I appreciated Elizabeth Taylor, who died yesterday, as a movie star, though I was never a fan. That she was astonishingly beautiful, there is no doubt, an actress who defined the word “voluptuous” when it didn’t mean”implants.” Like many of the Golden Age stars, acting was secondary with Taylor, who had such on-screen presence that she could steal a movie ( “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”) from the likes of Paul Newman, Burl Ives, Judith Anderson, and yes, Tennessee Williams by just lounging around in a slip. Her best adult performance was probably her first, “A Place in the Sun”; her Oscars were more or less frauds, the first (“Butterfield 8”) as a film community gesture of sympathy for her health problems, and the second, for “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” as one of those nods for playing against type without embarrassing yourself that Hollywood likes to bestow on its favorites.
I’ll be very surprised if Taylor, as a classic movie star, survives very long in the maw that is American pop cultural memory; not when equally bright stars who made more good movies and were better at their craft have faded so quickly. Clark Gable, Jimmy Cagney, Audrey Hepburn, Bette Davis, Gary Cooper and many more are almost unknown to today’s under-30 crowd, and Elizabeth is likely to join them. A culture can only embrace so many icons. Marilyn, Elvis, The Tramp, Fred and Ginger, Bing, the Duke of course, and maybe Bogart…if I missed some, its only one or two. Elizabeth Taylor, for all her celebrity value and soap opera exploits, won’t make the cut.
Even those, however, who won’t remember her for the handful of decent movies she made (or “Cleopatra,” the one mega-bomb), should remember her as an Ethics Hero, for she distinguished herself as few stars do, taking her stardom, fame, popularity and celebrity and doing something important with it at a time when the rest of Hollywood was cringing in fear and denial, and our government was negligent.
The first cases of HIV-AIDS in the U.S. were diagnosed in 1981. Three years later, as the disease burgeoned into a full-fledged epidemic and was overwhelmingly regarded as a bi-product of being gay—you know: a disease that was restricted to the perverted, reckless, and clandestinely maladjusted—Hollywood was mum. Like all show business communities, Hollywood is dominated by gay men, but very few, then even fewer than now, had the courage to reveal it. Publicly showing concern about AIDS could start people asking uncomfortable questions. So Elizabeth Taylor, on a career downswing but still a major star, stepped up. She organized a fund-raiser for the AIDS Project in Los Angeles in 1984, and became the national chair of the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Her public support galvanized the AIDS care and research movement. A year later, when Taylor’s friend and former co-star (in “Giant”) Rock Hudson announced he had AIDS, becoming the first (and still the only) major Hollywood romantic leading man to admit to being gay, Taylor was by his side. And at a time when an ignorant and often hysterical public regarded close contact with a gay man as risky and touching an AIDS sufferer as a death sentence, Elizabeth Taylor publicly held Rock Hudson’s hand.
That same year, Ryan White, a 13-year-old hemophiliac, was diagnosed with HIV, which he contracted from a blood transfusion. His school expelled him, and Taylor, horrified, redoubled her efforts to educate the public about the disease. She testified before Congress, asking for more funding for research. “It’s bad enough that people are dying of AIDS,” she said in her testimony, “but no one should die of ignorance.”
Behind the scenes, she lobbied President Ronald Reagan to ask for more AIDS research funds, and finally, after too many years of ducking the issue, he did. When the government response proved slow, Taylor established the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation in 1993 to fund clinics, school health programs, family counseling and research.
“I could no longer take a passive role as I watched several people I knew and loved die a painful, slow and lonely death,” Taylor told Ability Magazine when she launched her Foundation in 1994. “This allows me to put money where it’s truly needed, to those organizations serving people with HIV/AIDS or preventive education. I won’t stop until that hideous disease is conquered.”
Elizabeth Taylor was a great movie star, but there have been plenty of those. Her dedication and tenacious efforts to conquer AIDS and promote compassion for its victims, however, move her to the head of the line where it counts: using stardom and fame to help her fellow human beings when they needed it most.
She was an Ethics Hero, and an Ethics Star, too.