Elizabeth Taylor: A Complete Divinity

Elizabeth Taylor was one of the loveliest women on earth--in spirit and in flesh--but she was an impossible interview, and she knew it: She apologized for it with effusive statements, extravagant gifts, late-night phone calls to fill in any gaps. Maureen Stapleton had arranged our first meeting, telling me that Elizabeth was "a complete divinity; one of the most generous and extraordinary of women, but an absolute mess, like me."

Nothing from the three meetings I had with Elizabeth Taylor found its way into the final manuscript of Follies of God, but looking at the notes, I find there is a lot that should be shared.

Meeting Elizabeth Taylor was more difficult than meeting the President of the United States, and our first meeting, in a hotel, in conjunction with the launch of one of her perfumes, was, in her own words "a fucking madhouse," for which she apologized and immediately set up a private dinner, which was conducted in her hotel suite, attended by four men in service, and  so formal that we both giggled until we had, as she put it "scared off the help."

Here are some of her comments.

Tennessee said he fell in love with me with A Place in the Sun: Everyone fell in love with me with that movie! I fell in love with me in that movie. I think it was the first time I played a woman, rather than a precocious, overdeveloped girl. Tennessee said he saw it twenty times; Mike Nichols told me had seen it over a dozen times. It took me many years to realize I had been a part of so great a film, and it's not because of me or Monty--it's George Stevens. The narrative of that film, the way he worked with so many levels of narrative. I was lucky.

I have always been taken care of, and I feel that I now have to take care of others. You live in a gilded cage or a diamond-encrusted bubble when you're a film star, particularly if, like me, you get into the business when you're a child, at the time I did, with the people I worked for. MGM did everything for me and for my family--demanded it! I honestly and with some embarrassment can say that I don't recall going without anything from the time I was about ten years old. There was a lot of lack in my family before that age, but I wasn't aware of it, because my mother worked feverishly to see to it that we were kept active and happy and imaginative. Christian Science works, baby! Deny the ugly truths and focus on the beauty and bounty of God! She also read to us, play-acted with us, made up games: We never felt any lack.

With Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun.

I used to think that if I even thought of something, or dreamed it, Louis B. Mayer would have it delivered to me--and it often happened that way. It distorts you, and I keep telling myself that I handled it better than I did. I'm much happier being the hand giving than the hand taking. It's beshert, in both meanings of the word: it's my fate and it's a perfect match for me. Better than all the marriages, I can tell you that! Giving is the greatest. Seeing the positive results of your giving is beyond imagining, and it makes me far happier than all the success in what I call the film years.

These are no longer the film years, even though I'm coasting on them. I know that. People show up to see Elizabeth Taylor, and they get a  woman with a purpose and a lecture. That's okay. As long as we raise money and help people. I'll spritz perfume and kiss cheeks to save a single person from the pain and stigma of AIDS or a child from poverty or anyone, of any age, from discrimination. I'm a much better activist than I was an actress, and much happier. No one believes me when I say that, but it's true. I'm freer now than I've ever been. I can be myself and show myself as I feel. Funny that the expression of my emotions is so much more available to me as a private citizen than as an employed actress, but that is another conversation!

The beauty thing bothered a lot of people. I don't walk around thinking I'm a great beauty. I never did. None of us see ourselves as we actually are, and few of us see ourselves as the public or the people selling our images see us. I was told from an early age that I was beautiful, and that my beauty would take me anywhere I wished to go. So you hear that and you don't feel any different, and you still have your doubts and your fears, and you think So what's the big fucking deal with beauty? It becomes a tool, like a great voice or talent or height or elegance. It's something you use. I was never comfortable using it, so I was lucky that I had great directors who just told me to stand over there and do this, and they could do with my beauty whatever they wanted.

If you have a great gift, you have to find a way to use it to enrich as many people as possible. You start with your own circle of family and friends, and you take care of them, and then you spread it out. It's the only way to achieve any sense of happiness or purpose in life, and an unhappy person is of no value whatsoever. I know what I'm talking about, believe me! I wasted a lot of time looking for happiness through every imaginable channel except the one that has made me happy today: giving, animating, forcing people to act for the betterment of other people.

I became a Jew because I always identified with them, particularly their devotion to charity and activism. Judaism is the foundation on which I'm built, but I'm a nibbler: I'm a sort of Judeo-Christian Scientist, if that can even be countenanced! I stand before many buffets and ask What looks good and what do I need? so I nibble from many faiths and practices, but the foundation is Judaism. I also like Judaism because it links you to a history, to a people, to a cause that is bigger than any single person or era. You need to commit yourself to big things, I believe, and films are one of those things, but it wasn't enough for me.

Photographed in Iran by Firooz Zahedi

They call me Mother Courage; they call me Mouther Courage, too, because I can't be shut up. I'm supposed to be a force of nature, but I'm human, honey; very human. I only appear to be big and strong because of the work I've done and the memories people slap onto me. Tennessee sees me in films and thinks I'm voluptuous and all-knowing, and he meets a very immature, yearning mess of a kid. I was trying very hard to learn my craft and be a good and valuable person always, but people think I arrived fully formed. Well, I didn't. I'm still a work in progress. Give me space and time. I'll surprise you, I promise. We will all surprise everyone if we find a way to give and to improve the world. We have an obligation, I think, to be as big as we can, to give as much as we can. We can't take forever. I've taken enough. I've had my fill. Tikkun olam, it's called. Repair the world, heal the world, make the world your personal project. Fix it. You can do it. Show up and find out what you can do, then do it.

That's big.



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