Where else could she have held it? Elizabeth Taylor celebrating her 60th birthday bash at Disneyland is the kind of collision of pop fantasies that seems unnervingly inevitable. With its Sleeping Beauty Castle and Tomorrowland, the world Walt built is the paradigm of American escapism, paradise with souvenirs, a gaudy, self-contained, ongoing myth. So, of course, is Elizabeth Taylor.
Why does this woman continue to obsess so many of us, as much if not more than she did when she and Richard Burton ruled as the royal couple of pop culture? Yes, she’s been nominated for five Oscars and won two, but her continuing stardom flies in the face of all reason. It has been 12 years now since Liz Taylor appeared in The Mirror Crack’d, the last of her movies to play in U.S. theaters. Her last indisputably great film was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, way back in 1966; despite a recent handful of TV films (Between Friends, There Must Be a Pony), her days as a working actress seem far behind her. Yet her celebrity sails on, a soap bubble wafting along in a state of perpetuum mobile, buoyed by personalized perfumes, a diet book, charity work, illnesses, and romance, always romance. She has joined Michael Jackson and Jacqueline Onassis in an eternal Warhol silk-screen pantheon, in which we no longer need movies to need her. Like Elvis, Elizabeth Taylor left the building some time ago, but we’re still standing at our seats.
Why? What is the mystique?
Our entanglement with Elizabeth Taylor has always been pretty superficial, more concerned with what she does than who she’s really like. One of her biographies is titled The Last Star, but that’s not quite right either. She was one of the last stars to be packaged from childhood by the Hollywood studio system, but she was also one of the first to blow that mold to smithereens, not in rebellion but out of eccentric willfulness. Much more than Marilyn Monroe, she laid the groundwork that made people like Madonna possible. Far from being the ”last star,” she was the first modern star.
Taylor’s appeal as an actress and celebrity lies in a teasing paradox: She often hides her volcanic emotions behind a cool, impassive exterior. ”Let them come to you,” Montgomery Clift told her by way of advice early on, and she listened: A main source of the young Liz’s almost ungodly beauty is that eerie sense of remove. Director George Stevens saw it when he cast Taylor as the rich girl whose very existence leads Clift to murder his pregnant fiancée in A Place in the Sun; the role, Stevens said, was ”not so much a real girl as the girl on the candy-box cover.”