers saw an Elizabeth Taylor who qualifies as zaftig, that splendid word for full-blown. The weight is a consequence of many months of immobility caused by her back troubles and then hip replacements.
“In the shows, I make fun of myself"--referring to the references to her multiple marriages--"because if I don’t, everybody else does anyway, so I might as well join in. If you can’t make fun of yourself, who can . . . and they do.”
She remembered that when she did “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” with Richard Burton for Mike Nichols, “Mike and I really wanted me to look like an old drunken sot, so I put on 20 pounds. And in those days it was easy to shake 20 pounds. It was even hard to put it on. Those days are gone forever. Everybody worries about my weight so much these days, it’s like a national . . . I don’t know why people care about how much I weigh. It’s really nobody’s business. But I’m dieting. I hate it. I sometimes wonder, why am I dieting? It’s so vain. But I suppose it’s better for my back. My hips, too.”
The replacement surgery went well, but she walks carefully and a bit stiffly. “I saw a clip from one of the shows I did last week, and to me it looks like a penguin walking. But what can you expect from titanium?”
Feeling better right along, she will later this spring do a seven-city tour of department stores in aid of Black Pearls. On previous tours, she has drawn crowds in the thousands, peaking at 15,000 in Chicago.
“I’ve loved doing it,” she says. “It’s a way of meeting people I’ve never had before, kind of like doing a comic turn. I open myself to questions and it can be very funny, very off the wall.”
Taylor turned 64 the day after her quadruple sitcom appearances. She made her first film nearly 55 years ago at the age of 9, in “There’s One Born Every Minute,” with Carl (Alfalfa) Switzer of “Our Gang” fame as her co-star. “It was very strange,” she said the other afternoon. “I still had an English accent.” (She was born in London to American parents, and the family returned to the United States at the outbreak of war in 1939.) “If I remember, I had to put on an American accent. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen the film. It always seemed more like a test than a film. I’m not ashamed of it, I just don’t remember anything about it.
“I still think of ‘Lassie Come Home’ as my first film.” And “National Velvet” in 1945 remains, these decades later, her favorite film. “Oh, yeah,” she said, remembering, “because it was totally me, and I could ride all day long. It wasn’t work. The only time I thought I was doing something that was really me was ‘National Velvet.’ And they gave me the horse for my 13th birthday. No one else could ride him--he was quite wild. But I thought it was a nice gesture of the studio to give him to me.”
She spent 18 years at MGM, was tutored at the studio, and the grips and other crew people became a kind of second family. But the affection stopped at the executive suites, she says. “I never got into that Poppa L.B. Mayer bit. No way. I had my family and we were very family-oriented.
“Looking back, I think I missed not having a childhood, not going to a regular school. I had a lot of fathers and avuncular friends on the set. They were great. They used to throw me around and play baseball with me and sneak me candy and comic books. But it wasn’t the same as having peers, and I think I would advise parents of child actors not to push it. It’s a hard life for a child not to have a childhood. It’s rough.”
Crying is often difficult for young actors. Jackie Cooper once remembered having had to cry so much in “The Champ,” at age 10, that he then couldn’t stop crying for two days and had to be taken to a doctor.
Taylor says: “I remember on the set of ‘National Velvet,’ I was supposed to cry because the horse was sick. One of the older actors very sweetly tried to help me by telling me a long sad story about my father. I tried not to smile because he was very well-meaning. I said, ‘Don’t worry; when it comes to the take, all I have to do is think about the horse and I’ll probably cry,’ which is what happened. You know, I wasn’t going to waste it on rehearsals, which is what I do to this day. I save it for the camera.”
She was filming “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” with Paul Newman for director Richard Brooks in 1958 when, two weeks into the shooting, her husband Mike Todd was killed in a plane crash.
“It was a total nightmare. I developed a stutter that I have to this day. If I’m very tired or stressed I start to stutter. And the only way I could talk on the set was with a Southern accent, which was therapeutic but I didn’t know it. I’ve heard since that doing an accent is one way for stutterers to get over the uh-uhs.”
