Elizabeth Rosemond Taylor, who died this morning at age 79, was the most fleshly of actresses. Not fleshy—though there were periods when her gloriously abundant, ever-changing body qualified for that adjective, too—but fleshly, vibrantly incarnate. Unlike many great onscreen beauties, who seem like nervous guardians of the treasure nature has bestowed upon them, Elizabeth Taylor (she hated “Liz,” using it only as an ironic nickname for the tabloid cartoon she’d become) reveled in her pulchritude. She was at her best playing characters who inhabited their own bodies with a confident, careless pleasure: the precociously gifted jockey Velvet Brown in National Velvet (1944) or the duplicitous, sex-starved Maggie Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). “That girl’s got life in her, all right,” says Maggie’s brother-in-law Gooper (Jack Carson) at the end of that film. Within the context of the story, he’s wrong—Maggie’s claim that she’s pregnant with her impotent husband’s child is a lie—but from a critical perspective, Gooper nails it. Even in her lowest moments onscreen and off, Elizabeth Taylor was always bursting to excess with life.
In a tribute to Taylor that aired on Turner Classic Movies, Paul Newman called her a “functional voluptuary.” It wasn’t just in roles like Cleopatra—or the debutante Angela Vickers in A Place in the Sun(1951), a woman so unattainably desirable she drives Montgomery Clift’s character to murder—that Taylor had something of the odalisque about her. Long after she had stopped being a box-office draw, Taylor remained a gossip-magazine blockbuster, not just for her beauty and wealth—all starlets have that—but for her extravagant and freely displayed appetites: for food, drink, sex, husbands, jewels, pets. The Kalizma, the yacht she owned with Richard Burton and lived on for long stretches, was overrun with unhousebroken Pekingeses and, in one journalist’s memorable retelling, a small, terrified African primate known as a bush baby. (You can catch a glimpse of this traveling circus of an entourage in the couple’s 1969 interview with Roger Ebert.)
This flagrant appetite was not unrelated to what made Taylor so mesmerizing onscreen. Though she sometimes engaged in the self-disguising sleight of hand that we now call “good acting”—for example, gaining 25 pounds to play the aging harridan Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? when she was a divinely proportioned 34-year-old—Taylor more often simply burned her own presence into the screen. To this day, her performances—even the bad ones—give you the distinct and at times eerie feeling that she’s right there in the room with you. Her strangely liquid eyes—everyone talks about their mercurial blue-violet color, but what about that intense shininess?— combined with that thin, unexpectedly girlish voice in a powerfully womanly body—create a quality of hyper-presence (and explain why so many men would refinance their houses to buy her a diamond bauble). Especially in the high-camp roles of the decadent “Liz and Dick” era of the late ‘60s (this trailer for the 1968 Joseph Losey film Boom! will give you an idea) Taylor may have been histrionic, but she was never remote. “If you have not met or known her, you have lost much in life,” scribbled the besotted Burton on the back of a photo of his two-time wife. But that was the thing about Taylor—she made you feel like you had.
Now that she’s gone, we’ll still have fierce Velvet, sultry Maggie, acidly funny Martha, and many other less-renowned characters, like her curiously moving Katherina in Franco Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew (opposite Burton, who outshines her in his handling of Shakespeare’s language even as she surpasses him in emotional immediacy). But there’s so much that dies with Elizabeth Taylor. The woman herself, first of all—by all accounts a loyal friend, a generous activist, and a charming cutup with a huge, raucous laugh. And a whole way of being a movie star—one that, in a sense, began to die the moment the paparazzi snapped “Liz and Dick” on that boat during their adulterous affair on the set of Cleopatra. The myth their relationship launched—two rich and gorgeous movie stars in tempestuous love, striding the world like colossi—has become essential to the fame industry (just as the couple’s mere presence in the Mexican port of Puerto Vallarta during the filming of The Night of the Iguana helped turn it into a bustling tourist town). Indeed, the act of being paparazzied has become a goal in itself. It’s a hop, skip, and a jump from the fabulously tawdry Liz Taylor/Eddie Fisher/Debbie Reynolds love triangle to its enervated 21st century simulacrum. But, given all she gave us over the course of her seven-decade career, I guess we can forgive Elizabeth Taylor for Brangelina.