By the time I became conscious of Elizabeth Taylor, John Belushi had been portraying her on Saturday Night Live as a chicken-eating slob swathed in diamonds. Eventually, I came to know her as a poofy haired perfume saleswoman and later as the wheelchair-bound gal pal of Michael Jackson.
Thus, I didn’t get the whole “mind-blowing beauty and talent” thing until I saw her as Maggie the Cat. I only recently watched Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in honor of the great Paul Newman following his death. A gal has to be darn spectacular to take one’s eyes off Paul Newman. Liz Taylor was that brand of spectacular.
Liz’s shameless self-indulgence as a movie star fascinated me as much as her political activism made me say, “right on.” Though I wonder about the compulsions she let ruin her legendary beauty, I also think it gutsy for her to have decided, “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life being a sex symbol for you people. I want chicken.”
When Liz passed away this week, I was in the camp mourning the loss of old Hollywood’s carefully orchestrated scandal and razzle-dazzle. I remembered the full-bodied sensuality and intense determination to self-actualize that the actress personified in the women she played. I agreed with the overriding consensus that there are no actresses like her anymore. But then I came to a surprising realization: maybe we no longer need those actresses.
Sure, we’ve seen the great leading ladies of film defend their families and fight battles with the system or themselves. But arguably, their stories are mostly about the choices we women make in our lives because of men. Like every star, Elizabeth Taylor was a product of her time. Her role as Maggie epitomized the cultural envelopes she was both confined by and pushed. She was sexually carnivorous when women were supposed to be playful but docile, she wanted her own life but also longed for deep, engrossing love. She wanted to be alive but “occupied the same cage” as her husband and could only count on him to be freed.
Women have been recognizing and fulfilling their sexual destinies for decades now and don’t much depend on husbands anymore to define their place in the world. All of this has created a new set of challenges for men and women, especially as we continue to try to form loving, mutually respectful partnerships with one another.
So the question to me isn’t why there aren’t any actresses of Liz Taylor’s ilk, though I am bored senseless by the cookie cutter looks and lack of mystique of today’s starlets. What I really want to know is why there aren’t more interesting, virile, smart, truly sexy ladies telling women’s present-day stories and why those stories aren’t deeper.
Do Katherine Heigl movies really speak to the painful frustration driven women feel trying to succeed in a career and a relationship? Does Angelina Jolie’s pout and action movie bloodthirst truly symbolize the power females have gained? Are Natalie Portman and Anne Hathaway’s No Strings Attached pacts with Kutcher and Gyllenhaal the ideal expression of feminine passion? Movies like He’s Just Not that Into You may make a light bulb go off, but geez, where’s the catharsis? At the personal level, what do Aniston, Bullock and Zellweger’s inability or indifference to landing husbands indicate as opposed to Liz Taylor’s desire to accumulate seven?
Great artists tell us something about where we are as a culture. Liz Taylor was interesting because she let us know what a sensually voracious, willful yet love-starved woman wanted out of life at her time in history and how she was or wasn’t getting it. And she was lucky enough to be given meaty stories in which to reveal these deep and dark realities.
Lots of our leading ladies are wonderful entertainers. But few of them have the psychological volume to live out our innermost truths, and that’s the difference between a fleeting star and a legend. For this, Ms. Taylor will be missed. But I look forward to meeting her replacement.
[Image from IFC.com]