The first time I ever saw Elizabeth Taylor, at least in an "acting" role, was in a rerun of Here's Lucy. In an episode first broadcast in 1970, just a little past the midway point of her first marriage to Richard Burton, she and Burton played themselves, Liz 'n Dick, engaging in some wackiness that involved Lucille Ball managing to get the latest bauble that Dick had bought for Liz stuck on her finger. I think I remember one line--Lucy wondering how she was going to get the ring off and Liz saying something like, "Does the word 'amputation' ring a bell>"--mainly because Taylor gave a memorably shrill reading of that shrill line, one that was all the more confusing for me because all of a sudden her British accent came out, and I didn't know that she was British.I had only the dimmest idea of who she was and what she was famous for, but as a child in the 1970s, she was among the people whose name I'd sort of known for as long as I could remember. I don't know exactly what age I was then, but I might have been as old as Taylor was when, as the nine-year-old star of Lassie, Come Home, she became world famous. That ought to be kept in mind when trying to make sense of the life and career that followed. If people who've survived childhood stardom don't deserve to play by slightly different rules, then nobody does.
The first movie I saw Taylor in was X, Y and Zee, a 1971 romantic melodrama, from a screenplay by Edna O'Brien, that was set in what was left of Swinging London and co-starred Michael Caine as Taylor's husband and Susannah York as the woman he considers leaving her for; at the end, Taylor and York have a bedroom scene in which the older woman "saves" her marriage by annexing her husband's lover. It's a very weird, somewhat trashy, but compelling movie, and when I saw it on TV as a kid, I had no idea what to make of it. I saw it again a few months ago, though, and this time it made me sit bolt upright, and not just because Richard ("Riff Raff") O'Brien, the writer of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, appears as an extra in a party scene. (Before confirming this at IMDB, I first thought he might be Brian Eno.) I don't know that Taylor is a great actress in it, but she's a hell of a force of nature. The character is childish, greedy, loud, and vulgar, like the character she played in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, stripped of the tonier theatrical-event cultural setting. More to the point, she's a lot like the tabloid image of Liz the man-eating international jewel thief, and the woman who came across in such stunts as her appearances on General Hospital and the movie version of The Flintstones. Taylor got a lot of praise for her performance in Virginia Woolf, but a lot of that was just the customary praise any god or goddess can get for being willing to be seen that way, sprawled in a heap at the base of their pedestal with a broken liquor bottle nearby. But after that, Taylor didn't just seem willing to be seen as slovenly and bitchy. She reveled in it. I think she enjoyed it, way more than she enjoyed being photographed through gauze and vaseline and trying to cling to scraps of her old glamour. There were plenty of members of an earlier generation of movie actresses who crawled their way out of working class backgrounds and then, once they'd become famous, started putting on royal-goddess airs and made themselves insufferable. Taylor was natural royalty who embraced everything she enjoyed about herself that seemed tacky and crass without relinquishing her right to a crown. It looked as if that route was a lot more fun. It sure seemed more human.
I suspect that, the first time I saw it Taylor, she seemed older to me than she was at the time, but the first time today that someone I was talking to commented on her death, it was to say that she was surprised that Taylor was only 79. Part of that is the effect of having known about someone's fame all your life, but there's more to it than that. For much of her adult life, Taylor was known for being a tabloid wreck, ridiculed by such epistles of classiness as Joan Rivers and the National Enquirer for her weight gain and stints in rehab and string of busted marriages, but another way of putting it is that the woman lived. And she was deceptively strong. She went through a number of very public health scares, including the one in the early '60s that's credited with returning her to the public's good graces after the scandal over her marrying Eddie Fisher after the death of her husband Mike Todd and breaking up Fisher's marriage to Debbie Reynolds. Yet she outlived the considerably younger Burton by more than a quarter of a century. She outlived the critic Mel Gussow by almost six years, and that's notable, because it's Gussow's byline that's on her New York Times obituary.
For people who grew up with Taylor, who watched her transform from a lovely child into the most beautiful woman in the world to the spangled steamship of her middle years and later, it must have been perplexing. Some of the resentment she engendered has to have come from people who thought that she hadn't held up her end of the bargain by staying delicate and exquisite forever, some of whom were probably the same people who resented her for having been delicate and exquisite in the first place. (The Times obituary features a quote from Roddy McDowell: “People who damn her wish to hell they could do what they think she does.”) As a movie star, as a child and as a young woman, Taylor was indeed delicate and exquisite; as an actress, she had her moments, most notably in A Place in the Sun, where her yearning for Montgomery Clift felt a lot realer than any hot looks she ever threw at Burton, let alone Eddie Fisher, onscreen. But I knew her best, and came to love her the most, as a tough broad, a dinosaur surviving the crunch, redefining glamour and vulgarity by showing how well they could co-exist in one person's image, and not giving a flying fuck what anybody else thought of her. That's a quality that might have been a little off-putting in the most beautiful girl in the world, but it can seem liberating in a woman who used to be that girl and gone over a couple of hills since. I can't say that I ever looked forward to seeing her in a new movie, but it was fun to know that she was out there somewhere, plotting mischief.