Elizabeth Taylor - Mother Courage
Elizabeth Taylor died Wednesday morning.
She was once the most famous (or notorious) woman in entertainment. During the 1950s and 1960s she was the biggest star in the world. She won Academy Awards, and survived two of the biggest scandals in movie history.
But why do we love her? Because before there was Lady Gaga or Madonna talking about gay people, Taylor was the real gay Joan of Arc.
Elizabeth Taylor (we will never call her "Liz" as she hated that nickname) was born in England in 1932 to American expatriates. With the war looming in England, the Taylor clan moved to the US and settled in Los Angeles. As a child star she was featured in Lassie Come Home starring gay actor and soon-to-be lifelong friend, Roddy McDowall. Her big break came when she was cast in National Velvet at the age of 12, and that film made her a star in 1945. She then became a superstar at age 19 with A Place in the Sun starring Montgomery Clift and Shelley Winters. Sensing a romance with Clift was out of the question, Taylor became the closet friend the gay actor ever had.
Taylor had a genuine connection with gay men— long before it was popular or practical in the straight-laced Eisenhower years. In 1955 Taylor was chosen by famed director George Stevens to star in Giant along with Rock Hudson and James Dean. It is interesting to note that Taylor bonded with both actors during the Texas location shoot, even though both men could not stand one another. As Hudson was probably the most famous closeted gay actor in America and Dean was reportedly bisexual, it is fitting that Taylor could win both their trust and love.
In May 1956, Clift was severely injured when his car crashed leaving Taylor's house. Hearing the accident, Taylor rushed to the car and held the battered Clift, and even pulled a broken tooth from his throat while waiting for the ambulance to arrive. Clift never recovered from that accident. They put his face back together but he only lived ten more years, and his friend Taylor (whom he called Bessie) was always there for him.
Taylor was married eight times to seven husbands. The death of her third husband, Producer Mike Todd, lead to the biggest scandal of the late 1950s. Eddie Fisher, married to America's sweetheart Debbie Reynolds, had been one of Todd's close friends and served as best man at the Taylor/Todd wedding. When the news of the Taylor/Fisher affair broke it rocked America. Suddenly Taylor was a home wrecker.
When Taylor later married Fisher and then almost died in England, requiring a tracheotomy to save her life, America "forgave" the actress and even gave her the 1960 Academy Award for the hysterically bad film BUtterfield 8. This good will lasted about 2 years. Then Taylor and Richard Burton were filming Cleopatra in Rome and their affair rocked the world again. The subsequent marriage to Burton made them the most famous couple in movies, eclipsing Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier.
During all this media frenzy Taylor made some great films. She was nominated 4 years in a row, with her performances in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly Last Summer among her best. Suddenly Last Summer, with its gay theme (her character was being used by her gay cousin to lure young men to his bed) was a total shocker in 1959. With Katharine Hepburn as the mother from hell, Taylor's ending monologue is one of the great highlights in gay movie history.
I was in 9th grade when I snuck off to see Suddenly Last Summer. As a closeted teen in St. Louis, I staggered out of that film shaken by both the subject matter and the power of Taylor's performance. Her battles with health issues, scandals, addictions and tragedies rivaled Judy Garland during this period. This made me love Taylor even more. I believed if she could survive all this, then I could survive coming out in that seemingly archaic gay time period.
But it wasn't until Rock Hudson's AIDS prognosis was revealed in 1985 that Taylor's larger loyalty to her gay friends came into worldwide focus.
During these early years of the so-called "Gay Plaque" or "Gay Cancer" people panicked, and fear led them to reject and revile most gay men. But not Taylor. She rallied to Hudson's side and for the rest of her life became the first and prime spokesperson in the war against HIV.
The pattern of Taylor's life is measured by the great gay friendships she maintained. McDowall, Clift and Hudson are the most famous, but there were hundreds of lesser know gay men whom she loved and helped. Taylor was a great star but her fame as a great friend to the gay community is probably the thing she valued most.
Elizabeth Taylor the woman is gone but her great performances and love for gay men will live forever.