This article will also be available in the Amherst Student on April 13. Special sneak preview! Woooo!!
On March 23, 2011, Hollywood’s Golden Age lost the last of its luster. Dame Elizabeth Taylor (when did the American media decide never to use her title?) was a two-time Academy-Award winning actress, a dedicated social humanitarian and a tabloid legend; but her recent passing resonated beyond the usual cultural impact of the death of a supreme film talent and/or major celebrity (even, say, the April 9 loss of magnificent director Sidney Lumet). Quietly, Taylor had become the last of her breed: the mega-stars that dominated Hollywood films from the 1920’s to the late 1960’s. With her, an entire brand of fame and glamour finally disappeared from the movie industry for good.
I told myself that I wouldn’t get carried away with this tribute, but here I am already steering fast toward exaggeration. There are still a few other relics of the Hollywood star system kicking: Kirk Douglas made his aged presence known at this year’s Oscar ceremony, for instance, and sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland for some reason always bring the film “Death Becomes Her” to my mind. Lesser stars like Shirley Temple, Mickey Rooney and Eva Marie Saint are still around, as well. The morbid truth is that I perhaps should have waited until those figures had all kicked the bucket before penning this elegy to a bygone era.
That’s the thing about Taylor, though, and the reason why her death marks the most appropriate occasion for mourning the Golden Age: she thrived in an era of idealization and hyperbole, when Hollywood actors were transformed by the studios into legends. There was John Wayne, patron saint of the Western; Jimmy Stewart, a heroic commoner worthy of the Biblical David; the Marx brothers, who could’ve made the Sphinx crack a smile; not to mention a never-ending line of dazzling Muses, from Ingrid Bergman to Marlene Dietrich and Audrey Hepburn.
Taylor, however, was perhaps the system’s crowning achievement. Playing off the actress’ otherworldly beauty, MGM manufactured Taylor into a goddess, generally giving her star-building roles based on her stunning physical presence. By saying that, I do not mean to diminish Taylor’s considerable acting talent: indeed, her turn as Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” remains one of the most vibrant, enthralling film performances of all time. But it’s a telling sign that almost all the obituaries and tributes written in the past few weeks have focused primarily on Taylor’s looks and tumultuous personal life. See, in the Golden Age, when it came to film stars, actual acting ability was often secondary, a side benefit that gave the critics something to debate; an actor’s persona, both on-screen and off, was everything.
In that sense, Taylor reigned. Films like “A Place in the Sun,” “Giant” and “Cleopatra” painted the actress as the ultimate object of desire, even as her roles shifted from untouchable socialites to sultry and confident seductresses; her highly public romantic escapades only bolstered that image. Audiences flocked to the theaters when “Butterfield 8” was released to watch Taylor steal co-lead Eddie Fisher away from America’s sweetheart, Debbie Reynolds, on camera, then did so again after she and Richard Burton began a torrid affair on the set of “Cleopatra” (OK, so no one actually went to see that particular historical dud, but people certainly talked about it a lot). As her eight marriages (twice to Burton) came and went, with a host of affairs in between, her celebrity grew to grand, larger-than-life proportions. In the public eye, Taylor became more an abstract, a mesh of concepts and identities: an adulteress, a fashion icon, a social activist (prominently supporting research to combat the AIDS/HIV crisis), a practitioner of Kabbalah mysticism, and, lest we forget, an actress.
None of Taylor’s Hollywood successors has ever been able to touch that level of self-mythicization again. Comparisons to Angelina Jolie are manifold, and perhaps on a superficial level, the association is not that far off: the whole “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”/Jennifer Aniston incident seemed to be an eerie repeat of Taylor’s “Butterfield 8” scandal, and Jolie’s forays into humanitarian work again seem to be in emulation of her iconic predecessor (not to mention the fact that Jolie is planning to star as, you guessed it, Cleopatra, in an upcoming film). But there is an enchanting, ethereal level lacking from Jolie’s presence. The persona feels too calculated, especially considering how derivative it is from Taylor’s.
Andy Warhol, who was more than a little perceptive about modern shifts in fame and iconography, perhaps put it best: “She’s the last in a line of great Hollywood stellars. Not in her profession, necessarily, but at playing herself.” The fascination with Taylor’s personal life and who she appeared to be rather than who she was is a trend that can be directly connected to today’s “stars” – the Paris Hiltons and Kim Kardashians, who create stardom based on nothing but the implication that they should be famous. But there was a mystique to Taylor and her peers that led her to be labeled “the Last Movie Star” long before her death. She backed up her fame not only with a productive body of work, but an air of mystery; despite the tabloid’s obsession with her, Taylor somehow maintained just enough distance between herself and her audience to keep them wondering.
In today’s 24-hour news cycle, even entertainment stars can no longer hide. The exploits of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, of Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen, of Will Smith and his progeny, may keep us intrigued and amused in some sick fashion, but they carry no surprise anymore. So, as we say goodbye to Dame (and what a dame) Elizabeth Taylor, we bid adieu to inscrutable charisma and aloof beauty, to an era when stars kept us curious rather than merely dubious. Luckily for us, we still have the films to remember when Hollywood was truly golden.