Peter Stead reflects on the passing of an icon whose consort observed didn’t look very different from his own sisters in Port Talbot
If there was anybody who doubted that Elizabeth Taylor was the Queen of a truly global kingdom then the press coverage that followed the announcement of her death must have put them right. What they didn’t spot was that the kingdom’s spiritual beating heart had been located in Wales.
Clearly editors had been collecting photographs, tributes and anecdotes for some time. Once the news broke then other stories such as Libya and Japan disappeared to the bottom of the page as column after column was given over to a death that had perhaps ended the whole Hollywood era.
Much of the coverage was excellent and much of the reminiscing was revealing and amusing. Nothing, however, was quite in the class of the brilliant biography Who’s Afraid of Elizabeth Taylor?, published by Brenda Maddox in 1977. Maddox entitled her final chapter ‘Elizabeth the Third’ and in it she pointed out that:
“Elizabeth Taylor has more in common with Elizabeth II than a high voice, an odd shape and conspicuous handbags. They are growing old in the same way, taking on the sexless look of Oriental potentates, with their geological gems and turbans that hide every shred of hair. And like primitive tribal chieftains, both women carry the royal taboo.”
When I first read that insight so many things fell into place. I had first become aware of Elizabeth Taylor, courtesy of the Lassie films and Ivanhoe at about the same time as I was coming to terms with the importance of the lady who became my Queen in 1952 and the beauty of her lovely sister Margaret. In my mind the trio were always to be associated together. Miss Taylor’s royal dimension was clinched by the fact that her beauty was essentially facial. Just as it was our Queen’s lot to be ever associated with a profile on postage stamps, so the movie star was defined by the shape of her face, the colour of her eyes and the blackness of her eyebrows. Warhol realised that it was a face designed for postage stamps.
The acquisition of a consort confirmed the royal status. Several men had auditioned for the part but it was only with the arrival of a partner who had earned his royal and imperial spurs as Prince Hal, Hamlet and Coriolanus that Princess Elizabeth Taylor could ascend the throne. The columnists and paparazzi immediately realised that everything was in place and they did all in their power to promote the new reign. The couple looked just right as they took their place on the yachts and private jets.
He could beguile her with his poetry readings and his very literary descriptions of her beauty, but he could also introduce her to the real world of fish and chips and Welsh rugby as well as pointing out that she didn’t look very different from his own sisters in Port Talbot. The movie Cleopatra had been a dud but it had worked as a coronation. The point was that the pair had actually become Anthony and Cleopatra and they proceeded to act out their version of the story. They were not only royalty, they were quintessentially Shakespearean royalty.
Most of the obituaries broached the question as to whether Elizabeth Taylor was any good as acting. Again the verdict of Brenda Maddox was as perceptive as anything that has followed. ‘Can she act?’, she asked and concluded that
‘… only a man from Mars could tell: if acting is the ability to portray someone else, she is almost always a total and utter failure’.
But, of course, she didn’t ever need to portray someone else. She just needed to be herself. As Rod Steiger once argued, much of the most memorable, honest and powerful acting comes from players who draw on their own anxieties and weaknesses. Maddox identified Taylor as an off-screen queen who nevertheless had established a professional identity as an anxious middle-class American woman of the 1950s. In her best films it was Elizabeth Taylor herself that we were watching. And I agree with Steiger: that still amounted to great acting.
On Broadway recently I watched Olympia Dukakis play the part of Flora Goforth in Tennessee Williams’s The Milk train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore. She did well but I had wished that I was watching Elizabeth Taylor in her prime playing the part. She did play Flora in the unsuccessful movie of the play Boom. However, on other occasions she was brilliant in films based on Tennessee Williams plays. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof offers the definitive Taylor performance. When I chatted to Philip Burton in Key West in 1989 he made it very clear to me that Richard had regarded Elizabeth as the greater screen actor. Richard had never taken films seriously. But Elizabeth was a professional.
In the recent press coverage of Elizabeth’s death it was the regal dimension that stood out, not least because of the stunning photographic portraits. For a while in the late 20th Century Burton and Taylor had transcended the movie business and created their own international kingdom. The spiritual heart of that kingdom, the royal demesne as it were, was Wales.
Over the years I have argued that Burton was our lost leader. He defined the authority and confidence that ought to form the basis of our political and cultural leadership. As a nation we missed a trick: we should have refurbished Margam Abbey and invited our own King Richard and Queen Elizabeth to take up residence. This last week has seen a Welsh bereavement.