The actress Elizabeth Taylor, who died today at age 79, was oft-mentioned in the Catholic grade school I attended. The nuns who taught at Most Blessed Sacrament in Southwest Philadelphia, lecturing on sin, used to tell us the “hussy” Liz embodied all that had gone wrong with the world since, I guess, the Inquisition ended. Or at least since the Age of Enlightenment began. She was beautiful and flaunted it. She converted to Judaism for her fourth husband, the singer Eddie Fisher, then left him for a married man, the actor Richard Burton. She was the original Eve, tempting us to banishment from the garden. Have a bite, kid, it’s delicious.
Naturally, I had to find out about this woman, which wasn’t hard to do. Stories and photos of her were in every mainstream publication. She was the Angelina Jolie of her time, but without the pomposity or the anorexia. I saw her in Cleopatra, a really bad movie, and was smitten. I knew then what I wanted when I grew up. (Maybe the nuns were right.)
Later on, I grew to appreciate Taylor’s talent and heart, especially playing against type as the blowsy, acid-tongued Martha, with Burton as George, in the screen adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The movie still packs a punch, as in this exchange that might amuse my friends in academia:
Martha [to the couple’s young guests]: You see, George didn’t have much push. He wasn’t particularly aggressive. In fact, he was sort of a flop. A great big fat flop!
George [roars and smashes liquor bottle on bookcase]: Stop it Martha.
Martha: I hope that was an empty bottle, George. You can’t afford to waste good liquor. Not on your salary. Not on an associate professor’s salary.
Almost forgot: Liz seemed to be one of the good guys in real life, devoting a lot of time to charities, including a foundation that raised about $325 million to fight AIDS. But yes, the nuns were right — she was beautiful.