Elizabeth Taylor: The Cultural Fallout Of A 20th Century Fox

As a sexual icon, Taylor walked a fine line between a body gorged on strong features and the potential to easily become bloated by pregnancy or the slightest weight gain but it was this straddling of the divide that made her so unique and enduring a figure
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As a sexual icon, Taylor walked a fine line between a body gorged on strong features and the potential to easily become bloated by pregnancy or the slightest weight gain but it was this straddling of the divide that made her so unique and enduring a figure

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With her “apocalyptic” bosom (Richard Burton), micro waist and what are sometimes known as “child-bearing hips” (four spawn across two marriages) Elizabeth Taylor created a subversive archetype of 50s womanhood: attractive, sensual and fiercely independent with it. Taylor’s body had all the amorphous swelling of hips, breast and buttocks to more than fulfil the feminine ideal identified by anti-feminist, Camille Paglia. As a sexual icon, Taylor walked a fine line between a body gorged on strong features and the potential to easily become bloated by pregnancy or the slightest weight gain but it was this straddling of the divide that made her so unique and enduring a figure.

Alongside Marilyn Monroe, who shared many of the above features, Taylor’s body, circa 1956, has become one of the standard signifiers of female sexuality that persisted well into the end of the 20th century. Her iconic power has grown even further as a retrospective ideal against the proto-heroin chic that was emerging in the sixties through the sterile cheekbones and artful mascara of Twiggy, a style that has persisted into the modern Kate Moss equation where staying thin is equivalent to maintaining beauty and good youth.

Beauty and the Ballard

In the massed geometry of Taylor’s stormcloud hair, violet eyes and fine lips that could easily flip to a feral snarl, J. G. Ballard identified his martyr to the decadence of beauty a trope which he helped to further into a neo-classical archetype of the perfect movie star. In much of his work in the 60s Ballard transposed this affected glamour onto other famous/notorious people, such as the widow-figure of Jackie O with her bug-eyed shades maintaining her distant reserve in the decades following JFK’s death. Even as a child star, Taylor already had a foothold in the lineage of Hollywood’s Golden Age through starring roles in National Velvet and Lassie; a cultural legacy equivalent to that of the Ancient Greeks in the incestuous and self-congratulatory world of Hollywood.

But it was in 1971’s Crash that Taylor bloomed effervescent as an iconic persona greater than any of her film work, if only by her absence.

Taylor’s first appearance in a Ballardian psycho-sexual nightmare was the Atrocity Exhibition (1966) where a mentallink was forged between the symmetry of her lost gill marks revealed by a tracheotomy which saved her from a near-fatal bout of pneumonia and the frontage of the London Hilton where she was recovering. Taylor persists further in a strangeness greater than fiction by outliving many of Ballard’s other famous icons such as JFK and Marilyn Monroe, as well as the author himself. Most of Ballard’s burning icons were chosen because their lives seemed somehow destined to end almost as quickly as they had started to ascend providing a suitably dramatic arc for fiction to overtake reality. But as if resisting cliché, Taylor outlived the many fictions Ballard and others built around her, probably living longer than she should have after nearly dying several times from an expanding raft of health complaints, comparable to Byron’s syphilis, lame-leg and over-sized heart, which steadily combined to age her quicker than most. Taylor was emblematic of that vulnerable strength which sees the willowy artist survive where most people would be expected to perish, surviving body beautiful but rotting on the inside.

But it was in 1971’s Crash that Taylor bloomed effervescent as an iconic persona greater than any of her film work, if only by her absence. Sitting pretty as the pouting fount of desire for the novel’s character, Vaughan; a psychotic Neal Cassady dragged into a darker future where destinies were set in relation to a concrete world. Vaughan is, like Cassady, an accomplice who becomes co-protaganist, driven by a will to death; to be conjoined with Taylor in a fabulous sexual auto-disaster where they would meet head-on, between death and orgasm somewhere along the M25. On strictly visual terms, Taylor’s street-art stencil is immediately recognisable on the cover of the most recent Crash re-issues. How she felt about the book, subsequent film (she was not invited to star) and press furore (surrounding both) is not clear but at the very least, it’s only strong features that can survive picked out in black spray against the wall of a white-washed street.

