“I DON’T PRETEND to be an ordinary housewife.” So said Elizabeth Taylor—she of the violet eyes and pear-shaped diamonds, the yachts off Corsica and marriages numbering eight—who, after a tracheotomy in 1961, required three nurses to hold her up in bed so that Alexandre of Paris could whip up a new hairdo for her first post-surgery photograph to be sent out to the press. No ordinary housewife could have drawn all those thousands of people into the streets around the hospital during those feverish days in London. Decades before Twitter and Facebook, a rumor that Taylor had died leapt around the globe in a matter of hours, leaving her publicists staggered.
Everything about today’s celebrity culture can be traced directly back to Elizabeth Taylor. The paparazzi wouldn’t exist in the same form if she hadn’t gone to Rome in 1962 to make Cleopatra and fallen in love with Richard Burton, thereby creating a market for scandalous, often telephoto, pictures of the private lives of stars. Elizabeth Taylor also changed the way Hollywood does business. The first woman to demand (and get) a million dollars for a film, she was also the first actor of any gender to take a share of the profits—standard operating procedure today, but revolutionary back then.
She also knew how to seize the moment to her advantage. When, in 1958, the fan magazines accused her of stealing Eddie Fisher away from Debbie Reynolds, Taylor faced the worst crisis of her career. She knew—all of Hollywood knew—that the Fisher-Reynolds marriage was a sham (daughter Carrie Fisher called her parents’ entire marriage “a press release”), but the public considered them America’s Sweethearts. To deflect the angry moralizing coming from the press, Taylor’s agent, the crafty former pugilist Kurt Frings, declared there was no such thing as bad publicity—a radical overthrow of the old studio system that had insisted its stars be as pure and wholesome as, well, ordinary housewives. It was a smart move—because the picture that hit theaters just as the Fisher scandal struck, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, featured Taylor as exactly the kind of seductress that she appeared to be in real life. The lines that wrapped around city blocks to see the movie turned the film into one of the biggest hits of the year, ensuring that Frings’s philosophy would forever be enshrined in the Hollywood playbook.
Today, such “scandals” are concocted deliberately for public consumption. Was Britney really that crazy, or was it just a quirky, 21st-century way of staying in the headlines? Taylor, by contrast, lived far more extemporaneously—though, as Frings and later lieutenants like John Springer and Chen Sam proved, every twist and turn in her epic life could be sold to her advantage. That near-death experience in London hadn’t just drawn fans into the street. It was also publicized—with hourly updates from the hospital—for a very specific audience: those Academy members who were getting ready to vote for that year’s Best Actress. Elizabeth had been good in Butterfield 8, but no one had expected her to win an Oscar for it. When she did, most figured the award recognized the Best Performance by an Actress Coming Back to Life in Her Hospital Bed. That doesn’t mean Taylor wasn’t really sick; the tracheotomy scar proved it hadn’t been a sham. She just knew how to take full advantage of it.
No one was more famous than Elizabeth Taylor in the 1960’s—a kind of fame that doesn’t exist anymore. Fame today is parceled out and subdivided; reality TV celebrities might have a huge following, but whole swaths of the population have no idea who Snooki or Heidi are. But back in Taylor’s heyday, everyone—young and old, rich and poor, gay and straight, black and white—knew who she was. For Taylor’s brand of stardom—part engineering, part instinct, part simply the pursuit of good times—there has never been any rival, before or since. She understood—and this is what separates her most from today’s celebrities—that riding the headlines wasn’t enough. For fame to be enduring, there needs to be a real exchange with the public. So for every paparazzi shot, every tabloid cover, we got something in return from Taylor—something worthwhile. A Place in the Sun. Giant. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
By the middle of the 1980’s, Taylor had set another standard for celebrityhood: the cause. Today most celebrities have their own personal missions, whether it be the Amazon rain forest or the orphans of Malawi, and no doubt for some the commitment is genuine. But in 1985 stars didn’t have causes, at least not apart from their own careers, and certainly no one wanted to touch this strange new disease that was killing gay men. Public figures ran away from AIDS as quickly as possible, except to call for quarantines or criminal charges. By 1985, Taylor—the quintessential “fag hag” since she was a teenager and friends with Monty Clift and Roddy McDowall—had already lost dozens of friends to the disease. Rock Hudson was only the most famous of them. Infuriated by the government’s inaction, she became an outspoken AIDS activist—founding organizations, raising money, testifying before Congress. She knew she could be effective because the spotlight followed her everywhere she went. Today, having a cause helps a celebrity’s image; Elizabeth Taylor used her image to help her cause.
Every would-be icon who has followed—from Madonna to Angelina Jolie or Paris Hilton—has sought to emulate her. But without Taylor’s unique blend of spontaneity and strategy, authenticity and audacity, none have risen to her heights. Nor is it likely, in this very different world, that anyone ever will.
William J. Mann is the author of How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood.