After half a century in the spotlight, Elizabeth Taylor turns 60

February 27, 1992|By Alice Steinbach | Alice Steinbach,Staff Writer

She stepped onto the set of the Johnny Carson show last week and it was deja vu all over again. Thin and beautiful, Elizabeth Taylor smiled and the years dissolved: We moved back through the '80s, through the '70s and the '60s, arriving finally in the 1950s -- the decade when Ms. Taylor was at the height of her breathtaking beauty.

Somehow, she had managed to pull it off again -- she had rolled back the years and recaptured the beauty that made her a legend.

But appearances are sometimes deceiving and, believe it or not, La Liz is 60 today. Sixty! Of course, you could say this is what 60 looks like if you're Liz Taylor. Or at least this is what it looks like right now. Because there's no guarantee, given her track record, that she won't balloon up to 180 pounds next month or get an additional surgical nip to alter that fabulous face or go into some physically debilitating tailspin that will leave her, temporarily, frail and wan.

Such unpredictability, of course, only adds to the Legend of Liz. She has been in the public eye for 50 years now, and we've watched her grow from the preternaturally beautiful child in "National Velvet" to a 60-year-old survivor. And her life from there to here, it seems fair to say, has been one of wild contrasts and constant change.

In fact, it seems as though she has spent most of her life deconstructing the legend of Liz in front of our very eyes: Just when we think we've got our interpretation of her nailed down, she reinvents herself. She has gone from beautiful child to an adolescent bursting with innocent sensuality; from a passionate young woman to a grief-stricken widow; from the headstrong home-wrecker to the invalid near death; from the most beautiful woman in the world -- and one of the most married -- to a frumpy, obese, boozing, pill-popping wreck who became the butt of comedians' jokes.

And let's not forget -- although it sometimes seems incidental -- that Elizabeth Taylor was an actress who won two Academy Awards.

She is the long-distance runner of celebrities. A woman who, although she hasn't made a theatrical film in a dozen years, continues to fascinate us in a way that few others -- with the exception of Jackie Onassis -- ever have.

Liz and Jackie may serve as the two public figures upon whom we can project the different sides of our own personalities: If Jackie represents a sort of controlled, well-mannered, white-gloved super-ego figure, then Liz is more like our id -- wild and uncontrolled, indulging in excess after excess from too many chocolates to too many men.

This excessiveness is part of what we find compelling about Liz, says Vanity Fair writer Marie Brenner, who interviewed the star in 1983. "She is that side of us that would do anything," Ms. Brenner says. "She's the taboo side of our puritanical nature. She's been married eight times. She's gained 40 pounds, she's lost 40 pounds. We wonder, 'What will this woman do next?'

"Look, if anything illustrates why Elizabeth Taylor still appeals to us, here it is: At age 59 she put on that yellow wedding dress with the wasp waist for her eighth marriage. Any other 59-year-old woman would have been married in a tailored, mauve suit."

Diana McLellan, a writer at Washingtonian magazine and a keen social observer who chronicled Liz's life during her marriage to Sen. John Warner, agrees with Marie Brenner's theory. "There is that soap opera life combined with the fact that we've been with this person since she was a child. She's so much a part of our consciousness I wouldn't be surprised to see her popping up in our dreams as a mythic figure -- the way Queen Elizabeth does in England," says Ms. McLellan.

And even though Liz's "Washington period" may have represented the nadir of the movie star's physical beauty and glamour -- "She was hugely fat in the '70s and always choking on a chicken bone or something," says Ms. McLellan -- it did not diminish Washington's fascination with the transplanted celebrity. "Wherever she went, people would glom on to her and gather round her," recalls Ms. McLellan. "She is so charismatic that her X-rays were stolen when she had to go to the hospital."

To get to the roots of this incredible charisma, says Judith Viorst, author of "Necessary Losses," a psychoanalytic study of loss and growth, we might start with our identification with Liz's vulnerability -- and the losses she has sustained.

"She is very vulnerable and I think we're touched by that vulnerability. And I suppose there is something comforting in knowing she is like the rest of us; that all the money and fame and beauty and power in the world does not shield us from losses. And she certainly has had her share. I think we identify with her vulnerability and admire her ability to pick herself up off the floor and go on," says Ms. Viorst.

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