Elizabeth Taylor: Icon, actress, activist


Image Credit: Everett Collection

Years ago, during a periodic stylistic house-cleaning to scrub away overused words from the pages of Entertainment Weekly, an editorial ruling banned the word “icon.” Our top editor declared that EW writers were throwing the word around all too freely, bestowing the honor based on lowered standards. Artists and celebrities of the moment might be popular, or hot, or artistically inventive, or possessed of cool wardrobes and haircuts, but that did not automatically make them — in the definition approved by Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary and the EW copy department — “an object of uncritical devotion.”

Elizabeth Taylor was an icon — the mortal Hollywood actress for whom the grand Greek word might as well have been invented. Yes, she was astonishingly beautiful even as a child star; with her death, the phrase “violet eyes” might as well be retired, so embedded is the description in any discussion of Taylor’s loveliness. She was also impossibly glamorous and unceasingly dramatique in her life and loves, her illnesses and her interests. And in her best work, including National Velvet, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, BUtterfield 8, or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she was a fascinating, very present, very flesh-and-blood actor. But in trying to pinpoint just why Elizabeth Taylor was in icon, I keep coming back to this: The exciting Elizabeth Taylor-ness of her heightened the presence of everyone and everything around her.

Taylor wasn’t the most technically accomplished or wide-ranging of performers, yet her participation in any movie was its own event, and she took home two Oscars for her talents. (Look! It’s ET playing an Egyptian queen!) Her marriage track record was lousy (a Mongolian yurt-dweller could probably answer a Jeopardy! challenge about her eight weddings), yet the star’s tumultuous romantic life only added to her aura of sexuality, her carnal allure. She was a walking portfolio of medical crises, weight fluctuations, and addictions conquered, yet the woman projected a stately, healthy mix of vitality and earthiness, old-time stardom and resourceful re-invention. She lived big not only because opulence was the show-biz style to which she aspired ever since her first Hollywood feature (it was There’s One Born Every Minute) at the age of nine, but also because her outsized life was a kind of gift to her fans. As it was to the publicity machinery of Hollywood: Her own entertainment franchise, she kept generations of gossip columnists and papparazzi employed.

Meanwhile, smartly aware of the value of her own promotional value, Taylor used her own fame — a reknown draped over her like the mad diamond bling she favored — even after she stopped acting. She had a businesswoman’s shrewd head, hawking her own perfumes ages before “brand extension” became a marketing strategy for pop starlets. And she had humanitarian’s big heart, whether championing HIV/AIDS research and raising millions of dollars for AmFAR, or lending moral support to her unlikely friend and fellow LaLa denizen, Michael Jackson.

Through all her transformations, Elizabeth Taylor knew who she was. And so did we: She was royalty, and that lady with a fondness for wearing turbans. She had expensive tastes and little dogs. She was a movie star from a Golden Age and a celebrity who fit right in with the ethos of reality TV. That’s why uncritically devoted audiences around the world loved simply to watch her be Dame Elizabeth — and Liz.

Comments (15 total) Add your comment
  • Ethan

    Double check the editing here – “Taylor was in icon” (paragraph 2), “wire-ranging of performers” (paragraph 3).

  • Mac

    Thoughtful piece about a great personality.

    Her Oscar for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is very deserved – one of the best Best Actress winners ever.

    Butterfield 8… not so much.

    • Kiki

      ITA about the Oscar for Woolf — I saw that movie in 1979. I have not seen it since, but I can still vividly remember her performance. Amazing work. Well-deserved Oscar.

  • NYLA

    First of all, rest in peace to a true Hollywood legend and a one of the last icons from the golden era of screen. Second of all, there is no need to throw shade at a persons talents after they are dead. She has two oscars and a legacy modern actresses would die for. If you’ve seen “cat on a hot tin roof” or “Who’s afraid of virginia wolf” you would know her talents as an actress were never in question.

    • stella

      uh, when did the article ever say that? it’s true that elizabeth taylor wasn’t necessarily the greatest actress ever, but that doesn’t detract from her accomplishments and incredible life one bit.

  • sam

    A beautiful, talented and generous woman. There will never be another like her. I am going to watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Father of the Bride this weekend in her honor.

  • kiki

    Although I don’t watch most of Elizabeth’s films I know that she was a very good woman. We will always love and miss her = ) .

  • Mike Reddy

    Absolutely, without question, the most beautiful woman who ever lived, surpassing even Ava Gardner and Marilyn Monroe (whom I, personally, would list right below her.)

  • keith

    Nice piece, Lisa. I hope the magazine gives her a worthy tribute. It’s funny because not long ago with Kirk Douglas appeared on the oscars I thought he was the last of his kind and then I thought, NO. Elizabeth Taylor, when she is gone, it’s over. Done. The great age will have officially come to a close. I don’t know that there is anything I’ve ever seen more arresting or that left me so gaga as watching her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She looked and moved and her presence and the way certain lines dripped from her lips . . . it should have been illegal. She wasn’t my favorite actress necessarily, but my word, what a STAR. She’s the sort of star celluloid was made for in the tradition of Garbo and Valentino and Monroe. She WAS the last star.

  • Jabba

    Who cares? Do we really have to read about her for another month or another year? Honestly…she wasn’t that pretty and she hadn’t worked in decades. A lot of teenagers & twentysomethings don’t even know who she was. There was nothing left for her to do here. It was her time to go. I’m surprised she stayed around as long as she did. She was no Betty White, and she was more famous for her marriages than her movies. My grandparents had more productive lives than her and they didn’t get full page spreads in the tabloids when they died.

  • Jill

    RIP, Liz. A true icon. Another bit many people forget was that she was a senator’s wife too, wasn’t she? I might be wrong, but wasn’t she married to a senator from Virginia for a while?

    Anyway, Olivia De Havilland (spelling) is still around…not eh icon Liz was, but possibly one of the last greats from Hollywood’s Golden Era.

    One last point: Can the EW editor’s also ban the phrase “game changer”? It seems like every day that word is being used…

  • GHB

    Yes Jill, she was married to Sen. John Warner in the ’80s. In addition to Olivia de Havilland, her sister Joan Fontaine (also an Oscar winner) is still around too.

  • Lucky17

    This lady was a star in every sense of the word. I find it funny that, a current rap “star” is in the news at the same time; he doesn’t even know what being a star is. He thinks its “given”.

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  • Candy Shoot

    This is an extraordinary share. Thank you for this writing.

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