Tributes to Elizabeth Taylor have commemorated her performances, her charity, her whirlwind-circus love life — but let's not forget to celebrate her beauty.
If the movies had not been invented by the time Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor opened her miniature eyes at a hospital in Hampstead — was that iris already the colour it was to be on screen, that iridescent alloy of lilac and mauve and violet and lavender? — it would have been necessary to invent them. The was-she-a-great-actor question can wait. She was, first and foremost, a great beauty. So great was her beauty that it demanded the world's worship — and the world gathered to worship her in the temples of the reigning religion of the 20th Century, those hushed halls where mere mortals, imperfect beings, looked up in awe and venerated the physical perfection of movie gods and goddesses.
There was a piercing purity about Taylor's early beauty, which was unveiled to the world in “Lassie Come Home”, “Jane Eyre” and the star-making “National Velvet”.
In these girlish turns, she was already hinting at becoming the very embodiment of Nabokov's “gaspingly adorable pubescent pet”.
Then, she turned woman and tender — the slim-waisted Venus you could look at but not touch in “Father of the Bride” and “A Place in the Sun”.
It was in the mid-1950s — “The Last Time I Saw Paris”, “Giant” — that a stupendous sensuality descended on her. Where she was merely beautiful earlier, in the manner of a pretty portrait, she was now a seething hormonal force on screen.
No one can say for sure if this was simply the natural progression of her ripening, or if she had finally discovered how to seduce the camera (and, by extension, the audience) — but from that moment on, she had the world at her feet, helpless humans in thrall to a face they loved and a body they lusted after.
Taylor was at her most beautiful in the 1960s, in the films generally considered her worst. Her frame grew heavier — with earth-mother hips and breasts — and her beauty acquired a delicious pagan vulgarity (which, you could say, was entirely appropriate to the Bohemian types she essayed on screen and embodied, off).
Her screen image in this period brings to mind what a stricken Richard Burton pronounced in prose so purple, it mirrored her eyes. “Those huge violet blue eyes... had an odd glint... Aeons passed, civilisations came and went while these cosmic headlights examined my flawed personality. Every pockmark on my face became a crater of the moon.”
In his infatuation, he moved in quickly to feast on her fineness, and that's, perhaps, why there was less for the rest of us. A little after Taylor began to co-star with Burton — and especially around the making of “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — she crossed over from the maidenly to the matronly.
This is the time a younger generation arrives and watches an older star's films, and wonders what all the fuss is about — yes, yes, she's good looking for her age, but she's not exactly “Faye Dunaway” or “Jane Fonda” or “Mia Farrow”, is she?
The end of Taylor's reign as screen goddess came with the emergence of a slimmer standard of beauty, and gradually, the heroines got thinner and thinner, until curves all but vanished.
In this light, the 1960s quartet of “The V.I.P.s”, “The Sandpiper”, “The Taming of the Shrew” and “Reflections in a Golden Eye”, today, serves as some sort of worm hole to an era where beauty — like everything else in Taylor's life, the diamonds, the yachts, the paycheques, her love for Burton — was big, so big that it enslaved the entire world.
(Lights, Camera, Conversation... is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films)
Keywords: Elizabeth Taylor