She and Todd had gone to the studio and said that that would be her last film. “I said, ‘You know, I want to retire; we want to have children. If I work, I want to work only for and with Mike.’ When I went back to the studio after the funeral, I was called to the front office and told that it wouldn’t be my last film, that Mike was dead and I was under contract to do another film. So I did ‘Butterfield 8' [in 1960] with a gun to my head.
“I don’t think it’s a good film . . . And the circumstances--having to do it with a gun at my head, of being forced to do it, and not getting along with the director [Daniel Mann]; it’s amazing I got through it. I’ve always felt the Oscar was for the tracheotomy [in London in March, 1961], not for my performance. I was nominated five times, and I thought it was probably more for ‘Suddenly Last Summer’ or ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof'--and maybe the fact I almost died helped.”
There are those who feel that “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” revealed Taylor at her best as an actress, deprived by her own choice of her legendary glamour.
“I just felt so badly that Richard hadn’t won the Oscar, because I thought he deserved it. He was such a poet. He was nominated eight times, but never won the award. But making the film was so exhilarating. We were able to leave the characters at the studio because it would have been so dangerous for our relationship if we’d carried them home. They’d have destroyed us.
“As it was, we’d come home, have dinner with the kids, play word games with them or whatever at the table, separately learn our lines and run our lines together before we went to bed. Then we’d go to work the next morning and we could really [said in a deep growl] go to town with each other, and then laugh and leave it behind. It was a close, intimate, really warm, wonderful, nurturing period because we helped each other so much.”
For all its tearing, psychic violence, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” could be seen as a kind of ravished love story. Taylor does not find much love or much to cheer about in many present films.
“Aren’t you getting a little sick of special effects?” she asks a visitor. “They’ve gone so bananas with the special effects, there’s no acting, no story, and you don’t care about anybody or anything. That’s why I think people really love films like ‘Sense and Sensibility.’ There’s no lust and sex and violence; it’s about human beings. ‘Dead Man Walking,’ two wonderful performances, a gripping, moving film.”
“A Place in the Sun” managed to be pretty steamy, the visitor suggests.
“Nudity wasn’t needed,” Taylor says. “It was done with eyes and mouths. But there was such a voltage of sexual undertone, you could hardly wait for them to get together. And when they did get together, you knew it was going to be terribly wonderful. And Monty Clift was so beautiful.
“I think ‘Sense and Sensibility’ made a major point. I hope the industry tweaks to it. Not that I’m advocating prudery. But the message seems so loud and clear about violence and obvious sex. It’s interesting, the choices that the Oscar voters made--the pictures that people go to see. Maybe Hollywood will notice.”
She was the first player, man or woman, to get $1 million for a film, for 1963’s “Cleopatra.” “I’m very proud of the fact that it was a woman, not a man. It just doesn’t exist today. I don’t mean the problem of getting roles. That too, but I mean the discrepancy in pay, men being so much more highly paid than women.”
Would she like to act again? “I’d love to play somebody’s mother. I’d love to do a character part. Or a grandmother. I have nine grandchildren. I don’t think I’m some glamour queen. I don’t know why other people don’t realize that that isn’t what I want. I’m not trying to look 50 years old, or 40 years old. I’m 64. The fact that I’m still alive is a miracle.”
The divorce from Larry Fortensky has been quiet and civil but still painful. “It always is,” she says.
Does it seem possible that she might marry again? Roaring with laughter, Taylor says: “Oh, God, no! In no way!
“I have finally conceded. I admit defeat. It’s not what I’d hoped for from marriage, but I’m not going to crawl in, curl up and die. The fact that I can make fun of myself on these shows I hope nobody takes offense at. But, as I say, if I can’t make fun of myself, who can?”
A character in a movie Elizabeth Taylor was not in says to another character, “Your real life is more interesting than my fantasies.” And it seems clear that part of the world’s continuing fascination with her is that her real life has seemed beyond the fantasies of most mortals. There has been love found and lost many times over, tragedies and delights, hairsbreadth escapes from death and tireless public service in the fight against AIDS. Above all, perhaps, she has shown a capacity for survival that gives her common cause with a worldful of survivors who are not rich, famous or beautiful.
“I guess I’m a survivor,” Taylor agrees, “for one reason or another. God only knows why, and I guess he does, because I don’t.”