When the actress Elizabeth Taylor died on Wednesday at the age of 79, headlines across the country remembered her for the qualities they obsessed over while she was alive: her looks. One of the last curvy females before our obsession with thinness took over Hollywood, Taylor had the title of most beautiful woman in the world as a young star. As she grew older, we remembered her looks while commenting on her aging appearance and fluctuating weight. So it was entirely appropriate that fake-news outlet The Onion announced her death by mocking the media's fixation with her appearance: "Georgeous 25-Year-Old Dead at 79."
Elizabeth Taylor was a celebrity of a magnitude we don't see today. She entered the national spotlight at age 12, acted in over 50 films, suffered nearly fatal ailments, and married more times than Henry VIII. Judged for how she chose to live her life, she never apologized for her unconventional choices, although her eight marriages would still elicit conservative panic today.
Both her film career and her personal life were very much products of their time. Big studios ruled Hollywood, from the stars contracted to their films all the way down to the movie theaters where audiences watched them. Taylor was signed to MGM in 1942 and worked almost exclusively for them through the 1950s. She spent years hoping for roles the studio never gave her; yet after the reign of Hollywood studios ended, Taylor never bounced back. Though she remained the subject of tabloid headlines for decades, by the time Taylor was 34, when she starred in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, she had made her last memorable film. It's not a trap Taylor would have likely escaped today; stars of all ages are gossiped about, but young beauties find it hard to get good roles as they get older.
Taylor won two Best Actress Oscars, but her appearance and roller-coaster personal life preceded her reputation as an artist. As The New York Times obituary read: "Ms. Taylor's popularity endured throughout her life, but critics were sometimes reserved in their praise of her acting. In that sense she may have been upstaged by her own striking beauty. Could anyone as lovely as Elizabeth Taylor also be talented? The answer, of course, was yes." As the Los Angeles Times recalled, Taylor was referred to as the ultimate heroine of a Tennessee Williams play, although not for her Oscar-nominated performance as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. "I'm sure they didn't mean it kindly," she told the Times, "Tennessee's heroines are all fraught. They're all on the brink of disaster."
On the one hand, Taylor's story is of a woman who lived her own life despite the restraints and expectations placed on her. In a world where premarital sexual relationships weren't the norm, Taylor married her lovers . "Coming out of the 1950s, the most repressive decade of the century," says Jay Lorenz, a former professor of American Studies at Georgetown University (and my former professor), "you have to get married."
Of course, if dating was taboo, divorce was even worse. Social expectations put Taylor in a catch-22: The end result was that her marriages didn't work out, and that was an even bigger scandal. "She was sexual at a time when that wasn't allowed, went after men she found attractive and didn't apologize for it," says Lorenz.
Defying propriety, which earned her notoriety in the 1960s and 1970s -- even the Pope did not approve of her "erotic vagrancy" -- also won the public over in the 1980s. She was one of the first celebrities to discuss alcoholism openly and became a pioneer advocate for AIDS. "People were scared; no one would touch it with a 10-foot pole," says Lorenz, but she condemned the government for not taking action.
Of her AIDs activism, Taylor recalled, "I decided that with my name I could open certain doors, that I was a commodity in myself -- and I'm not talking as an actress. I could take the fame I'd resented and tried to get away from for so many years -- but you can never get away from it -- and use it to do some good. I wanted to retire, but the tabloids wouldn't let me. So I thought, 'If you're going to screw me over, I'll use you.'"
Her success in raising money and awareness about AIDS -- according to Box Turtle Bulletin, by 1999 she had raised $50 million to fight AIDS and made red ribbons a LA fashion-must -- was also a success in re-creating her own public persona. Few stars have been able to do that, and it's especially a challenge for women.
Ideally, we would be looking at Taylor's life today and the myriad obituaries recounting her dazzling beauty and scandalous life and think, at least actresses today get as much publicity for their talent as their diets, drinks, and boyfriends. But no such luck. We are more obsessed with Lindsay Lohan's destructive behavior than we ever were with her talent; last year, we focused more on Sandra Bullock's divorce than Best Actress Oscar.
If Taylor were beginning her career today, some things might have been easier, but she would still be subject to Hollywood's obsession with weight, appearance, and scandal. This week, the Christian Science Monitor remembered Taylor with the headline: "a remarkable blend of beauty and tenacity." Her beauty certainly was remarkable, but her strong and unapologetic character is probably more so. She wasn't just ahead of her time. She was ahead of ours.