Was Elizabeth the last-ever icon?
Tuesday, 01 May 2012

Was Elizabeth the last-ever icon?

As a new film about Elizabeth Taylor is announced, her friend Peter Evans questions if she was the last real star

The last time Elizabeth Taylor and I met, in Los Angeles, the conversation turned to Marilyn Monroe, that other glittering star of the silver screen. ‘Dying young does give Marilyn an edge over most of us,’ she joked. ‘But I nearly died quite a few times. Nearly dying was my speciality. That has to count for something, doesn’t it?’

She died herself not so long after that conversation, but my friend Elizabeth, whom I first met in 1960 during the filming of Cleopatra, knew a thing or two about fame. She was, after all, the biggest star in the world. It is unlikely there will ever be a bigger one.

And now she is to be the subject of a new film. Called Liz And Dick, it will chart her turbulent romance with her two-times husband, Richard Burton. Elizabeth – never ‘Liz’ – it was announced last week, will be played by American actress Lindsay Lohan. Which begs the question: can anyone ever capture the magic, the magnificence of the real Taylor? There are certainly plenty of celebrities around today, and many of them are truly talented. But real icons are rare. You might even argue that Elizabeth Taylor was the last. A one-off. Inimitable.

You can, of course, put a price on fame. And the crude, raw numbers say an awful lot about just how bright Elizabeth’s star really was. She was the first actor, for example, ever to be paid $1m to appear in a film: for Cleopatra. And thanks to her extraordinary sexual magnetism – and the generosity of her many adoring husbands – she left behind her one of the world’s most extensive jewellery collections.

But while the jewels themselves were dazzlingly valuable, the fact that Elizabeth Taylor had once owned them made them inestimably more so. In fact, when her finest possessions, a collection of more than 1,800 lots, were recently sold at auction, they raised $116m. Some items sold for 50 times their pre-sale estimates. Everything Elizabeth touched, it seemed, turned to diamond.

She had, of course, worked hard at stardom. In 1941, aged just nine, Elizabeth Taylor signed to Universal Pictures – for $100 a week – and soldiered on when her contract was cancelled the following year on the grounds that, in the words of Universal’s production chief: ‘She can’t sing, she can’t dance, she can’t perform…’

By 12, however, she had put in a star turn in National Velvet – and by the time she earned that record-breaking pay cheque for Cleopatra, she was the one woman, the one human being, everyone wanted. I watched her travel the globe with her vast, glamorous entourage. And the whole world joined me. You couldn’t help it. She had a magnetism, an allure that was utterly irresistible.

Men, of course, loved her – and her romances became fairytales, followed in detail by every one of her millions of fans. And none more so than her affair with Richard Burton, a romance so legendary it would make them a modern-day Antony and Cleopatra, the characters they were playing when first they met. ‘

One morning in Rome, this extraordinary, amazing little man, with an obvious, almighty hangover and a pock-marked complexion, walked on to the set and changed my life,’ she told me. ‘He made me understand for the first time, the pain, the excitement and pure adventure of being alive. I knew that life with this man would never be dull.’ Not that Burton’s opening gambit was terribly impressive. Despite his legendary way with women, his opening salvo was a rather tired cliché: ‘Has any-body ever told you that you’re a very pretty girl?’

She later told me: ‘I thought, oy gevalt’ – her third husband had been Jewish-American producer Mike Todd, whose religion and vernacular she had adopted – ‘the great lover, the great wit, the great Welsh intellectual, and he comes out with a corny line like that.’ Not that it put her off . She noticed that his hands were shaking – ‘I had the worst dose of screaming meemies you can imagine,’ Burton later confessed – and immediately took pity on him. It may have started with a hangover, but one of the world’s most iconic romances had begun.

There were plenty of hangovers in that romance – although they’d rarely admit to having them. On one occasion, however, I went to their hotel suite in Paris, where on the mantelpiece was an extraordinary array of hangover cures.

Burton was one of the most famous actors in the world at the time. But even he knew that he was in the presence of a true icon when he was with Taylor. He was a legendary womaniser, but it is no surprise that he gave her the enormous 33-carat Krupp diamond. Taylor really was one of a kind. Indeed, his friend Peter O’Toole once joked that Burton was only halffamous – Elizabeth, he quipped, was the other half. And Burton, I think, was happy to accept the truth of it. In fact, he rang me at 4am the following morning to tell me, ‘I may be only half-famous, Peter, but I’ve got the other half snoring very contentedly in bed next to me. See if O’Toole can top that.’ Elizabeth and Richard with their familyElizabeth and Richard with their family

But there was much more to Taylor than her romances, her money, even her talent. She also had an extraordinary stamina. Eight very public marriages (including two to Burton) would be enough to finish most people, but she managed to make countless memorable films, drink prodigious quantities of alcohol, and battle regular illness – in 30 years, she had 37 operations – with a rare fortitude and humour.

‘I’ve appeared in more theatres than Dame Nellie Melba on her farewell tour,’ she once said to me. ‘Unfortunately, mine have all been operating theatres.’

Her wit was razor sharp, albeit often rather cruel. Although I knew that her marriage to Richard Burton was rocky, I was nevertheless surprised when he offered to buy my house in south London for a love nest. I was even more surprised when later he came to dinner with Elizabeth and, after inspecting the place, room by room, she told him: ‘This place is too big for a love nest. It’ll make a fine harem, though – but you’re not up to that any more, Buster.’

There was also a vulnerability and a self-awareness to her. On one occasion, I met her in Mexico, where Richard Burton was making Night Of The Iguana. She was wearing a swimsuit, and when she saw a group of photographers approaching, she asked me to walk behind her. She explained that all of her operations had left scars on her back, and she didn’t want them to be photographed.

Yes, she could be a diva – and would often drive co-stars and directors to distraction with her lateness – but she was a woman of great loyalty and principle. When the world turned against her friend Michael Jackson, while he was on trial for child abuse, she stuck by him.

Similarly, she supported AIDS charities when the illness was surrounded by stigma and prejudice. Unlike so many modern celebrities, controlled by PRs and image men, Elizabeth Taylor was her own woman. She was a unique talent, a force of nature, a true icon. And we may never see the likes of her again.

Peter Evans is working on a personal memoir of Ava Gardner.

Taylor’s best friends

In a recent documentary about Elizabeth Taylor’s jewels, Joan Collins revealed how Princess Margaret once described the Hollywood star’s diamond ring as vulgar. Unfazed, Taylor merely persuaded the princess to try it for herself, quipping as she did so, ‘Not so vulgar now, is it?’

Diamonds certainly made Taylor feel like royalty. She wore an antique diamond tiara, gifted to her by husband Mike Todd, to the 1957 Oscars, and looked every bit the princess. But that was just one of countless treasured pieces.

They were, in fact, one of her few true loves. ‘You can’t cry on a diamond’s shoulder,’ she once said, ‘and diamonds won’t keep you warm at night, but they’re sure fun when the sun shines’.

Cleopatra featuring Liz Taylor (as pictured here) and Richard Burton is out now on Blu Ray

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