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.