Remembering Elizabeth Taylor: Actress, AIDS Activist

Despite personal tragedy, she gave incredible performances and did important work for AIDS research.

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I’m not one to react when some actor or musician dies. I didn’t light a vigil candle for Kurt Cobain, and Michael Jackson’s death, while certainly unfortunate and untimely in terms of his age, seemed to me like a tragedy waiting to happen. So I’ve been asking myself why I felt a stab of sadness at the passing of Elizabeth Taylor.

She was 79 and had been ill, so it was not a shock. It wasn’t a vehicular accident or the result of an act of violence, so it’s not as though someone else was to blame. But Taylor had always been such a survivor, and her death marks the end of not just a very beautiful and talented woman’s life, but the loss of a person who, despite personal troubles and tragedy, managed to produce incredible theatrical performances and do important work for AIDS research.

Hollywood is a business, and it likes to make a buck. So it’s unsurprising that the industry has perfected the art of branding actors, putting them in predictable roles that may not use all of the talents the actors possess, but which will guarantee a certain return at the box office. It’s particularly difficult for very beautiful women to display the breadth of their acting skills since it is more reliably profitable for the film industry to cast them as a siren or America’s sweetheart or some other one-dimensional female role. (And it’s not just women: Warren Beatty, in an interview included on the DVD of the spectacular movie Reds, discusses how he basically had to do the popcorn movie Heaven Can Wait before getting the industry commitment for Reds, a perceptively written, beautifully acted, and brilliantly directed film with breathtaking cinematography.) But Taylor, while captivating to look at as a child actress in National Velvet and as an adult in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, showed her stellar acting talent in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Butterfield 8, among other works.

Taylor did all this while enduring a series of very public heartbreaks and personal tragedies. She was married eight times, widowed once as a very young woman, and she nearly died on the operating table in the late 1950s. But she kept acting and became one of the earliest and most effective public advocates for AIDS research back in the 1980s, when, as Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese noted, it was not fashionable to do so. Nor was it fashionable to oppose the Iraq war in early 2003, but Taylor did, and skipped the March 2003 Academy Awards to lodge her protest. I didn’t know Elizabeth Taylor. But I will miss her.

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