Elizabeth Taylor's Washingtonian Legacy
Ah Hollywood…Ah Washington. How the denizens of these two cities yearn for each other.
The recent death of Elizabeth Taylor, pre-pixel Hollywood’s last great star, and its coverage around Washington highlighted the nurture-torture nature of this relationship, like an electric wire was connecting the cities. People remember her here; just ask the senator, the gossip writers, theatergoers and the folks at the Whitman Walker Clinic.
She was, heart and soul, a child of Hollywood, since her violet eyes and pitch black hair made their first impact on screen as one of MGM’s child stars in “National Velvet,” when she was just twelve years old. She was a movie star long before she ever aspired to become an excellent actress.
People, of course, still have trouble taking a really beautiful woman seriously, and Elizabeth Taylor was astonishingly beautiful in her youth. As such, it’s much easier to give the wrong kind of credit than to credit the right things. People focus on her numerous marriages, the drama and the diamonds. They focus on her adulteries that broke up first the marriage of Debbie Reynolds, America’s sweetheart, and then her own and those of husband Richard Burton’s.
The local obituary seemed to me curiously snarky and petulant, going out of its way to offer quotes disparaging her acting abilities. The front-page photo showed her in her famous white swimsuit from a scene in Tennessee Williams’ “Suddenly Last Summer,” in which she shared top billing with Katharine Hepburn and Montgomery Clift, two of the finest screen actors of the time. “Despite Oscar nods,” the caption read, “she was not always taken seriously an actress.”
They could have said it the other way around: “Despite not always being taken seriously as an actress, she won two Oscars—for “Butterfield 8” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” (Mike Nichols’ film adaptation of the Edward Albee play, now enjoying a satisfying production at Arena Stage), opposite then husband Richard Burton.”
It’s fair to say that she was often used for her looks—one of those cases of “don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.” But those looks could be used to heartbreaking effect: Check out that scene when Montgomery Clift (again) first sees her in “A Place in the Sun.” You could see ambition rise in him like a sour soaring, and you could see him hold his breath. The film is one of George Stevens’ finest works, part of what he saw as an American trilogy that included “Shane” and “Giant,” the latter also starring Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean, who completed filming and promptly was killed in a high-speed sports car crash.
For someone not highly regarded, she apparently had the regard of directors like Stevens and Nichols, two very serious-minded men who made classic and serious films. I would expect that even Meryl Streep, our most serious and darling film actress, might have liked to have films like “A Place in the Sun,” “Giant,” “Suddenly, Last Summer,” “Reflections in a Golden Eye” and “Cat On a Hot Roof.” Even “Cleopatra,” in spite of its excess and on-set drama, which almost ruined 20th Century Fox and boss Daryl Zanukc, ended up making money.
She was legendary, larger than life, and lived in the public eye. No need to go into details too much. Like the Kennedys, a political institution, she experienced more than anybody’s share of triumph and tragedy, heaven on earth and hell on wheels all at the same time.
One thing everybody knew: she made friends, and kept them beyond death. She nurtured the troubled and gifted Clift through car wrecks, addictions and emotional troubles. She stood up for Hudson and still loves Burton. If she was at times over the top and with a certain carnal vulgarity, especially in the two bouts of marriage with Burton, well…she was entitled. That doesn’t make her the godmother of Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan.
Her stays in Washington were memorable: she married Senator John Warner of Virginia, the kind of marriage that should probably never happen. Imagine the fights in front of the mirror. But Warner remembers her with affection.
She appeared twice on stage in Washington, both times at the Kennedy Center, to mixed success and reviews. The first was as Regina in Lillian Hellman’s “The Little Foxes,” which underwhelmed local critics, as I recall.
Then there was the time when then Kennedy Center President Roger Stevens thought that movie stars might pack ‘em in for theater. This brought us Liz and Dick in “Private Lives,” something this writer won’t ever forget. This is Noel Coward’s sophisticated play about a divorced married couple on honeymoons with new partners who run into each other at the hotel where they’re staying. Sparks fly in familiar ways. But in the middle of the play, Taylor’s Amanda says off-handedly: “You know, I’ve always been afraid of marriage.” This line brought the house down with laughter in a way that had everything to do with Taylor, not the show. Old pro Burton rode out the laughter wisely, and then ignited it again with a drawn out “Yes.”
That’s show biz. That’s legend.
She became, in a very real and practical way, the patron saint in the fight against AIDS, in the public’s recognition of what a dangerous disease it was, and the people it affected. She spoke up for Rock Hudson and everyone else who suffered from it, and she lent her name to the Whitman Walker Clinic. By contrast, the silence in Washington AND Hollywood in the early, devastating years of the disease was deafening. The Reagan, whose roots were in the Hollywood community which was being hit hard by AIDS, offered grief and condolences over the death of Hudson, while not mentioning AIDS at all, as if he had died of some peculiar strain of the common cold?
She opened minds and changed them, and her presence rose above that of the fundamentalists who called the disease the punishment of God at Gay Pride parades. She never wavered in this, and she did it out of life, not boredom or publicity seeking.
God bless her for that, and have no doubt that he and she will.