The recent death of Elizabeth Taylor has unleashed a torrent of much-deserved celebrations, with many proclaiming her the “last of the great movie stars.” It’s a description that feels right and it is hard to think of anyone else who deserves that appellation. Of course, that begs the question of what changed during Taylor’s lifetime and why her successors seem less significant.
Elizabeth Taylor was a transitional figure in many ways. She was raised in the old Hollywood system. Audiences watched her grow up on screen, transforming from the young girl of National Velvet (1944) to a teenager in Little Women (1949), on to the grown woman of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and many other movies. However, Taylor also was a pivotal figure in the creation of modern Hollywood. In 1960, 20th Century Fox asked her to star in Cleopatra. She wasn’t particularly interested and flippantly said she would do it if they paid her a million dollars. It seemed like a crazy amount at the time and she didn’t expect them to agree. The studio accepted her terms and it became a defining moment in the falling apart of the old Hollywood dream factory. Prior to that period, stars (as well as directors, writers and almost everyone associated with making movies) were under contract to a studio that controlled every aspect of their image and career. Now stars would be free agents who could appear in any film and live as they wanted.
The liberation of Hollywood’s stars perfectly coincided with the enormous growth of modern media. Nothing sold more magazines than the hijinks of the newly empowered stars and none more than Elizabeth Taylor.
Her tumultuous private life (eight marriages, seven husbands, life-threatening illnesses, battles with alcoholism, drug addiction and overeating) filled countless tabloids and gossip columns. Although there is no questioning her amazing achievements as an actress (try watching Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), it is also inarguable that Taylor was one of the first modern celebrities. The press consumed and exploited every twist in her admittedly lively life. It was a process that would have been unthinkable for previous movie stars (unless they were in the midst of a scandal) and it is perhaps the main reason why all of the stars who followed her seem less iconic.
In the studio era, we rarely saw the real lives of movie stars. For most people, they were distant, larger-than-life figures not unlike gods and goddesses. As the media has grown into the 24-hour-a-day contagion that now infects our lives, there is no aspect of a star’s life that is not sliced, diced and fed to us. Everything is shrunken, including the hurdles that have to be leapt to achieve stardom. A one-size-fits-all culture that treats reality TV celebrities and movie stars as equals makes everyone smaller. Elizabeth Taylor was indeed the last of the great movie stars. We’ve all made sure that they will not be seen again.