Elizabeth Taylor died five years ago, today. Her death prompted me to begin writing and publishing again. I had wanted to for a long while but was…embarrassed, maybe? Ashamed? I had stopped publishing to One Sharp Dame in 2009 and I don’t know why I was embarrassed to begin again but I was. Beginning again meant reminding people I had done this thing once before and it hadn’t gone well. And why should I keep on bothering people?
That’s what it felt like. Like I was bothering people. I was embarrassed when I recalled how enthusiastic my friends had been when I first started publishing. I had wasted their time and their energy.
It seems so silly, so trivial now. But it was a very big thing inside my head. I had not yet learned to embrace being a serial failure. I didn’t comprehend the level of feeling other people could feel for me. I thought calling myself a writer was silly. Foolhardy. Absurd.
Elizabeth Taylor died and I had a lump in my breast that no one knew about and I decided it was now or never. So I wrote a thing about Elizabeth Taylor, about what she meant to me, about her career, about her ability to come back time and time again.
I’m that age now when all my heroes are dying. Since Elizabeth Taylor’s death, there’s been Roger Ebert and John Edgerton, Nora Ephron and Harper Lee. Clive James has end stage cancer. That is just the writers and just off the top of my head. I should have picked younger heroes but I didn’t know any better, I suppose.
When I was younger and looking around at people, trying to figure out how to live, everyone looked so goddamned self-assured. So grown-up. I didn’t understand they were all flailing around, too. That almost everyone, at some point in their lives, looks around and thinks ‘I have no idea what I’m doing, someone please save me’.
The older (thank God for that) I get and the more I know about life and about my heroes, it turns out they were all big ‘ole losers at one point or another, too. And sometimes their failures were big and public and awful. Sometimes, like Elizabeth Taylor, they are blamed for the demise of an entire movie studio.
In 1963, Elizabeth Taylor starred in the epic “Cleopatra”. The movie made headlines during production. It was the most costly film ever made, by several magnitudes. It is where the Taylor-Burton legend began. The stakes could not have been higher for the film when it was released. It was the highest grossing film of the year but it was still considered a failure because it only made back half of its production costs. 20th Century Fox was essentially bankrupt. Reviewers either loved it or hated it. Taylor was excoriated in the press.
After “Cleopatra”, Taylor made two more films with her now husband Richard Burton, “The V.I.P.s” and “The Sandpiper”. The former did decently but impressed no one and did nothing for her reputation. The latter is in the bottom quarter of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. She kept making films.
Her next film was “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, made in 1966. Taylor, a woman who had made her living being the most beautiful woman in the world, gained weight and allowed herself to be frumped up for the role. She went hardcore. She kept on taking risks. And it paid off in spades. She won her second Best Actress Oscar. The film is one of the best ever made. She kept making herself more vulnerable. She didn’t move away from pain. She moved toward it.
The thing is. Shit happens. It happens all the time. Sometimes, the shit will be your fault. Sometimes, you are a victim of circumstances. The point is, it will happen. If you have never fucked up anything, you haven’t tried hard enough.
Embrace failure. Your friends will love you, no matter what. Watch more old movies. That’s my advice for today.