Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Farewell To the Exceptional Elizabeth Taylor

UPDATE 12/15: It's been revealed that Taylor ran a "buyer's club" for AIDS patients.

10/15: Taylor is included in the new book Tokin' Women: A 4000-Year Herstory 

Ten-year-old Taylor in Jane Eyre (1943)
Elizabeth Taylor, who graced the screen as a child in Jane Eyre and National Velvet, and as an adult in films like Giant, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, and Cleopatra, has died.

Taylor won several humanitarian awards for her work raising over $10 million and much awareness for AIDS at a time when no one wanted to acknowledge the disease. She is remembered for her addictions to alcohol and painkillers, and according to one biographer, smoked pot.

Taylor with Christopher Lawford
According to Ellis Amburn's 2000 book,
The Most Beautiful Woman in the World: The Obsessions, Passions, and Courage of Elizabeth Taylor, Liz's experimentation with marijuana began in mid-1973, when she partied with Peter Lawford and his son Christopher, hitting hot spots like Candy Store in Beverly Hills. Peter's friend Arthur Natoli recalled, "[Lawford] and Elizabeth used to turn on together. They were high on pot a lot. I don't know if he supplied her." (Christopher has since gone onto a career as an addiction recovery advocate.)

Taylor's fourth husband Eddie Fisher was revealed to be a pot smoker by his daughter Carrie in her 2008 book Wishful Drinking. In his 2008 autobiography, Tony Curtis says marijuana was very popular in Hollywood around the time of his 1971 bust for carrying pot through Heathrow airport.

Taylor was 19 in 1951 when she was cast in A Place in the Sun opposite Montgomery Clift. She had a lifelong devotion to Clift, who smoked marijuana (as did James Dean). According to Patricia Bosworth's biography of Clift, Libby Holman, the 16-years-older actress with whom Clift was involved, "got into the so-called exotic states of consciousness in the twenties with Tallulah Bankhead...Paul Bowles recalled discovering a supply of 'very good grass' in a humidor in Libby's brownstone the day Allen Ginsburg and Peter Orlovsky came to call." Bosworth wrote of Holman's home during the time she and Clift were involved, "Marijuana, cocaine and mescaline were available at the Treetops."

Twenty-year-old Taylor in Ivanhoe
Taylor next appeared in Ivanhoe, based on the Sir Walter Scott novel. She played Rebecca, a Jewess and the daughter of a money lender who supports Ivanhoe's quest to unseat King John in favor of King Richard. When Ivanhoe is wounded in battle, Rebecca heals him, since she "knowest the craft of herbs, and the force of elixirs." She is then brought up on charges of witchcraft, in order to smear Richard. 

"I was taught healing by Miriam of Manassas. But I have always sought to use that skill in the service of man to relieve his pain," Taylor as Rebecca says in her defense at trial. "If this convicts me of witchcraft and with me my people, then may God have pity on every man who seeks mercy and justice from his fellow man. For the only merciful power in this world is death, and the only justice is beyond the grave." She is nonetheless sentenced to be burned at the stake, until Ivanhoe saves her as her champion. 

While in England filming Ivanhoe, Taylor began dating her second husband Michael Wilding. According to Amburn, "Elizabeth sometimes ditched Wilding to slip off to Oscar Levant's Beverly Hills house with Monty, where the pianist serenaded them with Gershwin tunes as they whiled away afternoons and early evenings." Sounds like a pothead's dream date to me.

Thirty-year-old Taylor as Cleopatra 
In 1963 the epic film Cleopatra was released with Taylor resplendently formidable in the title role. It's quite likely that Cleo used cannabis, as depicted in the more modern HBO series Rome (but not in Taylor's portrayal, though much incense was burned at altars therein).

Taylor was also a powerhouse as a bohemian Big Sur artist in The Sandpiper (1965), by once-blacklisted screenwriter (and Very Important Pothead) Dalton Trumbo. According to Kirk Douglas, when sniping columnist Hedda Hopper complained about Trumbo's screen credit at the film's premiere, Taylor turned around in her seat and said, "Hedda, why don't you just shut the fuck up?"

According to How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor and Hollywood by William J. Mann, Taylor suffered from a painful congenital anomaly of the spine, and was shot up with drugs like novocaine and hydrocortisone, and given prescriptions for the painkillers Meticorten and Demoral, in order to keep her films like Giant shooting on schedule.

As a newlywed in Mexico, Taylor's husband Mike Todd had to carry her up to the roof to watch the fireworks tribute to the couple because she was recovering from a spinal fusion to treat a herniated disc. After Todd died in an airplane crash, his crony Fisher sent the despondent widow to Dr. Max "Feelgood" Jacobson, whose "vitamin injections" to the stars were filled with at least 30 mg of amphetamines combined with steroids, hormones, placenta and bone marrow. 

Sweet Bird of Youth (1989)
It's a shame Taylor didn't live in a time when marijuana was more acceptable than the more harmful substances she seems to have used more frequently. On the set of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) she was encouraged to drink as much as her character did, and writer Ernest Lehman also suspected she was "taking something" to elevate her mood. Happy with her high-energy performance (which won her a second Oscar), Lehman wrote in his journal, "Whatever the pill is, I am very much in favor of it."

In 1989 Taylor appeared in a TV version of Tennessee Williams' play "Sweet Bird of Youth" (pictured), as the aging actress Alexandra Del Lago whom a young hustler (Mark Harmon) tries to blackmail over her hashish habit. 

Her last film appearance opens Elton John's 2001 video, "Original Sin":
Oh, it's carnival night
And they're stringing the lights around you
Hanging paper angels
Painting little devils on the roof

Oh the furnace wind
Is a flickering of wings about your face
In a cloud of incense
Yea, it smells like Heaven in this place
I hope that's the Heaven Elizabeth is in today. 

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