Elizabeth Taylor and the Birth of Modern Celebrity

Analysis: Before Kim Kardashian and Madonna, there was “Liz”

Last Updated: March 23, 2011 @ 7:54 PM

Elizabeth Taylor gave birth to the modern idea of celebrity: One in which a star’s clothes, romances and nights on the town are as important as the roles they play or the songs they sing.

“She was the last of the great stars and the first of the new ones,” William J. Mann, author of “How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood,” told TheWrap.

There is a straight line from Taylor to Madonna all the way up to Kim Kardashian. It’s safe to say that without Taylor and Burton, there would be no Brangelina.

True, she was not the first Hollywood figure whose personal life collided with the klieg lights, but she changed the idea of what made a star a star forever.

Read also: Elizabeth Taylor — Every Inch a Star, and Sometimes a Great Actress

Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford’s romance captivated a nation. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s manslaughter case was dubbed “The Trial of the Century.” Ingrid Bergman’s affair with Roberto Rossellini led to a denouncement on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Elizabeth Taylor dwarfed them all. Through scandal, addiction, failed marriages and medical scares, Taylor always commanded public attention.

Read also: Hollywood, World React to Elizabeth Taylor's Death

“She transcended being a star really. After ‘Cleopatra,’ it didn’t matter what films she did, she was just a legend,” David Slide, author of “Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine,” told TheWrap.

Her greatest role, as many noted following her death Wednesday, was always herself. From the rubble of the old studio system, which rigidly controlled the public and private lives of its stars, Taylor forged a new kind of icon.

“The paparazzi would not exist if not for Taylor and Burton. People became rich because Elizabeth and Richard fell in love," Mann said. “Movie stars of the Golden Age didn’t have photographers in trees trying to take pictures of them in their back yard. That all goes back to Elizabeth.”

The white-hot media glare must have been exhausting, but there was a certain symbiosis in Taylor’s relationship with the press. Her ups and downs in the limelight seemed to only strengthen her bond with a global audience. It helped that she also saw fit to use her celebrity to draw attention to good causes such as AIDS, not just jet-setting excursions to Puerto Vallarta.

The public never turned on her, film critic Leonard Maltin pointed out to TheWrap. “Even in moments when you might think she’d used up her reserve of goodwill,” 

It's a testament to the intensity of Taylor's hold on audiences that many of her fans referred to her simply as "Liz."

Taylor’s last significant film role was in 1966’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” but because she erected few barriers between the personal and professional, she remained a fixture of magazines and gossip sites until the end of her life.

Her sexual conquests, shopping excursions and battles with alcohol and obesity still dominated the covers of People and the Enquirer nearly 40 years after she picked up her last Oscar for “Woolf.”

“Jackie Collins at her worst could not write a novel as good as Liz Taylor’s life,” Leah Rozen, a former reviewer for People, now TheWrap’s film critic, said.

She grew up in front of moviegoers eyes, blazing onscreen as the horse-loving heroine of “National Velvet.” She then went on to see her marriage to Michael Todd end with his tragic plane crash, only to dominate the headlines again for snatching Eddie Fisher away from his then-wife, Debbie Reynolds.

But that was only an appetizer. Taylor’s stormy two marriages to Burton played out on the gossip pages and scandal sheets, and precipitated the near destruction of 20th Century Fox when “Cleopatra,” the film they were co-starring in, went wildly over budget.

Their cavorting in Rome was documented by paparazzi (the same ravenous shutterbugs spotlighted a few years earlier in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”). The Egyptian epic they were filming at the time became a mere side attraction to the love affair that was playing out on television screens and magazine stands.

This would not have been possible in the Hollywood that first groomed Taylor for stardom.

“The old studio system always protected stars. It always had people to hush up scandals, and a star’s image was created, sold and controlled by studios,” Jeanine Basinger, chair of Wesleyan University’s film studies department, told TheWrap.

In a different, more restrictive age, Taylor might have been undone by the drinking and infidelities, but she had the good fortune to bridge the sexual revolution. 

“Her own tumultuous private life corresponded with a tumultuous time in America, when the buttoned down Fifties gave way to the free swinging Sixties. Her affair with Burton maybe typifies that breaking point,” Craig Detweiler, professor of film studies at Pepperdine University, told TheWrap.

True, she boasted many finely-etched performances in films such as “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Place in the Sun,” but those are not the source of her myth. It’s no accident that obituaries released after Taylor’s death Wednesday centered as much on her relationship with Burton as they did on her more than 50 film roles.

“You could not ignore Elizabeth Taylor,” Basinger said. “In each era she represented the thing that was going on as part of America's public experience. She was out there front and center living life her way.”


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