“Celebrity is not something that comes without responsibility. If I can help further a worthwhile cause simply by lending my voice, I feel that it is my place to do so.”
Last evening when picking up the New York Times at a Cambridge 7-Eleven, I pointed to Elizabeth Taylor’s picture on the upper fold, saying to the young Asian cashier, “Now, there’s a beauty for you, perhaps the greatest movie star of all time.” “Who’s that?” he asked. “Elizabeth Taylor,” I said, “someone who was not only a screen goddess but a crusader for social justice, too.” “How come I never heard of her,” he asked. “Well, maybe because you’re too young,” I replied. “We’ll never see another like her again.” “Well, I’ll go look her up in Google,” he said, putting my two dollars in the till.
Who was Elizabeth Taylor? Take your pick. The outpouring of remembrances on her life and career provide a pleasant diversion from the drumbeat of death and destruction in Japan and the Middle East, and rekindle fond memories. Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr put it well by stating, “Elizabeth Taylor had such a long career and went through so many persona mutations – child star, good girl, hussy, actress – it’s almost more worthwhile to pick a period of her career and go from there.”
“She survived as a kind of Warholian celebrity. She maintained a presence in Hollywood and in the celebrity culture partly because she was very well liked,” says New York Times’ film critic A.O. Scott. “She was a very good friend to a lot of people, among them Michael Jackson, who she had a sincere and important friendship with. She knew what it was like to be subjected to the pressures of fame from a very young age. And of course also to Rock Hudson, who had been her co-star in George Stevens’ Giant.”
When thinking about Elizabeth Taylor’s extraordinary life, I was reminded of a time not so long ago when celebrities were reluctant to embrace causes, preferring to stick to entertainment rather than social change. There was no Bono, no Clooney, no Streisand, no DiCaprio working to eliminate AIDS and genocide, elect Democratic candidates, or promote environmentalism. Elizabeth Taylor, in many ways, was among the first socially-responsible celebrities, using her power to advance human rights here in the U.S. and abroad.
“It was Rock Hudson’s death from AIDS in the mid-1980s that really inaugurated the second important phase of Elizabeth Taylor’s career, which was as an activist, spokesperson, and fundraiser and spokesperson for the cause of AIDS eradication,” says Scott. “It’s important to remember that when she took up this cause it was by no means fashionable, trendy, or even a mainstream [one].”
Her death on Wednesday evoked recollections of her stunning beauty, of a glamorous Hollywood where a star was a star, not a fifteen-minutes-of-fame celebrity. She was, Neal Gabler writes in the LA Times “the woman who invented celebrity.” Elizabeth Taylor lived life large. Her exploits, on and off screen; her illnesses; her jewels; her perfumes; her men. I have vivid memories of the 1958-59 “Liz and Eddie” scandal, headlines plastered across the newsstands when I was about 8 years old. Her life fired our imagination at a time when fan magazines and newspaper columnists – such as Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, whom Taylor played in a made-for-TV-movie – held sway.
For we Baby Boomers coming of age in the mid- to late ‘60s, she was a supernova, embodying the passion, magic, and romance of Old Hollywood, not the newer Age of Aquarius where Easy Rider symbolized the irony of youthful rebellion. Her over-the-top Cleopatra seemed out of step with the times as the civil rights and antiwar movement swirled around her, yet she helped pave the way for the nascent women’s movement with her portrayal of the feminine mystique. In 1966, her Oscar-winning performance as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – she was only 32 at the time – disturbed me because in her I saw my parents’ generation, where women were encased in roles so stifling they turned to alcohol or Valium for relief. In many ways, she reminded me of my own mother, her beauty and sass defensive tools in a culture on the verge of exploding. That’s not how I’ll live, I thought. Who needs booze when there’s so much injustice in the world that needs fixing?
