DEAD. This was actually the first word of mean-spirited, if bestselling, memoir Mommie Dearest, and it was referring, of course, to the passing of never-off-the-clock movie star Joan Crawford. For the past couple of weeks, though, there has, unfortunately, been the need for this term to be used in reference to Elizabeth Taylor. Obviously, the day had to come that this would be the case but for as long as I can remember, I’ve shrunk from the thought of Taylor meeting her maker.
You will simply never see me turning down the opportunity to read a book on the topic of either Elizabeth Taylor or Grace Kelly. At the root of my fascination with Kelly is how she made the massive mistake of, at twenty-six, and at the height of her beauty and career, going to the alleged ‘principality’ of Monaco to live a life of tedium and frustration. With all the crusty old courtiers, tiresome charity work and the obligatory speaking of French, it is little wonder that she got on the sauce fairly extensively. However, had Kelly not married Prince Rainier and embarked on an existence consisting of so many kinds of hell, I doubt that she would engage my interest nearly so much as she does, because she would have been just too tasteful, both in the way she comported herself and sartorially (apart from a few lapses in the nineteen seventies and eighties, but these were the decades more than any others in the history of the world that sartorial lapsing was occurring). In recent times, it has, of course, come to light that Kelly herself was quite a ‘goer’, with more lovers than Taylor herself could shake a stick at, but the difference is that Kelly was willing and able to keep all this behind the shutters of her prim image and embrace of the Catholic faith. Given her discretion, had Kelly continued merely to be a classy film star who had handbags named after her, she would have fitted firmly into the pantheon of notable bores, the queen of which would have to be Audrey Hepburn, who has reaped way too much glory simply through having worked with classy costume designers and been given the gift of a small-boned physique.
With Elizabeth Taylor, on the other hand, there was always so much more going on with her than just relentless tastefulness and the comporting of herself with dignity, and often what was going on was something nutty, and yet frequently somehow enviable. Yes, of course, there was her staggering beauty and her many husbands, but there were so many other things about Taylor, such as her getting to her late twenties without, apparently, ever having had to make breakfast; the way she would, allegedly, carry peanut and bacon sandwiches around in her bag; and the fact that she remarried Richard Burton in Botswana with two hippopotamuses as witnesses.
Even though Taylor was racking up personal bests left, right and centre, both in terms of good looks and her performances, in the nineteen fifties and sixties, I have a particular love for her nineteen seventies incarnation. This is partly, I think, because of certain movies that so often happened to be screened at midday when I was at home sick from school, lying wanly on the chaise longue in the living room and popping Butter Menthols like they were candy. Most especially, there is X, Y and Zee (or Zee and Co, as it was also known) (1972), with Taylor playing the morally suspect wife of a wealthy architect, played by, in an odd bit of casting, Michael Caine, and there is much strange enjoyment to be had with these upper-crust, yet simultaneously swinging, Londoners. The opening credits feature Taylor and Caine playing slow-motion ping pong in a rumpus room, and the good times continue as the two of them indulge in heated verbal sparring around a delectable split-level house, with Taylor bedecked in medallions, swathes of blue eye shadow, and many changes of clothes, all of which somehow have the air of being caftans even when they’re not even technically caftans.
And then there’s Ash Wednesday (1973), featuring Taylor as a woman who undergoes cosmetic surgery in Switzerland in an attempt to save her marriage, and who is far from averse to velvet pantsuits and big fur hats. Strikingly, the film contains footage from actual facelifts, which, apparently, led to widespread revulsion on the part of viewers. Richard Burton himself lovingly described the film as ‘a fuck lousy nothing bloody film’. And speaking of Burton and of the decade in question, he made an unforgettable guest appearance with Taylor on Here’s Lucy in 1970, which was an injection of cracking glamour among all the scenes featuring Gale Gordon. Strangely enough, the storyline concerns Dick buying Liz a massively expensive ring that gets stuck on Lucy’s finger. The episode not only features Elizabeth threatening, in Colonel Klink-like tones, to amputate Lucille Ball’s digit, but also a scene in which she does a spot of Ball-style physical comedy while wearing, yes, a caftan that looks as though it’s been constructed from solid gold.
Supposing that heaven exists outside the belief system of the Eurogliders, I would be keen to know with which of the men in her life Taylor will be spending eternity. Presumably it would be Richard Burton or film producer and noted ‘showman’ Mike Todd, and the other five husbands would only warrant a peck on the cheek and some awkward small talk, and not necessarily even that. Taylor was apparently given to telling whoever would listen (which was most probably a whole lot of people) that if Todd hadn’t been killed in a plane crash, their marriage would have lasted forever. It seems, though, that his son was less convinced, believing that the union would have lasted only if his old man had managed never to have a ‘financial downturn’. In any case, my own mother has offered the hope that perhaps Taylor will in the afterlife find ‘somebody new and really satisfactory’. I would like to think that she will and that, in fact, this is an option for us all, should we require it.
And, speaking of the deceased, I was also very sorry when both Princess Diana and Michael Jackson passed on. Yes, I appreciate that it’s not as if they’d been saving the whale, and I certainly acknowledge Diana’s manipulative side, and all unsavoury aspects of Jackson, namely his keenness on the creation of giant statues of his person to be put on display around the world, but the fact is that life without them is just a lot more boring, and no amount of books and telemovies, fascinating though they may be, on the topic of their ‘final days’ is going to be able to make up for this. And I’m also finding existence to be much more boring now that Elizabeth Taylor’s been dead for a fortnight, and especially since the flood of ‘tributes’ is beginning to die down; hence the fact that I’ve seen fit to write this one.