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Taylor’s celebrity: her lasting legacy

Gabler wrote "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood" (1989), "Walt Disney: The Tri

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about Elizabeth Taylor, who died this week at age 79, was that she first became a phenomenon when her film career had barely begun, and she remained one long after that career had expired. Thrust into the national consciousness by her dazzling beauty, it was something other than her movies that kept her there. Despite her two Oscars, Taylor was often an indifferent actress, mechanical at the beginning and blowsy at the end, with a tinny voice that turned lines into whines, but she was a magnificent celebrity -- maybe the greatest Hollywood celebrity of all time. In many ways, she was the personality who defined modern celebrity, and one suspects this will be her legacy long after her performances have faded.

Like many celebrities with oversized personae, Taylor disavowed what she called the “public me,” saying it was “fabricated” and “drivel,” but Taylor herself seemed to indulge the fabrication. Born in England, the daughter of two Americans, she had affectations, and it was one affectation -- the English accent -- that helped her land her first major film role as the passionate equestrian in “National Velvet.” She was only 12, and the MGM studio, with its paternalistic boss Louis B. Mayer who prided himself on providing personal guidance to his stars, became her school. MGM groomed Taylor as a star, and Taylor avidly took to the instruction. She had a Hollywood upbringing, from which she learned to live within her fantasies.

In large measure that explains the life that followed. Elizabeth Taylor grew up on screen. She glided from children’s roles to ingenue roles to the memorable role of the bride in “Father of the Bride,” then of the expectant young mother in the sequel and on to the object of men’s desires in the ‘50s and ‘60s. For no other star could one follow the trajectory of maturity as one could for Taylor. All her milestones were performed on screen.

But her screen life and her real life were never far apart. As she was preparing for her nuptials in “Father of the Bride,” she was also preparing to marry hotel heir Conrad “Nicky” Hilton Jr. -- a marriage that the studio had encouraged to preserve the image of its wholesome young star. Of the marriage, Taylor would say suggestively, “I liked playing the role of a young woman in love.” They divorced within a year.

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There would be plenty of other marriages -- to British actor Michael Wilding; to entertainment impresario Mike Todd; to Todd’s best friend, singer Eddie Fisher, after Fisher provided consolation when Todd died in a plane crash; to actor Richard Burton (twice); to Sen. John Warner; and to construction worker Larry Fortensky, whom Taylor met while both were undergoing rehab at the Betty Ford Center. Asked why she married so many times, Taylor glibly confessed that she really didn’t know.

The real answer may have been that even as she grew older Taylor continued to be in thrall to the magic of Hollywood. She liked playing the role of a young woman in love so much that she assimilated the idea of Hollywood romance, which meant that her serial marriages, the butt of comedians’ jokes over the years, were less examples of Hollywood promiscuity than of the exact opposite: idealized love. Elizabeth Taylor, fully a creature of Hollywood, was one of the most devout believers in movie dreams. She came to live in dramatic terms, movie terms, to the point where one had a hard time determining where the movie left off and her life began.

But when she wed Fisher and became the temptress who lured him away from spunky sweetheart Debbie Reynolds, she entered a new phase of her life in which the movie career seemed to recede. She was now the protagonist of the world’s biggest soap opera -- a show that got only larger when she cuckolded Fisher in Rome with her “Cleopatra” costar Burton. At that point something happened that constituted a breakthrough in celebrity itself. Taylor was not only living her drama for the tabloids to record, she began exploiting it, eventually even flaunting the idea that movies like “The V.I.P.s” and “The Sandpiper” gave the audience a peek behind her private curtain. It was as if Taylor had decided to make her life her career.

Taylor was a kind of genius of celebrity, and there was a method to her apparent licentiousness. She seemed to understand instinctively what Leo Braudy would later identify as the tragedy of fame in his brilliant book, “The Frenzy of Renown”: namely, that fame always subordinates its possessors, compelling them to measure up to it or to lose it. Taylor knew that it was all perishable. The roles would become fewer, the public interest would decline, the visibility would lower, even the vaunted beauty would fade until the celebrity itself disappeared. This was, as Braudy saw it, the tragic and inevitable fate of all celebrities.

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But Taylor also understood that it didn’t have to be that way. She had seen at Todd’s funeral how the public, 10,000 onlookers, treated it as a show, a spectacle -- sitting on tombstones, drinking Cokes and munching potato chips and yelling during the interment for her to come out so that they could have a look at her. This may have been what prompted her to realize that if life was a show, it was a more compelling one than any movie and that one could sustain one’s celebrity long after the career ended by the simple trick of turning one’s life into one’s movie. You didn’t have to be Greta Garbo, exiting the scene. You could keep going. In effect, Elizabeth Taylor started playing herself in the ongoing movie of her life.

One could say that Taylor invented modern celebrity this way -- by demonstrating that one never had to leave the stage so long as one had a new romance or marriage, a new drug or alcohol crisis, a new health emergency, even a new weight gain and diet that could be tabloid fodder. As she herself once put it, “I am my own commodity,” by which presumably she meant her life. It was an inexhaustible commodity she could keep selling when there was nothing else in the way of performance to market.

It was surely no coincidence, then, that in her own career Taylor not only evolved but also mutated. She began as a lovely young sapling who struck director Joseph Mankiewicz with her “innocence.”

She became less fragile and innocent in her middle years -- her scarlet woman years -- when one thought of her as indomitable. And she aged finally into a survivor who overcame the ravages of time, health and Hollywood obsolescence. In the end, nothing, ironically, but a weak heart from this most romantic of women could stop her.

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If the young Taylor was remarkable for her beauty, the old Taylor was remarkable for this strength. It was a talent she lavished on others, like Montgomery Clift, Michael Jackson and millions of AIDS sufferers, who were more vulnerable and wounded than she. Taylor knew the system. She knew what it took to stay relevant. She knew how easily one could evanesce.

And if she endures, it is not because she captured our fantasies on screen but because she lived out her own, which was a lesson she helped instill in every celebrity who came after her, though none of them did it as well. The soap opera woman was bigger than the movie star.

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calendar@latimes.com

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