The Bawdy and the Beautiful
Elizabeth Taylor's delightful vulgarity.
Elizabeth Taylor was wild and beautiful and unpretentious and insanely glamorous. When I was a kid the papers were filled with cascading images of her scandalous trials and fabulations: Liz in Capri pants clutching poodles and waving drunkenly from the deck of her yacht; Liz deathly ill; Liz back from the dead, suntanned and buying ever bigger bijoux; Liz and Eddie; Liz and Monty; and, most importantly, Liz and Dick.
Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were the Brad and Angelina of their day, minus all that the earnest actor-ish stuff. A movie actress her entire life, she was so confident about her ability to deliver her lines that she never descended into all that gobbledygook—it's about "the craft" and "the work"—which spouts from the mouths of contemporary actors. Dick always claimed that his wife, with her just-shut-up-and-say-the-bloody-words attitude toward acting, relieved him of the burden of his Shakespearian provenance and taught him how to just do it.
Miss Taylor differed from today's actors in another way too. SHE BOUGHT ALL HER OWN DRAG! No freebies for Liz. In truth, La Taylor had an uneasy relationship with the world of fashion. Though lauded for the beauty of her face and her violet eyes—her catlike make-up in Cleopatra inspired a million girls around the world to break out the liquid eyeliner—she was always having too much fun to seek out the approval of the snootier echelons of the world of style. (In Cecil Beaton's odiously disdainful diaries he likens her to "a peasant woman suckling her young in Peru.") When, in 1998, La Taylor's fashion influence was finally acknowledged with a CFDA award, her acceptance speech consisted of one sentence: "Eat your heart out Mr. Blackwell!" That nasty old geezer had plopped Liz's name on the worst-dressed list for years, but Liz had the last laugh.
Liz always had a way with a bon mot. For someone who earned her living delivering other people's (screenwriter's) gems, she was remarkably capable of crafting her own. A few of my favorites:
"Success is a great deodorant. It takes away all your past smells."
"If someone's dumb enough to offer me a million dollars to make a picture, I'm certainly not dumb enough to turn it down."
"Big girls need big diamonds."
"The problem with people who have no vices is that generally you can be pretty sure they're going to have some pretty annoying virtues."
Liz Taylor's glorious, gorgeous, generous (she was a tireless AIDS advocate long before it became trendy), incredible life is a monument to the ultimate triumph of fun and glamour and vulgarity. Yes, vulgarity. When Diana Vreeland famously said, "Vulgarity is a very important ingredient in life. A little bad taste is like nice splash of paprika. We all need a splash of bad taste—it's hearty, it's healthy, it's physical. No taste is what I'm against," I feel she must surely have had a picture of the fabulous Elizabeth Taylor in her mind.
As we revisit the Taylor movie canon in the coming months, you will no doubt watch Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly Last Summer, BUtterfield 8 and all the greats. But don't overlook the dustier nooks and crannies of Liz-obilia. Some of the best style moments are to be found in her more obscure movies like Secret Ceremony and Reflections in a Golden Eye. My fave might just be X Y & Zee with Michael Caine. How to describe this demented movie? Imagine if Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf was transposed into early '70s London and 90 percent of the characters are wearing caftans. The opening credits—a busty, boozed-up Liz plays a violent game of ping-pong with a hot-looking, bespectacled Michael Caine—are pure orgasmic joy. My hubby and I were so smitten with this movie that we installed a ping-pong table in the middle of our living room, in homage to La Taylor. Why don't you give it a whirl! What better way to remember the incredible Liz: Crack open a bottle of scotch, throw on a caftan, and grab those ping-pong paddles.
RIP, Elizabeth (as you preferred to be known). You will be horribly missed.
Simon Doonan is an author, fashion commentator, and creative ambassador for Barneys New York.(Photo by Roxanne Lowit.)
Photo by Getty Images.