'You can do it, pie' has been my call to arms

Barbara Amiel on the incandescence of the late, great Elizabeth Taylor

'You can do it, pie' has been my call to arms


I have six lace-trimmed polyester slips because of Elizabeth Taylor after seeing her wearing them in Butterfield 8 and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. That look is now sold as outer party wear, but today’s Dolce & Gabbana leopard numbers don’t come close to Taylor’s 1960s creamy satin trimmed with cognac lace. A doctor in Toronto removed the raised black mole I had above my upper lip “just to be safe” when I was in my twenties, and I all but cried because even if it was not in quite the same place on my face as the one on Elizabeth Taylor, I felt it was a shared beauty mark.

Each challenge in my life, and there have been a few, Taylor’s “You can do it, Pie” in her 1944 film National Velvet has been my call to arms. If you haven’t watched 12-year old Elizabeth Taylor as Velvet Brown winning the Grand National on the Pie, the unwanted horse she won in a raffle, your parents have given you a stunted childhood and should be reported now, this very minute, to the nearest child protection agency. The film is compulsory viewing for all kids: showing the need of competition and the thrill of winning, as well as an Academy Award performance by Anne Revere (later blacklisted in the McCarthy era) as her mother who, unlike browbeaten Canadian parents of today brainwashed into the value of letting their offspring never lose or fail, believed in going for gold and having “a chance at a breathtaking piece of folly.”

There was at least one moment when Elizabeth was not beautiful, if that helps. At age five or thereabouts, there is a photo of her with older brother Howard and their dog. Half her face is eyebrows and it is not her best look. By age 10, her face was refined. There is no way to describe that face in the 1951 film A Place in the Sun. Well, there is but it will sound like I’ve taken one codeine tablet too many plus gin. Try dewdrop trembling on a lily. I know exactly what that sounds like and I’m afraid there is no stopping me. After this I will start writing afternoon soap operas and finally make some money.

Only gush can capture her: it’s not the lighting or the makeup but the shimmering flawless beauty of Taylor’s face and voice to match—a voice of violins and magnolias, a rhapsody—and considerably better than one of her most ghastly films, the 1954 musical melodrama Rhapsody. She was a natural for Catherine in the movie adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly, Last Summer: when the film begins, Catherine has been raped, followed by a holiday mix of cannibalism, sodomy and flesh-eating birds. She is now institutionalized, facing a lobotomy and apparently mad—but then who wouldn’t be after that sort of day at the seaside. Taylor’s portrayal of this tabloid mess is one of innocence in wonderful outfits, as thankfully her doctor insists on no uniform, only her own clothes (God bless him), including the never-to-be-forgotten Transparent White Bathing Suit.

You pay for whatever condition life throws at you. If you’re too ugly, too dumb, too smart or too beautiful, there will be a price. Perhaps there are “ordinary” people in the world, the ones whose appearance and brains are precisely on the middle of the bell curve, but ordinary is just a statistical concept as is extraordinary. Elizabeth Taylor was extra extraordinary and she paid a price: husband No. 3 Mike Todd accidently killed and so many of her good friends dying prematurely, plus her lifelong back pain, frail health and consequent reliance on medicines. If she wasn’t marrying or running off with someone else’s husband she was having a tracheotomy.

Being a home-breaker is not nice, but how to avoid it if you look like Elizabeth Taylor? A friend in Palm Beach, Gerry Goldsmith, who recently ran for PB’s mayor, took Elizabeth out to lunch when he was at Harvard. He walked into the college dining room with her and the entire place went silent. Unbridled beauty does that: it’s called awe.

Taylor had another quality that floors: no fear of the mob. She stood by her friend Michael Jackson when he was charged with child molestation, when he was harassed and hunted, and spoke up. She was “there” for him all the way. Not just after he was acquitted, not just giving polite weasels, but speaking out, emotionally, furiously on his behalf. She is known for her pioneering work with AIDS, which is all of a piece. The flaunting of her love of jewels and gifts should have irritated the crowd as well, only that was a different time, one when it was possible to sincerely care about the Third World and the marginalized while revelling in luxury for yourself without being labelled a hypocrite and told to drive a hybrid car and wear faux fur.

I canvassed half a dozen adults under 30 and none of them knew Elizabeth Taylor’s films. That is the curse if your success or talents are tied primarily to your appearance. The surgeon can’t stop time. The last looks of Taylor with the plumped up lips and fright hairdo were sad, but you cannot have a public life beyond a certain age if beauty is your essence.

Once when you ruled the world, at death you really did go, leaving only an Ozymandian monument in the sand. Well, not Taylor. Her films are there; her famous violet eyes (always looked more blue-grey to me) are there. I can’t come up with a single negative thought about her, only admiration for her beauty, her loyalty, her advocacy—and her diamonds. Well, I would say that, wouldn’t I?