Camille Paglia on the Passing of Elizabeth Taylor

March 25th, 2011

By Tom Carter

Elizabeth TaylorElizabeth Taylor died on March 23.  She was 79 years old.  She was 10 in the first movie she was cast in, made before I was born.  She became a major star at the age of 12 in National Velvet.  In 1963 I saw her in Cleopatra not long after it was released, at the old Warner Theater, a true “movie palace” on 13th Street in Washington.  That movie was her first meeting with Richard Burton, but not the last….

I’ve been fascinated by Elizabeth Taylor all my life, and I’ve read a lot about her during the past two days.  The piece that grabbed my attention was an article at, a sort-of interview with Camille Paglia about her opinion of Taylor.

Camille Paglia is an unusual person with a unique way of thinking, and I admire her greatly.  I’m not at all surprised that she’s also a fan of Elizabeth Taylor.  In fact, it’s an obsession with her — it’s said that when Paglia was a teenager, she had a collection of 599 pictures of Taylor.  Her views are more on-point and more insightful than all the news reports I’ve read.  Her thoughts about Taylor aren’t new; in a Playboy essay 20 years ago, as quoted in the Salon article, she wrote:

She wields the sexual power that feminism cannot explain and has tried to destroy. Through stars like Taylor, we sense the world-disordering impact of legendary women like Delilah, Salome, and Helen of Troy. Feminism has tried to dismiss the femme fatale as a misogynist libel, a hoary cliche. But the femme fatale expresses women’s ancient and eternal control of the sexual realm.

For sure.  I knew that long ago, although I couldn’t have expressed it, when Liz Taylor featured regularly in my teenage fantasies.

More of Paglia on Elizabeth Taylor from the Salon article:

Elizabeth Taylor in Butterfield 8The canonical shot of Elizabeth Taylor sewn into that white slip in “Butterfield 8” is one of the major art images of my entire life! She is Babylonian pagan woman — the goddess Ishtar, the anti-Mary!

That photo heralds the dawning sexual revolution, among other things. But the leading feminists totally rejected the Hollywood sex symbols from the start. Raquel Welch was still complaining about that … in 1994. Gloria Steinem wouldn’t even let Raquel speak at an abortion rights rally in the 1970s. Puritanical fools! …

To me, Elizabeth Taylor’s importance as an actress was that she represented a kind of womanliness that is now completely impossible to find on the U.S. or U.K. screen. It was rooted in hormonal reality — the vitality of nature. She was single-handedly a living rebuke to postmodernism and post-structuralism, which maintain that gender is merely a social construct. Let me give you an example. Lisa Cholodenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” is a truly wonderful film, but Julianne Moore and Annette Bening … were painfully scrawny to look at on the screen. This is the standard starvation look that is now projected by Hollywood women stars — a skeletal, Pilates-honed, anorexic silhouette, which has nothing to do with females as most of the world understands them. …

If Gwyneth Paltrow were growing up in the 1930s, she would have been treated as a hopelessly gawky wallflower who would be mortified by her lanky figure. But everything about her is being pushed on to American young women as the ultimate ideal. And it’s even more unpalatable to me now because I’ve been spending the last few years speaking in Brazil, and I’m fascinated by Brazilian women — their humor, energy and openness and the way they express their sexuality so naturally and beautifully. I love it because it’s so much like the old Hollywood style. …

The slightest little flick of an eyelid says an enormous amount, and that’s where Elizabeth Taylor was far superior to Meryl Streep. Streep is always cranking it and cranking it, working it and working it, demanding that the audience bow down and “See what I”m going through! See what I’m doing for you!” …[Taylor] was like a luscious, opulent, ripe fruit. She enjoyed life to the max. She loved to eat and drink, she loved baubles, and she had a terrific sense of humor….

The era of the great movie queens is certainly over. Sharon Stone did have her solar moment in “Basic Instinct.” Not just in the famous interrogation scene in the police station but everywhere in that film, she was commanding sex and commanding the camera. It was a spectacular performance — and then the movie kind of self-destructs. But I had a brief moment of hope there — I thought, is Hollywood sex finally coming back? But no, they never could come up with anything that good for Sharon Stone again, and the moment faded. …

Elizabeth Taylor could control men. She liked men. And men liked her. There was a chemistry between her and men, coming from her own maternal instincts. I’ve been writing about this for years, and it was partly inspired by watching Taylor operate on-screen and off. The happy and successful heterosexual woman feels tender and maternal toward men — but this has been completely lost in our feminist era. Now women tell men, you have to be my companion and be just like a woman; be my best friend, and listen to me chatter. In other words, women don’t really like men anymore — they want men to be like women. But Elizabeth Taylor liked men, and men loved to be around her because they sensed that.

But she was no pushover! She gave as good as she got. There were those famous knock-down, drag-out fights with Burton, and she loved it. No man ever ruled her. Not for a second. But at the same time her men weren’t henpecked. She liked strong men.

Elizabeth TaylorThe passing of Elizabeth Taylor is one of those events that smacks you in the face with the realization that an era has ended, assuming you’re old enough to know that there was an era when things were different, and better.

No one of a certain age will ever forget her.  Even as a child, she looked like a timeless creature possessed of an elusive wisdom, a magnetism that drew you in and touched you.  If you doubt that, watch National Velvet or Lassie Come Home, an earlier movie with another child actor who had his own magic, Roddy McDowall.

What it was about her … it was mostly in the eyes.  Those penetrating, violet, double-lashed eyes that we’ll never see the likes of again.  Sad.

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2 Responses to “Camille Paglia on the Passing of Elizabeth Taylor”

  1. Raoul |

    Paglia, as always, is both provocateur and apologist, incisively perceptive and determinedly wrongheaded.

    Things start out okay. “She liked men.” Then soon the boot is in: “She liked strong men.” Let’s not mention her close gay/bi friends like Roddy or Monty. Or the more abusive of her husbands. (Then again, I may be selling Paglia short – maybe she sees abusive men as not “strong men,” but just “men.” News flash! They’re weak. As weak as your thesis when it veers back, inevitably, to the primacy of archetype and role.)

    It cannot be denied that Miss Taylor was sex on legs, desire and desired inchoate. But not all of us, male or female, can be such burning archetypes. It’s not an on/off deal, either: “sex” is not rip-roaring animality or it’s nothing.

    If that’s true, there are a lot of repressed, incomplete, unmen and unwomen out there who have no idea they’ve been faking all those orgasms. And all those hours I’ve fantasized about the likes of Julianne Moore and Gwyneth Paltrow or any woman “short” of La Liz have been wasted. I know better.

  2. Tom Carter |

    Raoul, I don’t see her as wrongheaded, on this subject or on many others. Taking her point for what it is, Liz Taylor really was one of the last real “movie stars,” and she saw men as they should be, not as the wimpish metrosexuals so aggrandized by the media (all forms) today. Beyond that, she (and the stars of her age) weren’t the skin-and-bones starved scarecrows that predominate these days. Well, with the obvious and totally allowable Katherine Hepburn!

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