My brother didn’t come out until college but his passions were apparent in high school as he developed consuming interests in showtunes, fashion, and people like Barbra Streisand, Judy Garland and yes, Elizabeth Taylor. He loved the women who were bigger than life, divas before that word was bantered about so cheaply, and those in particular who had overcome insurmountable odds and triumphed.
As his straight brother more interested in the Farrah Fawcett’s of the world, I benefited from his interest in such people I might have otherwise ignored. Greg forced me to watch WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF on TV with him one Sunday afternoon. “Isn’t Liz Taylor supposed to be a glamorous movie star?” I asked cynically, after noting her haggard appearance as Martha in the film. “She is glamorous! It’s called acting.” he retorted. And boy, what acting it was. She was absolutely riveting as she spit out Edward Albee’s pungent prose, prowling the screen like a wounded tiger. It was a seminal achievement in her career and it won her a second Oscar. And left me forever a fan.
I became more and more interested in Taylor, much to Greg’s delight. (And to my mother, who was also a fan.) Together we all watched CLEOPATRA the next time it was on TV, and while it wasn’t nearly the accomplishment that her Albee role was, she brought a superstar appeal to the queen of the Nile, which no one could deny. Soon afterwards Greg and I caught reruns on TV of NATIONAL VELVET, GIANT, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF and A PLACE IN THE SUN. My brother was endlessly pleased that I now saw what he saw in her - a classic movie star and wondrous actress worthy of all the fame and praise. I even confessed to him my lust for Liz in her iconic white one-piece from SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER. My brother threatened to tear down my Cheryl Tiegs poster and replace it with one of his Taylor pictures but he smartly kept it for himself.
|Elizabeth Taylor in SUDDENLY LAST SUMMER|
If Taylor was a giant on the big screen, she was also larger than life in her personal life as well. She went through men like most people go through socks; Taylor was way too formidable for most mortals. Those that could stand toe to toe with her, like Richard Burton, were doomed to a tempestuous affair that would make Rhett and Scarlett weep. And in additional to her scandalous love life, she was always making headlines with her constant struggles with weight and many illnesses. She used her lifetime of physical battles to understand and empathize with the gay community’s fight against AIDS. She became their de facto champion and courageously spoke out about it when many, including our president in the 1980’s, didn’t dare even mention the word. In the last decades of her life, Taylor became almost as famous for her philanthropy and charity as her Hollywood resume, an amazing accomplishment considering her place in the top pantheon of stars.
There were many times in her lifetime that people expected Elizabeth Taylor to die. But she hung in there. Even though she lived a lifetime full of suffering, enough for a number of lifetimes, Elizabeth Taylor was a survivor. Holding her head up, tall and proud, she reveled in her loves and passions. She was a brilliant example to the gay community, my brother, and the entire world, shining as brilliant as all the white diamonds she was so fond of. That she finally succumbed to heart failure today is almost fitting. Her heart was simply too big. It had to give out eventually.
|The caricature I did of my brother Greg for his memorial service in 1995|
My brother died of AIDS related pneumonia in July almost 16 years ago. We talked about her when I was with him on the last day of his life. Greg was grateful for all the work Elizabeth Taylor had done to bring attention to AIDS and to his embattled community. But mostly of course, he was simply a huge fan of hers, reveling in his love and passion for her. Just like me today. And I am better today for having had the privilege of time with the both of them.