When my Mother was young, she crept into the dining room where her Mother was, deep in conversation with a neighbor. At the mention of Elizabeth Taylor, my Grandmother turned up her nose, shook her head, and, in a voice dripping with derision, called her “the sexy witch.” With this off-hand statement my Grandmother seemed to have encapsulated her worldview. In saying it, she set herself up in opposition to whatever she saw as the threat of Elizabeth Taylor, of glamour. It seemed to be an incantation for her own place in the world, no matter how small or filled with turmoil. Taylor was the image of sensuality and luxury, of unabashed desire, and my Grandmother was a woman in and of small town Oregon, a woman for whom these things did not only not apply but to whom these things would have been seen as truly forbidden. They were of two completely different worlds and that, with resentment and resignation, is what my Grandmother latched on to.
Elizabeth Taylor is a true movie star, a woman whose image is indelibly linked to the studio system and its old elegance. She was a woman whose many transformations, from child star to mid-century ingénue then, finally, to decadent, tempestuous artist, could never destroy her. She was resilient, never acquiescing to demands, but always countering with her own. She was a woman full of empathy and compassion, whose ability to care for those she saw as the victims of an uncaring society, was vast. She was accustomed to luxury and she reveled in it, in diamonds and in fury. She was a force of emotionalism, in her films and out of them, and all of these things conspired to make her, according to the negative view of my Grandmother, “the sexy witch.”
But what made Elizabeth Taylor the “sexy witch” is what made her great. She was uncontrollable, frank, and unapologetic. These personality traits were cultivated, alongside scandal, throughout her career. Maybe the first time the public truly turned on Taylor was in 1959, when she began a very public affair with the very married Eddie Fisher. His wife, Debbie Reynolds, was fashioned by the press into the all-American sweetheart, the poor angelic woman, the pious and devoted wife, left unceremoniously by her husband. Taylor was vilified. The dichotomy was cemented: the naïve, blonde wife and the harlot, the seductress, the wanton homewrecker, who seemed to feed on immorality, sex, and a general disregard for others. She became the enemy of all wives, of Americana, of the suburban dream. Taylor, for her part, decided to lean into the role that had been written for her. In an interview, Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper questioned her about the affair and Taylor responded with, “What do you expect me to do? Sleep alone?” (Longworth). She was unabashed and while under fire from conservative pundits and the culture at large, she dug in her heels and seemed to say what no one else had dared say: that, as a woman, she had desires and that they were foremost and, further, that she would not be shamed by them. She was bold, she was unapologetic, and she emerged triumphant, gaining her fourth husband and a Best Actress Oscar for BUtterfield 8 in 1960. This was the Taylor that people saw when they went to the movies. The public who read the newspaper and the movie magazines knew all of the details of the scandal and projected this image onto her. And Taylor, who refused to conform to the few acceptable notions of femininity available to her at the time, reflected this in her very public life and in her films.
And then, a few years later, on the set of Cleopatra, she began an affair with her co-star, Richard Burton. When the affair became public knowledge, the studio sued both Taylor and Burton, citing morality. To the studio, Taylor and Burton’s behavior on set damaged the film’s value. But what the studio didn’t seem to acknowledge was that it added to Burton and Taylor’s allure. All of this was widely commented upon by newspapers, gossip columnists, and the general public. Together, they had become a cultural force. Here, again, Taylor seemed to court intrigue and salacious rumor and emerge from it all even stronger. Throughout her life, she was married and divorced eight times (twice to Burton, whose tumultuous nature was well-documented). Some of her later films even highlight her growing frankness and apparent abhorrence for convention. In The Sandpiper (1965), where she was once again paired with Burton, Taylor plays Laura, a single mother whose son is forced to go to a parochial school. She is a free-spirited painter who lives by the ocean and shirks convention. She is tied, metaphorically, to the place she inhabits, the wild untamed power of Big Sur. Burton, as the headmaster of the school, soon becomes enamoured with Taylor, learning that following convention for its own sake can itself be a kind of sin, wherein there is no room for the human spirit. Laura is undeniably free, and so is Taylor herself. Taylor’s public persona and knowledge of her personal life is brought along to add depth and nuance to her character. The scandals of her life are addressed and seemingly justified within this film.
Given all of this, I don’t think my Grandmother’s response was unusual. Many women probably reacted to Taylor this way. Partly because she seemed to threaten the very foundations of their lives and marriages (the monogamous husband and the devoted, yet unsexual wife), and because she is all of the things that they were not allowed to be. She reveled in her sexuality and when its particulars were made public, she decided to revel in that too. Rather than apologizing, she made light of the things that were designed to harm her. She became something difficult to contain, something wild and willful. Women can’t be that, society continued to say. (My Grandmother, for example, was ostracized in her small town religious community for getting a very necessary divorce.) But Elizabeth Taylor was that and to many women, whose firm belief in a system that had not only trapped them but forced them to celebrate their submission, grew to resent it. To be a part of so rarefied a world, so insular and protected, that all of your scandal, all of your supposed misdeeds only added to your allure, was unacceptable. My Grandmother seemed to resent that mobility, that world of apparent ease, a world with which she, on some instinctive level, knew that she would never have any common ground. These shows of emotion, these tempests, were something a small town American woman was not allowed. To express your needs, however minuscule or life-affirming, was akin to selfishness. Taylor was the opposite of that and she loved it. I only wish that women like my Grandmother could have seen that, could have found some solace in it rather than resenting and attempting to harm it. I wish that they could have been allied, their views on their femininity not something to fight over, their respective places in the world not something filled with resentment, but with support and understanding. Rather than lashing out at the things that were holding her in an impossible place, she chose to do so to Elizabeth Taylor and I get it, I really do, but it also makes me kind of sad. There are things that she could have learned from Taylor: how to be thorny, what it means to persevere, how volatility can be beauty and boldness can be life giving, how society will not protect you and decorum will destroy you. If she wasn’t forced to hate her, I think she could have loved her.
Longworth, Karina. “You Must Remember This: How Elizabeth Taylor Won Her Oscar.” Slate. https://slate.com/culture/2015/12/elizabeth-taylor-and-eddie-fishers-affair-and-taylors-oscar.html
2 thoughts on “Elizabeth Taylor: The Persona and The Public”
Another insightful post! My mother who had been an actress when young and an acting teacher when older loved Elizabeth. Another side of Elizabeth was her early and continuous support of AIDS victims and fundraising for treatment.
That’s one of the reasons that I’ve always loved her! That and her devotion to Montgomery Clift