There’s no successor to Elizabeth Taylor. No contemporary actress possesses anything like her fame. That’s a consequence of the changing nature of celebrity and the fragmentation of popular culture. The movies got small and so did the stars.
But the sensational aspects of the Taylor-Burton saga makes it easy to forget that their celebrity was initially founded upon their brilliance as actors. The work fed a celebrity which would help undermine the validity of the work, and did so right from the beginning in the overblown mess that was Cleopatra. But Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, stagey and overdone itself, remains an extraordinary piece of work: a harrowing, almost grotesque, public-private feud in which real-life and fiction merge in dizzying counterpoint.
The glamour remains, however. Not just in terms of excitement but also in the old Scots meaning of the word: something enchanting or magical and with more than just a hint of danger too. At her best Taylor’s performances were magnetic or hypnotic suggesting that her characters, whether restless in the old south or cooped-up in a north-eastern college town, could escape their confines at any moment with wild, unpredictable results. She had a presence that suggested her beauty and brilliance could be corralled but never quite tamed. That’s power or star quality or whatever you want to call it.
Like Garbo, Taylor’s stardom was such that it could survive her retirement from the movies. It scarcely matters that she’d not made a serious movie in more than 30 years. When the celebrity and the mystery – strange to think that such a public life can contain mystery, but there you have it – fades the best of the work endures and bears repeated visits. That, more than even her charitable work on AIDS, is what will last. If her death gives you reason to look out the classics from her golden period then so much the better.