If one is attempting to judge the depth and force of a woman’s feminism—the woman, in this case, being the American actress Elizabeth Taylor (1932–2011)—surely the first thing to do is to determine exactly what feminism is. The most succinct opinion I’ve seen is the famous doormat quote from Rebecca West:
I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist when I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.
It’s true that Elizabeth Taylor was a star for a very long time: since at least 1944, when National Velvet was released. How much stardom insulated her from executive corrosion is hard to say. “Actors are cattle,” Alfred Hitchcock said. It was his motto and to some extent the town’s.
In the early years of her career I imagine Elizabeth Taylor did as she was told. Feminism was not yet news. Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem were not active. In the years of her maturity Elizabeth Taylor was as beautiful as any woman on the planet; her looks sometimes won battles for her that other beauties didn’t win, and of course, she had her marriages to attend to: eight, counting Richard Burton twice. Mike Todd, who was probably the love of her life, died in a plane crash, whereupon he turned out not to be as rich as he seemed.
Husband management may be a feminist skill. Acquiring baubles probably isn’t, but Elizabeth Taylor’s jewelry sold for over $137 million at Christie’s recently. You don’t get $137 million in gems by marching in feminist parades. By the time she got the baubles she was a great star. And she lived high.
Though not so good at marriage, she was a wonderful friend, particularly to gay men. She did not forsake Roddy McDowall, Rock Hudson, or Montgomery Clift. In the terrible car wreck Clift had while making Raintree Country she literally saved his life, by pulling his teeth out of his throat so he could breathe. The accident occurred near her house, and she may have saved his career as well by threatening the photographers who soon showed up. She told them that if they took pictures of Montgomery Clift in his smashed state she would see to it that they never worked again.
The friendship with Rock Hudson began in the mid-Fifties, when they were making Giant in the harsh environs of Marfa, Texas, as bleak a place as you’ll find in America, except for maybe Pine Ridge, South Dakota. I won an award there recently and was able to visit the ghosts of Liz and Rock: I was given the Rock Hudson suite in the Paisano Hotel, where the actors stayed while making Giant. My writing partner, Diana Ossana, stayed in the Elizabeth Taylor suite, which was modest compared to Rock’s digs; his featured seven telephones. Who was he talking to, during those long dusty weeks? Not yet, probably, the world-class beauty across the hall.
James Dean would have been around somewhere, doing the character of Jett Rink, his fine imitation of the long-forgotten wildcatter Glenn McCarthy. Edna Ferber, though not without some doubts, was a little too fond of the ranching elites; Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor provided so much glamour to Marfa that the town still thinks it’s important, a delusion not lessened by the Coen brothers’ dark fable No Country for Old Men, in which Tommy Lee Jones’s furrowed brow is the closest we get to the truth.
I heard, long ago, that Elizabeth Taylor, stuck in Marfa, where the food ranges downward from horrible, had her meals flown in from Chasen’s, usually chili mac. But Chasen’s, once a restaurant in Beverly Hills, is gone now, along with practically every celebrity who passed through Marfa in the days of Giant.
Elizabeth Taylor is credited in more than seventy movies—good, bad, and indifferent; but at least, wisely, she kept working. M.G. Lord trots us through this melange, briskly stopping to pry loose nuggets of feminism when she notices them. Any seventy-film filmography is going to be uneven; most actors only ask that they not be asked to watch their own earlier work. Elizabeth Taylor was a great beauty, even a great personality (at least at her most radiant); she was not a great actress, but at her best did a lot of respectable work. A Place in the Sun, Giant, Suddenly Last Summer, The Sandpiper, BUtterfield Eight, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf are good films. Greatness in the arts depends on the material—this is obvious but also often forgotten. George Stevens directed both A Place in the Sun and Giant, but in the first film he is backed up by Theodore Dreiser and in Giant merely by Edna Ferber. There’s the difference.
Mike Nichols, who directed her in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, told Edmund Wilson that in directing Taylor he went very slow; but slow or fast, it’s one of his best films and also one of her best. Most actors respond to good direction: Elizabeth Taylor was no exception. The lines she speaks and the sentiments she dramatizes belong not to her but to writers, mostly, or sometimes directors. The credit for whatever streaks of feminism turn up in the films goes to them.
I doubt, myself, that Elizabeth Taylor gave a fig about feminism; but that’s not to say she was socially irresponsible. She wasn’t. By the mid-1980s she was passionately involved in the fight against AIDS; the disease by then was making huge inroads in the ranks of the performing arts; she contributed both money and time.
I was fortunate to see Elizabeth Taylor in what many consider her finest hour: the great anti-AIDS speech she made at the Oscars in 1993. It was a wonderful speech; it moved everyone who heard it; by good luck I was able to congratulate her on it within the hour, since both of us turned up at Irving Lazar’s famous post-Oscar party at a restaurant called Spago. Diana Ossana and I were clients of Irving Lazar but that acquired us no social value; for the second year in a row we were put at the geriatric table, with Jimmy Stewart and other somnambulists. The year before Madonna had come, allowing Irving to believe he was still in the swim; there was no Madonna this year. Jack Nicholson was about the only big star: or he was until Elizabeth Taylor sailed in and took the measure of the room. She sat at our table, perhaps to say hello to Mr. Stewart or the more or less mummified George Burns.
I stood up and complimented her on that fine AIDS speech. As I did the writer Harold Brodkey, himself then dying of AIDS, showed up at my elbow, taking notes for an Oscars piece he did for The New Yorker. For a moment we two writers, as well as many people in the room, were simply transfixed by the beauty of Elizabeth Taylor’s eyes. Those eyes had a glory all their own: violet eyes with amber lights. Hard to think clearly about the yeses and nos of feminism when you’re looking into the best eyes in Hollywood, though M.G. Lord did make her investigations lively.
Larry Fortensky, the construction worker Elizabeth Taylor married because he made her laugh, was at our table. He did not get up to join his wife.