Elizabeth Taylor's Public Eyes

Taylor, whose life bridged old Hollywood and modern celebrity, saw it all.

During a lifetime under the glare of the spotlight, Elizabeth Taylor's ethereal, relentlessly expressive violet eyes saw as much as they said.

As a young star, Taylor witnessed the last of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when movies were the universe, actors were the stars – and she was a supernova who lit up movie screens around the world.          

At the height of her fame, Taylor saw personal tragedy unfold before her as she embarked on a series of star-crossed marriages that turned her into fodder for the nascent mass-media gossip machine.
In middle age and beyond, she saw her career tank as she became a supermarket tabloid staple whose personal strife – from her weight to illnesses to addictions to divorces – played out for tawdry entertainment.
With her death Wednesday at age 79, Elizabeth Taylor left us as both one of the last links to the Hollywood of old and as the prototype of the modern celebrity.

That's a function of a life in the public eye solidified on the big screen with Taylor’s star-making turn at the tender age of 12 in "National Velvet" and ended with her death as a trending topic on Twitter.

Even during her final years, her trips in and out of hospitals were reported by the online and TV celebrity news outfits that her public travails helped spawn.

But in an era where infamy is too often mistaken for stardom, Taylor still stands out as a one-of-a-kind legend: From the start, she burst with an irresistible beauty and talent that was captured on celluloid and splashed onto the screen, larger than life.

Those violet eyes proved alluring and versatile, piercing hearts and breaking them, revealing everything from fire to vulnerability. Those eyes told us nearly all we needed to know about the spunky heroine of "National Velvet," the woman in the middle in "Giant" and the sultry woman on the edge in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."

The public watched Taylor's every move, fascinated as much by her troubles as accomplishments – perhaps more so at times. Her most notorious failure, 1963's expensive mess, "Cleopatra," ultimately overshadowed the impact of what would be her last great performance three years later as a woman unhinged in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

The outpouring of accolades for Taylor in death is all the more remarkable considering that her run as a movie powerhouse was effectively over before her 40th birthday, half a lifetime ago.

Life after screen triumphs couldn't have been easy for Taylor, who took on an unfortunate new position in the popular imagination, going from Hollywood legend to Hollywood joke. John Belushi, in drag, mocked her as a chicken-chomping glutton on "Saturday Night Live" in 1978. Her eighth and final marriage, in 1991, to a construction worker 20 years her junior whom she met in rehab, became a punchline. Larry Fortensky, after all, was a far cry from Richard Burton.

But Taylor, to her everlasting credit, used the spotlight that too often burned her to become one of the first celebrities to shed light on AIDS, the scourge that took her friend Rock Hudson. The Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation went on to raise tens of millions.

One of Taylor's last public appearances came in September 2009, at the funeral of another friend, Michael Jackson, a fellow child performer turned adult superstar who also paid the price of fame in a way that perhaps only she could understand.

Unlike Jackson, though, Elizabeth Taylor proved herself a survivor.

Tabloid headlines fade, and the echoes of gossip become whispers with time. In the end, we’re left with indelible screen memories and a cautionary tale of the pitfalls of celebrity, courtesy of a pop culture icon whose unforgettable eyes saw it all.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.

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