Roger L. Simon

Cleopatra Dies as the World Goes Crazy

Who can forget Elizabeth Taylor opposite Richard Burton in 1963’s version of Cleopatra? No male of my generation, I suspect. Or few. Personally, I always found Taylor more seductive on screen even than Monroe, though I prefer brunettes generally.

And now La Taylor is dead at the moment the Middle East — from Cleo’s Egypt to Libya to Syria and back — goes officially insane. Well, that’s an exaggeration. The Middle East has been insane for centuries. But it somehow seems bleakly ironic that Liz — who converted to Judaism — would die on the very day mad bombers once more stalk Jerusalem. The juxtaposition of the death of the woman Drudge aptly calls “The Last Movie Star” with the image of some religious lunatic (a madwoman in a hijab?) leaving a backpack filled with explosives in a bus station is not a fitting end for an actress who brought us so much.

And indeed there was a lot. My first vague memories of Taylor were from seeing her in A Place in Sun (I was a little kid then, getting a glimpse of the adult world) but my clearest early memories were from Giant, which appeared when I was twelve. An avid moviegoer at that age, I hustled down to the 86th Street Grande to see the great new icon James Dean, only to be transfixed by the female creature on the screen. I was mesmerized. Boy, did I know for sure at that point I was heterosexual! (Of course, as we know, Taylor later became a gay icon herself — but that was for other reasons…. her support for AIDS victims, etc.)

My next Taylor moment was 1958 when I watched her play Maggie the Cat in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Again, I suffered shortness of breath. But I realized something else. Besides being a siren, the woman was a helluva an actress — a lethal combination and screen dynamite.

How good an actress? Flash forward to 1966. A few years before that I had seen the 1962 Broadway version of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and thought Uta Hagen non-pareil as Martha. When I heard Taylor was going to essay the role in the Michael Nichol’s film version, I thought “typical Hollywood,” replacing a great stage actress with a movie star. (This is some time before I went to Hollywood myself and began participating in the same game.) But Taylor more than held her own, reprising a kind of Northern suburban Maggie the Cat with a screen presence I don’t think Hagen would have had. (The film itself was less successful and somewhat stage-bound.)

Meanwhile, we were all similarly transfixed by Taylor’s off-screen life. The woman was married eight times, including twice to Burton. Talk about optimism. (I remember reading on the last page of John Huston’s autobiography — he worked with Taylor and Brando on Reflections in a Golden Eye — that the director’s only regret was that he married a fifth time. Taylor beat him by three.)

And here’s something with a contemporary news twist. Buried in Wikipedia’s list of the Taylor marriages is this tidbit of which I had only the dimmest memory:

Note: between 1975 and 1976, Taylor was the companion to the Iranian ambassador to Washington, Ardeshir Zahedi. They were dubbed “the hottest couple”, and both divorced their partners during their relationship. Taylor traveled with him to Tehran for a time. Shah Reza Pahlavi convinced Zahedi to end his relationship with Taylor.

All for the best, I suppose. Taylor, being Jewish, might have found it a bit awkward spending much time in Khomeini-land.

RIP.