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Elizabeth Taylor, RIP

I’m still not sure what to write about the passing of Elizabeth Taylor. Obviously I know who she is, and obviously I’m familiar with her incredible collection of work. She was an icon, one of the stars which defined the period of Hollywood which ran from the forties into the seventies. I’ve seen Cleopatra. I’ve seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? I have yet to see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, but it comes recommended. And yet, as I write this, I feel quite uncertain. Unlike most of the people who will discuss Taylor’s contributions to cinema, I am too young to remember all the classics. I have never seen any of them in a cinema. Elizabeth Taylor was never really a movie-star to me, she was an icon.

If you look at Taylor’s impressive filmography, you’ll see that the bulk of her work came before my birth. Since I entered this world, she has been confined to a variety of television movies, guest roles on television shows and The Flinstones. I don’t think anyone will argue that those years were among the finest in the career of the two-time Academy-Award-winning actress. Of course, her main contributions to culture at the time came in her role raising funds and awareness to combat HIV/AIDs, a very worthwhile cause. In fact, a few years back, she appeared on stage with James Earl Jones in a charity play to fundraise for the cause. Tickets cost $2,500, and it sold out.

It seems rather impersonal to discuss Taylor’s death in such a manner, but I genuinely get a sense that an era has ended. To me, Taylor was always a larger-than-life actress and character. Much like Marlon Brando, I knew her name before I had seen a one of her  films, such was her power. She was the kind of woman who, even as she appeared in cheesy dramas made directly-for-television, everyone still spoke of her in tones of hushed respect. There was a genuine underlying affection for the woman, even through the many controversies of her personal life.

Even though it would be years before I saw her in action (and, to be honest, I don’t think she was a superb actress in her own right), I knew instinctively that this was a woman who deserved to be honoured to be held in high esteem. Hell, not just anybody gets chosen to voice Maggie in The Simpsons – speaking a single word in a touching little cameo.

I don’t find myself agreeing too frequently with critic Mark Dolan, who appears on Sky Movies, but he really hit the nail on the head in eulogizing the actress. “She really was a big screen icon,” he stated, “the likes of which we’ll never see again.” I don’t mean that she was one of a kind (although you could easily make the case), I mean that she represents a sort of iconic presence which doesn’t really exist anymore within Hollywood. It’s trite to say “they don’t make ’em like her anymore”, but the truth is that they don’t.

Taylor was one of the last of the Hollywood icons and movie stars, in the sense of a titanic screen presence which just grabbed the world. Her personal life is debated and discussed as frequently as her career, and I don’t think I’ve read an obituary which doesn’t mention her many marriages. However, I think Taylor represented a class of Hollywood royalty which has really died out in the past few decades. One can argue of the cause for such a shift in celebrity – I’d suggest the refactoring of the studio system in the wake of failures like Heaven’s Gate and Cleopatra was the biggest factor – but I think we can mostly agree that it has happened.

As much as we may devour celebrities like George Clooney, Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie, I don’t think that they hold the same prestigious status as those who lived and worked during the forties, fifties and sixties did. Even as Taylor rose to fame, I think those types of stars were being produced with less and less frequency. It’s that sort of caliber of icon that I associate with Taylor, and it’s the kind of celebrity that I think was on the way out even as her star was rising.

These days, studios rely on actors and actresses less-and-less to carry films. Sure, they still exist, but star-vehicle films are rarely huge box office hits and generally count as smaller-scale cult hits. Consider, for example, the box office disappointments of two movies featuring “big name” stars in the past year – The Tourist and Knight & Day. It seems that the safest plan for studio investment appears to developing movies around established properties (so remakes, sequels and adaptations). These typically don’t rely on names to sell themselves to audiences – consider, for example, the Twilight films.

Elizabeth Taylor was one of those last names in Hollywood which seemed to carry a sort of lofty respect, even after she had really stopped working frequently on high-profile projects. I was genuinely sad to hear of her death. She really was a movie star of the kind they simply don’t make anymore.

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