Elizabeth Taylor would have turned 80 today. When she died last year, Kevin Nance considered her legendary beauty. Originally published Match 2011 on Obit-Mag.com.
It didn’t matter how well she acted. Though Elizabeth Taylor won two Academy Awards and starred in what was for decades the most expensive film ever made, her movies are largely beside the point. Taylor, who died yesterday of congestive heart failure at 79, achieved her iconic status not for the way she behaved onscreen or even off — though her misadventures in serial matrimony are a significant part of her legend — but for the way she looked. She was an eerily beautiful child who grew into a supernaturally beautiful woman, a woman who — before Marilyn, before Jackie, and long after them — embodied the idea of feminine beauty in America. She defined Hollywood glamour and then transcended it, seeming beautiful even when, in her illness-plagued later years, she wasn’t.
With that raven hair, that porcelain skin and, above all, those deep violet eyes (the eyeliner usually applied with a heavy hand, even when she wasn’t playing Cleopatra), Taylor could have been genetically engineered for the screen. The perfect symmetry of her face was emphasized, not marred, by the beauty mark on her right cheek. Her lips were plump, her nose delicately tapered, her penciled eyebrows arched with an aggression that gave her a faintly imperious air (which served her well in roles like the aristocratic love object in 1951’s A Place in the Sun); she was the opposite of the girl next door. (That was Debbie Reynolds, whose husband, Eddie Fisher, Taylor famously stole.) Even as the pubescent equestrienne in National Velvet (1944), the film that made her a star, Taylor was never quite relatable in the manner of most of today’s screen sirens. Fanboys may lust after Megan Fox, but girls and young woman can imagine themselves in her ballpark, aesthetically speaking. You didn’t aspire to Elizabeth Taylor’s level; she was the queen of an alternate universe of beauty, inviolate, untouchable — this despite the fact that she was short-waisted and bosomy. (When they were married, Richard Burton loudly praised her “matchless paps”; later he talked of her “overdeveloped chest.”) Even in her occasional chubby periods, Taylor was the most exquisite fat lady who ever walked the face of the earth.
No screen actress ever benefited more from her looks, which distracted critics from her often lackluster performances. Reviewing National Velvet in The Nation, James Agee was dumbstruck by her appearance, singing her praises even though “I hardly know or care whether she can act or not.” Her allure was put to its best cinematic use in 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, in which she created a memorably erotic Maggie the Cat simply by lounging on a bed in relatively modest lingerie; she was smart enough to recognize that when you look like Elizabeth Taylor, there’s no need to vamp. Later, as the louche Gloria Wandrous in Butterfield 8 (1960), Taylor never came close to capturing her character’s pathos, but the Academy gave her an Oscar anyway, in part because she was still heartstoppingly lovely. By the time she took on the title role in Cleopatra (1963), history’s most famous temptress, Taylor’s looks were on the wane — the most studied camera angles couldn’t hide her incipient double chin — but no one else would have made any sense in the role.
Her second and far more deserved Oscar, as the boozy Martha in Mike Nichols’ film adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), marked the high point of her acting career and, ironically, the low point of her glamour. She gained weight for the role and allowed herself to look 20 years older than she was — a brave move that allowed her to play against type and produced her only really fine performance. (Her thin, unattractive speaking voice also worked beautifully for the guttural, braying Martha, and contrasted perfectly with Burton’s relatively dulcet tones as George.)
In later years, once her film career had largely dried up and she became better known as an AIDS activist and unlikely friend to Michael Jackson, Taylor was still known for her looks, although of course they had evolved. Her hair got bigger and higher as the decades rolled on, the changes tracked in her long-running series of television ads for her fragrance line and on countless covers of grocery-store tabloids, which seemed to delight in every new bulge or gray hair or wrinkle. (There was in this more than a hint of the misogynistic schadenfreude with which we now greet the weight gain and aging of formerly pert starlets like Kirstie Alley.) But even into her 70s — no doubt with substantial help from heavy airbrushing and Photoshopping — Taylor could still look legitimately glamorous, or at least some geriatric variant thereof, even though she appeared not to have had much if any plastic surgery. Her heavy makeup and heavier jewelry, her double chins and drooping cheeks — none of it rendered her anything less than one of the most glamorous women on the planet.
It was Taylor’s job, in short, to be beautiful, and she did it as well as anyone in the history of Hollywood. Greta Garbo, Ava Gardner and Grace Kelly may have been more icily perfect; Marilyn Monroe was more poignant; today, Halle Berry is far more effortlessly erotic. But no one ever expressed the ideal of feminine perfection as well as Taylor did from the first. Although she seems never to have taken herself seriously as an actress, Taylor understood what she meant to the world as a thing to be beheld and marveled at. And so she stood there, letting us look.
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