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Elizabeth Taylor: Always a star; Bold actress captured American imagination, reflected the times

It may be the greatest line in the history of Hollywood sex scandals.

It was 1958, and actress Elizabeth Taylor -- who died Wednesday at 79 -- had just lost her husband, producer Mike Todd, in an airplane crash.

Before long, she found intimate solace in the company of crooner Eddie Fisher, who was then married to singer/actress Debbie Reynolds. When gossip columnist Hedda Hopper called out Taylor on her behavior, Liz reportedly replied, "Mike's dead, and I'm alive. What do you expect me to do, sleep alone?"

The immortality of the line is threefold:

1) As an expression of total Hollywood entitlement from an actress whose beauty was legendary from the time she was only 9 years old, it's just about perfect.

2) Its lusty frankness from an adulterous actress caught in flagrante delicto would be unusual even in the 21st century, but in 1958, it was almost unheard of.

3) It just happened to be perfect publicity for the film that Taylor was making at the time, Richard Brooks' adaptation of Tennessee Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." In it, Taylor, as the sexually abandoned "Maggie the cat," libidinously proclaims to one and all, "Maggie the cat is alive!"

In 1958, Elizabeth Taylor was only 26 years old, but she already had been married three times (to Conrad Hilton Jr. and Michael Wilding, before Todd). Fisher would become husband No. 4. There were three more after that -- one of them a brilliant and legendarily bibulous actor (Richard Burton), another a U.S. senator (John Warner) and the last a fellow patient at a rehab facility (Larry Fortensky, a truck driver).

Clearly, the woman liked men.

Clearly, men liked her back. In that regard, she and her fellow MGM alumna Ava Gardner seem to have led their Hollywood sisterhood by many furlongs.

Once that Eddie-and-Debbie business was all over and Richard Burton dumped his then-wife to become husband No. 5, women eventually started liking Taylor, too -- especially the ones who had the sneaking suspicion that she might be in it for the jewelry and the bank accounts. Decades later, she could get away with marketing her own perfume to them.

You couldn't be an American moviegoer of either sex between 1955 and 1985 and not have an opinion about Liz Taylor. You couldn't be an American in that era and not know everything about her, even if you never saw her movies. Her life was better known to most people than their next-door neighbor's. It still is.

Some things are inarguable and always will be. She was, in her prime, one of the most beautiful actresses American movies will ever have.

Well out of her prime, she was, along with Elvis Presley, a classic American image of bloat and self-indulgence. (My choice for the great Liz Taylor joke? Henny Youngman's "I told my wife, 'You know how you always wanted to look like Liz Taylor? Well, now you do.'" It's funny but without the cruelty of Joan Rivers' gloating "Liz Taylor puts mayonnaise on aspirin.")

Almost incidental to the overly publicized illnesses and dysfunctions that paved the way for all the Angelinas and Britneys and Charlies we have now was her career on-screen.

Strangely enough, that is where it is all too easy to overlook and even dismiss her.

And that's where her death is likely to rescue her.

There already is a 24-hour tribute scheduled on TCM for April 10. It's how we commemorate beloved careers in film after lives end.

And Elizabeth Taylor was a good actress -- not a great one like Barbara Stanwyck or Katharine Hepburn but good enough to be close to extraordinary in the right circumstances.

She may not have deserved the Oscar she won for "Butterfield 8" in 1960, but then all of America knew she didn't really win it for the movie; she won it for having pneumonia so severe that a tracheotomy was required to pull her through. (The word "tracheotomy" instantly became a familiar one in the American language. Children used it as freely as third-year med students.)

On the other hand, take a good look at Taylor playing Martha to Richard Burton's George in Mike Nichols' version of Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" and she can scare the willies out of you.

She could certainly be bad in films, but even then she was incapable of being uninteresting -- or of being anything but weirdly sympathetic. I doubt whether even Joan Rivers enjoyed the sight of Taylor being bad in a movie.

It certainly wasn't her fault if an entire film studio (20th Century Fox) almost sank into the sea so that she could pretend to be Cleopatra.

And when she was young and at her most beautiful, director George Stevens would fill an entire movie screen with her face in "A Place in the Sun." Kisses in movies don't come much more famous than that one, with her friend Montgomery Clift.

Even in late life -- as a graduate of the Betty Ford Center, an AIDS-charity activist, a proclaimed friend of Michael Jackson and long retired from film -- she somehow occupied a world stage even when she was being wheeled in and out of medical centers.

At least two generations looked at those pictures of her with no sense whatsoever of how that frail and ailing old woman once so commanded the erotic and moral imagination of the country she lived in.

In 1993, troubled and troublesome novelist Harold Brodkey met Taylor while writing about meeting celebrities at some Academy Awards parties.

No one else he met that night impressed him nearly as much. His conclusion about her was this:

"It can be argued that she reflected the times she lived in. But maybe she influenced them, too. Certainly her life, unsnobbish, hardly ethnocentric, filled with divorces and illness and material triumphs, with its political movements leftward and rightward, curiously mirrors the American decades from 1950 until now. She is us in more than one sense."

And, like her fellow tidal inhabitant of the American imagination, Elvis Presley, she may stay that way for a while.

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