A personal remembrance of the great Elizabeth Taylor and a look at why she mattered

When I was working as a tour guide on the Universal Studios lot in Hollywood, it was during the time they were shooting “The Flintstones,” and our tour ended up getting lots of looks at the sets for the film, the props for the film, and even, on occasion, the stars of the film.  It was a guaranteed reaction every time we got a look at Fred Flintstone’s car with the holes in the bottom for his feet to go through, and between tours, several of us would brazenly walk onto the various soundstages, hoping to see Henson Company dinosaurs.

One afternoon, as we were walking across the lot, I spotted the cast trailers, and wanted a friend to take a picture of me with Elizabeth Taylor’s door.  That’s all.  Just the door.  I figured it would be a funny picture, and I could talk about how many other doors that door had been married to and how hard it was to get it to pose for the photo and on and on.  Dumb jokes, all of which were going through my head as I walked up the first few steps of her trailer so I could pose.

That’s when the door to the trailer swung open from inside and I found myself looking directly into the most famous pair of violet eyes in film history.  She may have been just past 60 at that point, but she didn’t miss a beat.  She sized me up, then turned to her assistant and said, “I’m almost sure I didn’t order this.”

They do not make broads like that anymore.

And I mean that will all due respect.  Taylor lived as hard as any man in Hollywood’s long studio history, and she was a formidable actress, a dedicated humanitarian, and a stunning beauty.  Her private life practically gave rise to the entire tabloid industry that exists today.  She was famous enough that there are people who know her on sight who never saw a single film she made.  And through it all, as she proved on the occasion we met, she had that sense of humor that she used to make sense of it all.

I don’t think of her as English, but she was.  Born in London in 1932, she was raised in America by her parents, and she started working young once the family landed in Los Angeles.  “Lassie Come Home” is pretty standard studio tearjerking fare, but from that first screen appearance on, it was obvious that the camera loved her.  She had those striking eyes, exquisite features, and as she got older, she filled in with dimensions Jessica Rabbit would be jealous of.  If she had just been beautiful, that would have been enough to justify continually casting her over the course of her life, but she started pushing herself in her early 20s, and in films like “Giant” or “Raintree County” or “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” it was obvious that there was something else going on, something richer than the outer wrapping of the package suggested.

She was nominated for something like 50 Academy Awards in a row (or four… I may have that number wrong), finally winning one for “Butterfield 8,” and when she signed on to make “Cleopatra,” it was one of the most-hyped projects of all time.  And one of the most expensive, due in no small part to her superstar salary at the time, a cool million dollars.  When I see various studios competing to make a “Cleopatra” movie now, and they’re talking about spending a ton of money on it, I wonder if they really don’t know their movie history, or if they just love the taste of hubris on their tongues.  Why tempt that fate again?  Is the story that important to tell? I just think of it as a movie star vehicle for an actress, maybe the ultimate movie star vehicle for an actress, which is why it was perfect for Taylor in the early ’60s.

It also started her relationship, onscreen and off, with Richard Burton, her fifth husband.  For my money, the best thing she ever did onscreen was their feature film version of “Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?”, and I’ve probably seen that film 15 times, amazed each time by the emotional brutality of the thing.  Those two come at each other with hunger as actors, and it’s harrowing, lacerating work.

What makes her career significant in a larger sense is the way she never settled for just being beautiful or just making simple choices.  She constantly seemed to be chasing roles that demanded something of her, and when I watch the choices made by some of Hollywood’s A-list women today, I see them chasing that same type of material with the same hunger, and I can’t help but think that Taylor paved the way for them, at least in part.  She went through men like she went through scripts, and that appetite may have led to parodies like John Belushi’s savage portrayal on “SNL” in the ’70s, but it also led to the sort of raw and revealing work that characterizes her very best films.

For many, Taylor’s life will be remembered for the charity work she did on behalf of AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s, and she deserves to be held up as an example of someone who took their considerable fame and used it for something genuine, and she may not have always been someone I agreed with on every topic, but who cares?  You look back at “The Taming Of The Shrew” or “Suddenly, Last Summer” or “A Place In The Sun”… ahhh, “A Place In The Sun,”… and this woman has obviously earned her place in the firmament.  She is a reminder of what real Hollywood movie stars were all about.  She could make movies like “Father’s Little Bride” or “National Velvet’ and class them up just by being who she was.  You can’t make a movie star like that… they are born.  The system didn’t exist to build stars like her… it was there so that when they showed up, there was something for them to do.  She touched so many lives through her work as an actor, through her crusading in later life, and as a person who was loved and respected by her peers and her collaborators, that it hardly needs to be said by someone like me, but it’s true: she will be missed.

Now if you haven’t seen any of the films I mentioned here… particularly “Woolf”… then you owe it to yourself to celebrate her life and her work tonight.

I never did get that picture of her or her door that day, but standing a few feet from those amazing violet eyes is a memory I’ll have forever, my own private Icarus moment, just inches from the big bright starry center of Hollywood.  Elizabeth Taylor is no more.  Elizabeth Taylor is forever.