By Jim Berg
When Lindsay Lohan was found exhausted and dehydrated in a Marina Del Ray hotel room in June, it was déjà vu all over again. Not just for LiLo, but because she was filming a Lifetime movie about Elizabeth Taylor at the time.
Taylor was the first Hollywood star to consciously create and maintain her celebrity status by using her off-screen life to boost her career, according to biographer William J. Mann. Lohan, and her contemporaries, mimic Taylor when their antics are covered in the press, boosting their public profile and creating interest that will keep them on the public’s radar.
It’s a tactic that served Taylor well. She acquired countless headlines, millions of admirers and two Academy Awards for best actress during her four-decades-long career.
And she still found time to become part of the star-studded mythology of the desert.
As a part-time resident of Palm Springs,Taylor owned or rented several homes beginning in the late 1950s, before her marriage to Mike Todd (her third). During her infamous marriage to Eddie Fisher (No. 4), the couple partied inPalm Springs often. Later in life she visited the desert often, and ordered food from Zin American Bistro on Palm Canyon Drive.
Although there is no shortage of books about Taylor, two of the most original, informative, and enjoyable published recently are Mann’s “How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009) and M.G. Lord’s “The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness (and We Were too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice)” (Walker and Company, 2012). Both books will be of interest to fans of Taylor as well as the general reader interested in Hollywood or film history.
Mann is a former part-time Palm Springs resident, the author of “Kate: the Woman Who Was Hepburn” and a biography of Barbra Streisand due out in October. His fascinating biography isn’t a typical Hollywood tell-all. Instead, he seeks to understand fame and the mechanics of fame. Who better to learn from than the first global movie star?
“So many of the tricks of the trade can be traced right back to her,” says Mann. “No one has done anything that Elizabeth Taylor didn’t do first — and without the excess calculation.”
That Taylor was notorious at times we knew, but Mann shows that she was smart and in charge at the same time.
The ups and downs of Taylor’s career are fascinating to revisit in Mann’s well-researched book: the real-life marriage that was not at all “Father of the Bride” material (1950), the romance and sudden death of Mike Todd, just before the making of “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” the rebound affair with Todd’s friend, Eddie Fisher, and the worldwide scandal of her subsequent affair with Richard Burton. These events were not scripted for or by Taylor, but she knew how to use them to further her own aims and to keep her fame alive. Mann insists that Taylor wasn’t in it for the fame itself, but for what the fame gave her — the ability to do what she wanted, when she wanted.
Mann convincingly portrays Taylor as the first movie star to be in control over her own career after the collapse of the studio system. He shows how she was also a pioneer as a woman in control of her own life. That her life would influence her work, and the choices she made in her career, should be self-evident. That brings us to “The Accidental Feminist.” M.G. Lord traces important Taylor film roles and explains how Taylor’s portrayals challenge the male status quo.
From the “sly critique of gender discrimination in sports” in “National Velvet” (1944) to her electric presence in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” which “demonstrates what happens to a woman when the only way [she can] express herself is through her husband’s career and children” (1966), Lord’s book presents a readable re-evaluation of Taylor’s work on the screen. Lord is a former instructor for the UCR Palm Desert MFA program and frequent visitor toPalm Springs. Her argument in “The Accidental Feminist” is solid, in that Taylor was a trailblazer for women without making much of a public fuss about being a feminist.
For gay men,Taylor will always be “our Elizabeth”: an early AIDS activist and a supporter of gay marriage. My Elizabeth Taylor will always be Maggie in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” — two of her best performances.
I was lucky enough to see her in person once, for her last public performance, with James Earl Jones in A. R. Gurney’s “Love Letters.” It was a benefit for Taylor’s foundation on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2007. Taylor used all of her acting skills and her personal experiences to take the character, Melissa, from a coquettish teenager to bouts with drinking and depression. The performance could stand as a summary of her career.
So when that Lifetime movie comes out, let’s ask, “Who’s Afraid of Lindsay Lohan?” The answer? Not Elizabeth Taylor.
Jim Berg is the dean of arts and sciences at College of the Desert in Palm Desert.
COMING SEPT. 6
Desert Outlook magazine explores the past, present and future connection between Palm Springs and Hollywood.