Liz Taylor’s greatest role wasn’t on the silver screen. It wasn’t as the queen of the Nile or the sexually frustrated wife of a closeted football star.
In the most extraordinary role of her career, the majestic Dame Elizabeth uttered the heroic line, “I will not be silenced and I will not give up and I will not be ignored.”
That role was advocating for the compassionate treatment of people with AIDS and for more funding and research to fight the disease at a time when most Americans didn’t care, because they believed only gay men could get it. And dying queers didn’t matter in 1984 when Taylor joined the AIDS Project of Los Angeles.
Despite having a reputation for being a very gay place to work and play, Hollywood remained silent as the “gay cancer” became GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) and finally AIDS. Even when Rock Hudson succumbed to the disease, Hollywood’s elite had little to say, fearful that the public that adored them would assume they were gay or supportive of queers.
The inhabitants of Tinsel Town weren’t the only cowards. President Ronald Reagan, under pressure from his right-wing Christian supporters, didn’t utter the word AIDS until almost seven years into his presidency. By then, thousands had died and countless others had become infected. The ex-actor-turned-chief-executive even quipped that AIDS was a punishment from the very vengeful god he worshipped.
Liz Taylor didn’t care what Reagan or Hollywood thought of her. Overnight she became a rebel with a cause, speaking out tirelessly and passionately wherever she could, and setting up the American Foundation for AIDS Research and the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation.
“Celebrity is not something that comes without responsibility,” she rightly said. “If I can help further a worthwhile cause simply by lending my voice, I feel that it is my place to do so.”
I was 16 when I first saw Liz Taylor on the big screen. The movie was Butterfield 8. She played a high-class call girl. I and a couple of friends lied and told the woman with the beehive hairdo at the ticket window that we were 18.
Fortunately, the theatre cared more about the coins in our pockets than the R rating that the movie had received from the prudes at the Hollywood League of Decency. The Catholic Church (we all went to the local Catholic high school) consigned the movie to a prominent place among its top ten most objectionable flicks. Which made it even more appealing to us.
My friends couldn't keep their eyes off of Taylor's cleavage that night. They wanted desperately to jump into the sack with her. I wanted to be her, so that I could have my pick of the cute boys in the neighborhood. I left the theatre that night impressed with her acting ability as well as her beauty.
In the ensuing years, I came to love her most of all in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, two of her finest roles.
But, as far as I am concerned, she earned the Oscar for lifetime achievement for her courage in standing up and speaking out at a time when straight celebrities just did not put their necks on the line for queers.
Taylor died yesterday morning at 79. A legend in her time.