Issue:  Vol. 46 / No. 26 / 30 June 2016

Nothing like a Dame


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Hollywood never lacked beautiful women to illuminate movie screens. Good actresses, those with half-a-dozen or more memorable performances to their credit, however, are comparatively rare. Great movie stars are even rarer. Still more unusual are women who combine all three attributes. Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011) was one who did.

From childhood, she was acclaimed for her beauty. That beauty blossomed as she became an adult and grew as an actress. She earned two Best Actress Oscars and won a myriad of other prizes over a career that spanned nearly 60 years. Her personal life – the marriages, divorces, gifts of jewelry from husbands like producer Mike Todd and actor Richard Burton – was front-page news for decades. Her death received almost unprecedented media attention. She was the last legendary superstar produced by MGM, the greatest and most important studio during Hollywood's classic era. Consequently, she was among the most written about and photographed women in history.

So is another book about her needed? Perhaps, but only if it reveals something new, something fresh, something original. Happily, photographer Firooz Zahedi's My Elizabeth (Glitterati, $75) easily vaults those hurdles. It adds many exceptional images to the vast number that chronicled Taylor's life. This sumptuous book documents their 35-year friendship. They capture her extraordinary beauty, but more importantly, reveal much about her personal life. Several are with her four children, her grandchildren, her mother, and her Maltese dog, Sugar. A very poignant one is with her lifetime friend, gay actor Roddy McDowell, whom she met in 1943 while filming Lassie Come Home. There are shots of her Bel Air home that complement those that were shown in Architectural Digest.

Her professional career isn't ignored. She's caught putting on lipstick before filming a scene for A Little Night Music (1976); rehearsing with Joseph Bottoms for television's Return Engagement (1978); and making her Tony-nominated Broadway debut in a revival of Lillian Helman's The Little Foxes (1981).

Many photos show her tireless activism on behalf of AIDS, which was galvanized by the death from that disease of her close friend, gay superstar Rock Hudson. She's seen with President Bill Clinton, First Lady Hillary Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea; and with other stars, like Sophia Loren and Ian McKellen.

Despite health problems, she traveled all over the world to raise money for and to increase understanding of AIDS. The book has shots of her in Venice, Amsterdam, Cannes, where she passionately used her celebrity to demand that attention be paid to this horrific illness and its victims. She was determined to humanize and help those with the disease. She succeeded in ways that are still felt. Her brave, unflagging commitment to battling AIDS, and the ignorance and bigotry that initially came with it, earned her a third Oscar: the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, which she displayed alongside those she won for her performances in Butterfield 8 (1960) and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).

Among the most memorable photographs are those of the trip she took with Zahedi to his native Iran in 1976. She appears relaxed, enjoying the relative anonymity amidst the splendors of Persepolis, Shiraz, Tehran, and Isfahan. Some pictures show her dressed like a local, including one in a dazzlingly colorful costume. Others show her looking more like a tourist, taking photographs, awed by the majesty and history of the country and enthralled by its people. They are lighthearted, yet reveal her native intelligence, intellectual curiosity, and sense of humor.

Shots of her after surgery to remove a brain tumor – her gray hair cropped, not wearing much make-up – reveal a woman who ferociously loved life, determined to overcome whatever physical ailments plagued her.

The book includes an interview Zahedi conducted with her in London, while she was shooting A Little Night Music. She discusses the process of making movies, which she often found "boring." "But acting I think is fun. It's not my whole life. It's not my entire being. It's secondary to my life. My life is primary." Hence, when good parts became scarce, she didn't turn into Sunset Boulevard's Norma Desmond, deluding herself that a huge public eagerly awaited her return to the screen. She was  a very self-aware woman, who somehow managed a very public/private life with humor and resiliency.

She discusses her relationship with gay designer Halston, praising his gifts. "But more important than clothes, more important than anything in any human being, is the man. He's a rare man. And I value his friendship enormously."

Despite a lifetime of winning awards, Taylor remained thrilled by honors. Zahedi recounts her telephoning him late in 1999, "I also want you to be the first to know that I've been made a 'Dame' by the Queen. A Dame! Isn't that simply marvelous?" With characteristic humor, Taylor frequently referred to herself as a "broad," so being a "dame" in the American sense seemed appropriate.

The book features a perceptive preface by gossip columnist Liz Smith, who knew Taylor well, and a foreword by writer Bob Colacello.

My Elizabeth opens with a letter from Taylor dated August 11, 2006, summarizing her pleasure at the publication of this volume, which took 10 years. She praises Zahedi. "Just to show you how really wonderful he is, all the monies he might make from this book will go directly to ETAF [the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation]. This means that all the money we make goes directly to the patient because I take care of all the overhead. No secretaries' salaries, no empty pockets. It all goes to our beloved friends who need the help. For that I really love him and thank him."

Her confidence in Zahedi was justified. He has honored their friendship and shown readers yet another facet of an exceptional woman. For that, a great many people will thank him.

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