Liz Taylor is dead, predeceased by her obit writer by about six years. Condolences to Taylor's family, friends, and fans, of course. And questions raised for the rest of us, especially about the persistence of fame or, I guess, more accurately celebrity (being famous for being famous). Taylor's roots as a public figure are in the old studio system and she was a big big star back when such behemoths strode the silver screen like modern-day gods from Olympus (where is my cocaine or at least 5 hour energy drink?!?). But unless you went through puberty around the time of National Velvet, Taylor's enduring fame and fascination is really strikingly odd.
Other than a General Hospital stretch and a few toss-off roles, sometimes in animated shows like The Simpsons, she hasn't really worked since 1980, when she appeared in the generally awful Mirror Crack'd. Over the past 30 (!) years, she'd morphed into a Zsa Zsa Gabor type figure, albeit one with two Oscar wins (including a best actress statuette for the rotten Butterfield 8, yet another Hollywood production about a hooker with a heart of gold and—spoiler alert!—a foot of lead). Even when you look at her "10 essential movies," the list is clotted with absolutely terrible flicks ranging from Cleopatra (Caligula without the nudity, which is to say without any redeeming feature), The Flintsones (are you fucking kidding?), National Velvet (not even Freud could care), and A Place in the Sun (to be fair, the Theodore Dreiser novel upon which it's based deserved worse).
Taylor acted in some memorable movies—Suddenly, Last Summer, bowdlerized Tennessee Williams for sure, and really carried by the obvious insanity of Monty Clift and Kate Hepburn; Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, which deservedly earned her the second Oscar; and what else, really? Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is another clip-job of Tennessee Williams and is about as riveting as the kids playing mobsters in Bugsy Malone; we've all seen better high school productions. Giant is a Texas-sized cow pie, with hambone acting from La Taylor, James Dean, and Rock Hudson. Whatever scenery hasn't been chewed to death is processed whole by Dennis Hopper in a minor, Bobby Bradyesque role. Taylor's filmography seems split between movies that only get less interesting with every passing year and films that were never any good in the first place. (Elephant Walk, anybody?)
But none of that really matters: It's genuinely interesting that she managed to command an army of gossip columnists and scandal sheets for the many decades of her public life (which started in her teen years). I got my start (and I hope to hell, my finish) as a journo at the company that published Modern Screen, the old movie fanzine, and for a huge stretch of that rag's run, Liz was on the cover, with Dick Burton or Nicky Hilton or whatever arm candy of the moment she was twirling around. Even Larry Fortensky, the original Joe the Plumber in America's hearts, the Lech Walesa of love, a construction worker who met Liz in rehab and became the eighth Mr. Taylor (in a ceremony at Michael Jackson's Neverland Ranch of all places). When she and Burton lost their luster as a pair of public boozers (mostly because they stopped making even shitty movies, alone and together), Taylor's replacement on Modern Screen, TV Movie Mirror, and later People and Us Weekly was basically Cher (avec et sans Sonny, David Geffen, Duane Allman, and her own Fortenskian amour, Rob "the bagel maker" Camilletti). From Liz to Cher! Talk about the '70s as an age of diminished expectations!
Like Marilyn Monroe, Taylor functioned as a camp icon as that mode of consciousness was going mainstream in the '60s. She one-upped Monroe by not dying tragically and thus giving her fans the unalloyed pleasure of watching her devolve into the gargoyle version of herself (see picture above). Andy Warhol's celebrated "Lifesaver" portraits of Taylor (the different colors are like different flavors of a star that all taste the same) are made even funnier and more poignant as the subject starts to look more and more like a desperate cartoon version of herself.
But I just don't get Taylor's gravitational cultural force. I know that's my failing, not that of her fans (or even of her rancid filmography). She died at age 79. But I think I understand the general dynamic beyond enduring appeal such as hers. She's got something that most stars, most figures, never achieve. As it happens, yesterday was the 80th birthday of William Shatner, a figure who is not only Taylor's exact contemporary, but similarly a camp icon as well.
Shatner has made a career of appearing in junk—after an early career in serious but generally forgettable roles and movies (he's in a bad Hollywood version of The Brothers Karamazov and has a totally vapid role in Judgement at Nuremberg), he made his name sucking in his gut while clad in velour space suits and wrestling aliens in rubber costumes. Unlike Taylor, he's been in on the joke and has dined out on it, at least since he appeared in an Airplane sequel. As anyone who has listened to The Transformed Man and Has Been can tell you, Shat's shtick is exactly the same; the only thing different is that he's cool with it now.
I'm (obviously) not a fan of the original Star Trek series, despite being surrounded by geeks who used to call their diaries "captain's logs" and translate the calendar into proper star dates. But, as with Taylor, I can appreciate the franchise's immense cultural power. Star Trek has allowed countless people to speak through its fictional universe, whether by creating "slash fiction" that imagines Kirk and Spock as gay lovers (bless his pointed little…) or endlessly debating Vulcan mind-melds and whether or not science would ever create a rocket capable of generating enough thrust to launch James Doohan into orbit. As Constance Penley told me long ago, Star Trek fans, like all self-conscious pop culture consumers, remake "the Star Trek fictional universe to their own desiring ends." The alchemical genius of Star Trek and Le Shat, then, is that they allow us to create, send, and receive messages; such texts create a canvas (yes, mashed metaphors!) that are real conversation starters. We interrogate our sense of identity and our relationship to the past, the future, technology, you name it, everyone time we make a Mr. Sulu joke.
Obviously, we've done something similar with Liz Taylor too. Her face became a literal canvas for Andy Warhol, and ultimately her great gift to the world was not her movies (well, maybe Poker Alice) but that she allowed so many people to use her life as a way of figuring out something in their own lives. The one question I'm left with is whether the only people who pull this off are camp figures. Are there folks who hold their place in our hearts that aren't wrapped in massive layers of irony every bit as thick and pungent as, say, White Diamonds perfume?
Fuck it, that's a question for another day.
And now, William Shatner semi-parlandos his way through Harry Chapin's Taxi on the old Dinah Shore show. I'm sure he'll mourn ya til he joins ya, Kitten: