If
Hollywood were a building with its own flag, it would surely be flying at
half-mast since the news of the death of Elizabeth Taylor on March 23. She had
been one of the brightest and most enduring stars in Tinseltown’s glittering constellation.

But why on
earth should her death matter to us ordinary mortals who have never known her
except as a regular of the gossip columns? This is the question I have been
asking myself as I scanned the obituaries wheeled out in the wake of her death.

Predictably,
they emphasised the many sensational aspects of her life: the eight marriages,
the addiction to drugs and alcohol, the extravagant lifestyle, the succession
of dramatic and life-threatening illnesses. For Taylor, life eclipsed the art;
in the intervals of this real-life theatre she acted in a string of unmemorable
films — with a couple of notable exceptions. I saw the film of Edward Albee’s
play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
when it came out in 1966 and thought her Oscar fully deserved. Critics might
say that in the part of Martha, the foul-mouthed, sexually voracious alcoholic,
she simply played herself; actually, in a memorable performance  she brought to the part all the intensity,
pathos and neediness of Martha and her ruined illusions.

I also learnt
from the obituaries that Taylor had played Amy, the youngest, most beautiful
(and therefore most spoilt) of the March sisters in the 1949 film of Little Women. You could say that she was
cursed with her beauty; a potent mixture of physical features, such as her
expressive violet eyes, sexual magnetism and wilful personality, it dominated
everyone about her.

As a
secular icon she typified the old Eve, the temptress, the kind of femme fatale immortalised in literature,
as in Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Merci” or Rider Haggard’s “She”. What she
symbolised was more potent than the actuality. Even when she was old, bereft of
her legendary looks and occasionally photographed hunched up in a wheel-chair,
it was impossible not to feel pity for her fall from glamour, rather than Schadenfreude.

Unlike
other stars such as Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland, both broken on the wheel of
fame, Elizabeth was also a great survivor. Growing to stardom in the atmosphere
of Hollywood (she completed her education in Hollywood’s own school) she had no
illusions about the film industry. At 31, with four marriages already behind
her and about to marry Richard Burton for the first time, she admitted to a
friend: “A lot of the mistakes I’ve made were because of the peculiar world
I’ve lived in. I’ve been a movie actress since I was 10 years old, so of course
I’ve been spoilt and pampered. The most difficult problem for any actress is
trying to understand the difference between reality and make-believe.”

Though she
could analyse her own predicament, Elizabeth remained trapped within it, living
as a grande horizontale in the full
glare of publicity, unable to achieve anything like normality behind the fur
coats, yachts and diamonds. Her personal tragedy was to find an alter ego in
the person of the fiery Welsh actor Richard Burton, to whom she was twice
married, yet be unable to sustain a happy marriage to him. Like Heathcliff and
Cathy in Wuthering Heights, they
seemed doomed to destroy each other. Yet 26 years after Burton’s death, asked
if she would marry him again if it were possible, she answered without
hesitation, “in a heartbeat”. Apparently she died with his photo at her
bedside.

But behind
the statistics of the multiple marriages — and the unhappiness they caused other
wives — the scandals and skirmishes with death, there was also a woman of
courage and generosity, loyal to her friends if not her vows. She stood
steadfastly by Michael Jackson when others scrambled to desert him as the
allegations of his bizarre personal life emerged. She raised money for AIDS
charities before it had become fashionable to do so. She loved her four
children. Despite the evident domestic instability of their childhood, in adult
life they have not hit the headlines in the tabloid press; her oldest son (from
her marriage to Michael Wilding) has spoken warmly of his mother and were all
present at her funeral. Perhaps they smiled ruefully when they learned of her
arrangements: she decreed that she be brought in 15 minutes after the time scheduled;
legendarily late for appointments in life, she elected to be late for her own
funeral.

When it was
mooted that there would be a biopic of her life, acted by someone else, Taylor
vetoed it: “No one will play Elizabeth Taylor except Elizabeth Taylor,” she
stated. Indeed, who else could play this great diva and drama queen? She had a
mordant sense of humour, often directed against herself, once commenting, “I’m
a very committed wife. And I should be committed too – for being married so
many times.”

As someone
who has been interested in her ever since I saw a large poster of her, reclining
on a chaise-longue in Hollywood-Egyptian style for her role as Cleopatra, very
definitely the embodiment of Shakespeare’s “serpent of old Nile”, I salute the
passing of this gallant, troubled old trouper. I understand she had adopted the
Jewish religion – in her own idiosyncratic way, of course – of her third
husband, Mike Todd, who was killed in a plane crash in 1958. Writing with a
Christian sensibility, I ask God to have mercy on her soul. It is what I would
want for myself.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire,
in the UK.