Shining Blight

Forever glamorous, Taylor became a burning Madonna for pomp, shine and circumstance. Always finely dressed (even in her later years, wheelchair-bound, she appeared as an ultra-decadent Christ, with all that skittish Golighlty power somehow nailed down, fixed in transit) she helped to create aspiration among the “everyday” housewives of the 50s and 60s to go about their usual daily tasks with a hint of feminine swagger, hovering in their finest clothes and combatting dust with the sparkle of bright jewellery, and so providing the blueprint for the future “cougars” of Desperate Housewives, only without the talent.

Taylor’s “sinful” elopement with Richard Burton (as condemned by the Pope) whilst they were both still married set a precedent for the great Hollywood couples and cultivated the unique showbiz sphere where stars only date other stars. As much a business move as a technical necessity, this was not uncommon in the 50s where uncomfortable stars were often paired off with rising ingénues in order to set the public record straight, both James Dean and Rock Hudson were made to conform to this slap-on-the-back promiscuity of the age and step-out as a potential couple with many rising starlets, though many would simply be swallowed up, spat out and their names forgotten. Where Taylor-Burton differed was that they kick-started a near orgiastic public interest for the gossip. The on/off details of their relationship as they were trying to live it, a trend not all too dissimilar to rubber-necking at car crashes (Ballard was taking notes), including the now obligatory, long-range shots of famous couples frolicking on a yacht somewhere in the Med.

Even in her later years, wheelchair-bound, she appeared as an ultra-decadent Christ, with all that skittish Golighlty power somehow nailed down, fixed in transit.

Professionally, The Burton-Taylor marriages(s) seem to have done as much career harm as they did publicity good. Yes, they gave us Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf, but Taylor was just as good, if not better, in the early 60s alongside Newman and Clift. Simply put, Taylor, as with many artists/actors, had done or said everything she would ever need to in a decade or so and soon after lapsed into easy repetition of the on/off relationship model given life by the warring couple roles repeated ad nauseum, and not all of them with Burton. And so the remaining “career” is just filler, particularly if you subscribe to the glib but thorough Trainspotting “had it/lost it” theory of talent.

However, Taylor set another precedent outside of the cinema: that of the charity martyr. It was role she occupied passionately until her death. Without Burton, she often appeared Cleopatra-style wheeled out at formal events, determined not to disappoint she remained glamorous though visibly fading, like that of an ageing pope, benevolent, waning  and refusing to die (a pose first struckin Francis Bacon’s screaming clergy paintings)

Sympathy for the Devil?

Throughout her life, Taylor had a series of close friendships with (questionably) gay stars, James Dean (probably), Rock Hudson (definitely) and Montgomery Clift (in and out) and her subsequent AIDS charity work raised the bar for other stars to step out for causes they believed in, particularly ones that may harm their box office draw. No cause could have been more controversial in the 80s than when she publicly embraced a very fragile Rock Hudson who was to die shortly afterwards from advanced AIDS, still seen by some as a contagious epidemic. The hug was a typically strong-willed and visceral gesture of support from Taylor, a personal fuck-you to the now vengeful society who felt they had been deceived by his leading-man persona and their projected sympathy for Hudson’s broken marriage.

No cause could have been more controversial in the 80s than when she publicly embraced a very fragile Rock Hudson who was to die shortly afterwards from advanced AIDS, still seen by some as a contagious epidemic.

Perhaps Taylor’s most powerful legacy was the intense media scrutiny her public life attracted from her first marriage at a very young age, to her “life imitates art”-dynamic with Richard Burton. The sport of hounding celebrities of which Taylor was one of the brightest lights, has continued and grown inverted, to  the extent that almost every scrap of celebrity information, true or not, is for sale and must be published, whispered or tweeted about with the sheer weight of public interest its own self-fulfilling justification. The long-term shadow of this model, stretched throughout the modern gothic of Sunset Boulevard, has lead to an almost pre-emptive decline into decadence that follows once the fame has eclipsed the career and finally peters out where many young stars don’t live/work long enough to become classics.

The old-system of steady rising has been replaced by public notoriety, rehab and the stench of several failed comebacks leading to a premature death, or the equivalent thereof; z-list celebrity status. To the extent that we now have rising stars, famous simply for appearing, on screen or in public, a whole new spectator sport that has transcended acting and where real acting talent has become harder to find under the surface and shatters at the slightest critical scratch – Taylor would eat them alive.

Select filmography:

A Place in the Sun (1951)
Giant (1956)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Suddenly, Last Summer (1959)
Butterfield 8 (1960)
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966)

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