I always listen to the 7am news on the radio. It's what wakes me up. This morning the seventh or eighth item was the news that Elizabeth Taylor had died. The commentator seemed to have trouble deciding why she was famous. She was the star of 'National Velvet' but her eight marriages got equal billing.
By 8.30am the news bulletins were starting to get it right. Elton John called her ‘a giant of Hollywood’ but more importantly, ‘an amazing human being’.
It seemed fitting that a gay man should be the one to hit the nail on the head. Elizabeth Taylor was a lot of gay men’s (imaginary) best friend. This was for a number of reasons. She was both magnificent and tragic in some senses, in that she never ‘found true happiness’. (Cliche.) She starred in huge camp vehicles like 'Cleopatra' but tore the screen apart in ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ . Yet it was the isolation of her bravery in advocating support for men with Aids that made her immensely popular.
You have to remember she did this when Aids was ‘a death sentence’ as newspapers delighted in saying. There was no cure and young men all over the world suddenly became old, then died, usually of an appalling mixture of complaints. Television talked in terms of plague and a whole stigmatising wave of puritanism swept round the world.
It was a brave woman who stood forward at this time and said that people had to relearn how it is to be human in face of an unknown and terrifying disease. She appeared at rallies. She spoke to vast sullen crowds energising them.
This was not a Hollywood gesture. It was not fake or serendipitous. She wasn’t doing it ‘for a good cause’. She had seen her friend Rock Hudson lose his name as well as his life when he suddenly ceased being a Hollywood star and became ‘a contaminated Aids victim’ in media feeding frenzy.
She showed incredible guts.
For this I could forgive her just about anything.
And then there were the films.....
I went with my brother and our tomboy friend to the Plaza Cinema in Queen Street which had been redecorated specially for the premiere of 'Cleopatra' in about 1962.
'Cleopatra' was a news event film ‘the most expensive film ever made’. It was also the most boring. Our best’s friend’s chair was broken and the length and boredom of the film only made the wrecked chair more tortuous.
The next time I was aware of her I was an out gay man at university being educated by friends who seemed so much more sophisticated and knowledgeable than me. They said ‘I had to see’ Liz as we all called her in ‘Virginia Woolf’ as we called the film.
There, dishevelled, alcoholic, fat and magnificent she came alive as a consummate screen actress. The words ‘clink clink’ as she wandered drunk across a night time lawn (after the ice in her empty glass) became a favourite term.
It meant: I’m lost but found. I’m wandering in a fog. Is there anyone else out there?
It was the kind of semaphore you love when you’re in your early twenties and worry alot about falling in love.
Next in my education was 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”. You have to see that.
This was probably my definitive Elizabeth Taylor film. She was ravishingly beautiful - probably never more gorgeous. Her white dress was a classic. And her paradox - the most beautiful woman in the world married to a gay man who doesn't find her desirable - seemed evocative, full of tristesse.
There was also that thin high note in her voice when she got mad. She was completely winning.
So when I heard she’d died I thought quickly of all those personal memories and felt a little sad.
On the other hand, she was memorable and in some senses magnificent.
(I wish I had a photo to post of her because that really says it all.)
Farewell Liz the Magnificent.