The Night Elizabeth Taylor Didn’t Kiss Me
(Note: If you didn’t read the previous post by my guest blogger, Jim, you’d best do that before reading this one.
No, seriously. Go do it.
Stop skimping on every facet of your life. Just go read it, for the love of Mary Kate and Ashley. Then read this one.
Kee-rist, slacker, is it that hard to scroll down and do the teensiest bit of background work? You won’t understand what’s going on in this post unless you put in the three minutes it’ll take you to read the previous post. Love it, baby.)
“The Night Elizabeth Taylor Didn’t Kiss Me”
I am visiting L.A. for a working weekend: Chris and I are putting the finishing touches on our book Love, West Hollywood. I didn’t bring anything to wear. No problem; I borrow a jacket from Chris, and we go shopping for an appropriate shirt. I drive to Tom’s house in Beverly Hills, and we take his vintage Mercedes convertible to the Paramount lot. After we arrive, we walk along the red carpet where a TV actor (from E.R.?) is doing the step-and-repeat.
Inside the lobby is a crush of people. “Do you know anyone?” I ask Tom. He says no. But we see Mary McDonnell (love her) and Maria Shriver (looking better than expected) and, who’s that really tall guy? Kareem Abdul Jabar. I smile and say hello to Mary McDonnell who returns the smile and the hello. I love her all the more.
It takes us 30 minutes to identify the TV actress trying to hide her bad cosmetic surgery behind long blonde bangs: Joan Van Ark. A particularly Hollywood tragedy.
Our seats are third row center, reserved for Tom and his boyfriend, an Internet gazillionaire. Next to me is seated a middle-aged man, dark hair, and next to him is, I presume, his boyfriend. The man turns to me eagerly and asks, “Are you Tom?” I say no and indicate Tom next to me. “Are you David?” he’s very eager now. “No, I’m Jim.” The man then engages Tom in discussion over me, never again to address me, refer to me, or look me in the eye. The man has some relationship to ET, and Tom is happy to talk to him. Liz’s man clearly wants Tom’s money for her foundation and offers to set up a meeting with Elizabeth for Tom and David. Score for Tom!
I wonder if Liz-man thinks I am Tom’s whore for the evening and marvel at my sudden invisibility. (“You haven’t been in L.A. long have you?” a friend asks me later.) Neither famous nor rich, I better get used to it. Still, I’m used to the L.A. attitude of being friendly with everyone, since you never know who might be on their way up. I like to believe that ET wouldn’t act this way to anyone and that she wouldn’t approve of her man’s treatment of me either.
Up on stage there is a raised platform with a table on it. On the table top are two script holders. Love Letters by A. R. Gurney is a two-character play that is usually presented more as a reading than a performance. There is only one chair at the table. I mention this to Tom. “Wheel chair?” he asks.
Soon speeches are given to honor Elizabeth Taylor for her AIDS activism and fundraising. The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation is the organizer of the event, and it was ET’s idea. She hasn’t been on stage in 25 years. Without anyone saying so, we all understand that she isn’t likely to ever perform on stage again. Eventually the side door opens, and Liz herself is wheeled out to the auditorium, up the stage and to her place at the table.
She looks good. Old, but good. Her hair is dyed jet-black, as in the old days. Her face is thin, with sharp angles where it used to be heart-shaped. She is Dame Elizabeth here. I look for some remnants of Maggie the Cat, finally finding it in her smile and the glint in her eye. She’s wearing a long loose dress (one couldn’t in good taste call it a caftan) and a shawl. We all stand and applaud wildly. She nods appreciatively. James Earl Jones comes out too.
The play starts out with letters between Melissa Gardner and Andrew Ladd as children. They are playmates and neighbors who become teenage sweethearts, college lovers, and adult correspondents. In middle age they rekindle their romance and become lovers again. Elizabeth is good with the girlhood letters, all flirtatious and rebellious. She has clearly prepared although not enough to get her over the French words in the script. She loses her place in the text a couple of times but she gets over it.
The most gripping part of the performance is the shawl. Midway through the first act, Elizabeth’s shawl has dropped from her right shoulder. She continues her lines as she tries to put the shawl back on. I can’t stand the thought that she is cold or uncomfortable on stage. I want to help her out. You’re sitting on it, I whisper to her. I try not to look at Tom next to me, but I feel the whole audience is riveted to Elizabeth and her struggle with the shawl. James Earl Jones, help her! I scream in my head. He continues with his lines. Finally, the shawl does her bidding, and I relax. I feel a sigh of relief around me. We will not mention this, we silently agree.
Andrew and Melissa’s affair resumes after he is elected to the Senate, and she has become a successful artist. Her success, however, comes with divorce, alcohol abuse, and mental illness. Although I think Gurney packs a lot of clichés about successful East Coast establishment figures into the play, the last half of the second act is good, tense, and funny. The ending is a disappointment and, I think, an artistic cop out. But it gives Elizabeth a final bravura performance: Maggie the Cat lives!
Standing again, we cheer wildly. Elizabeth beams. She is tired. For nearly two hours, she’s been on stage, working hard, and it shows. James Earl Jones graciously steps aside and applauds for her. She nods to him and takes his hand. Then she turns back to the audience and nods again. Slowly she puts her hands on the wheelchair arms and boosts herself up. She inches up until she is in a half-standing position, supported by the wheelchair. She nods again at the audience, once, twice, three times. Slowly she sits again. Dame Elizabeth, having made her appearance, is ready to go. The assistant wheels her off.
On the way home, we dissect her performance and her appearance. Tom refers to Elizabeth Taylor’s reputation as the “most beautiful woman in the world,” saying she was “the most beautiful YOUNG woman in the world.” I feel somewhat sacrilegious but remember my own view of her when I was young. She was 32 when I was born, an age I no longer find old, and her movie-making peak was soon behind her. But her work continues and her stardom endures.