That same year all hell was breaking loose. The Vietnam War bombing campaign was in full force and ground troops were substantially increased as President Lyndon Johnson pledged to root out Communist aggression. Meanwhile, the civil rights movement and nonviolent protests led by Dr. Martin Luther King were under fire from Black Panthers and Black Power advocates, with race riots dotting the urban landscape (including in my hometown of Lansing, Michigan, where my father was mayor at the time). The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded that June, offering an outlet to combat oppression. Elizabeth Taylor – by then she was jet-setting with husband #5, Richard Burton – was part of another world, another reality, far from the frontlines of social upheaval.
But that all changed in 1984, almost a full year before her friend Rock Hudson died of AIDS. This bizarre new disease had been around for a few years, a stealth killer primarily affecting gay men. “People sat around the dinner table discussing it. It’s just awful,” she told Larry King in 2001, reflecting on her decision to rise up. “The government wasn’t doing anything. I got all worked up about AIDS before I really knew that Rock had it, because nobody was doing anything about it.
People were talking about it. It was the topic at every cocktail party. Oh, this dreadful disease, darling. AIDS, oh, it’s so awful. How do you think – oh, it must have been those homosexuals. And it just was – it irritated me so much that I – I’m so angry. But wait a minute. I’m angry, but what am I doing? I’m sitting back here, getting all riled up. My blood pressure has probably gone sky-high. But what have I done? What have I done?
Have I tried to put a foundation together? Have I tried to put an organization together that could raise funds, give dinners, get celebrities to sing and dance to get medicine, to do something to try and help these people that are dying, and dying this horrible death?
She began as a major supporter of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA), determined to raise public awareness and money to fight the disease. As recounted elsewhere, “Even after months of rejection, she pressed on, working with her good friend and publicist, Chen Sam—pleading, pressuring, coaxing, making calls and signing letters to influential and wealthy friends.” In 1985, Taylor joined the board of directors of the National AIDS Research Foundation (NARF) in Los Angeles, which soon merged with the New York-based AIDS Medical Foundation (AMF) to form the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR). She offered to lead a national fundraising effort for the new group, claiming, “Celebrity is not something that comes without responsibility. If I can help further a worthwhile cause simply by lending my voice, I feel that it is my place to do so.”
It’s hard to overestimate the significance of her actions, which drive current emotions about her passing. In those days, people were terrified: no one dared speak its name, much less acknowledge its existence, or the suffering of those afflicted. The Great Communicator himself, President Ronald Reagan, remained silent, even after 6,000 Americans had died.
I had many gay friends who were petrified of this strange disease, its cruel progression defying medical comprehension and treatment. They were afraid of being shunned, of being stigmatized by society’s ignorance, apathy, even ridicule.
People were even afraid to touch those with the symptoms, a prejudice Elizabeth Taylor helped shatter when she was photographed in 1989 shaking hands with an HIV/AIDS patient in a Bangkok hospital—by then, AIDS already had exploded into a full-scale epidemic.
It was she who helped Reagan end his public silence on AIDS by inviting him to attend a public function at the newly-formed amFAR in May, 1987. It was she who persuaded legislators from throughout the country to pass legislation to fund AIDS patient care. Throughout the years, she continued to lobby for funding (ultimately raising $100 million), for respect, for adding HIV/AIDS discrimination to the lexicon of human rights. She was a cross-over celebrity who used her influence to get people to change their minds and open their wallets and hearts.
“Elizabeth Taylor holds a special place in the hearts of people with AIDS and their supporters for her tireless efforts to combat this dreaded disease,” said Michael Weinstein, president of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, which provides medical care and services to more than 150,000 people in 26 countries. “Long before it was fashionable, she was there by our side.” On the Daily Beast, many others shared their thoughts about what her work in the AIDS movement meant to them.
Underneath it all was a woman who never lost her sense of humor, humility, and humanity. “Looking back on her career what’s striking is not just the public drama of her many marriages and her constant celebrity, or even her great beauty,” says A.O. Scott. “It’s a kind of generosity, toughness, and good humor. She was not just a great actress or an important celebrity, she was a real personality of a kind that’s very rare and very precious.”
Rest in peace, Elizabeth Taylor, and thanks for everything, every single juicy, bawdy bit. We’ll miss you.