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Cleopatra and the snakes of fame.

March 31, 2011

How to react to the death of Liz Taylor? Another celebrity event? Distress for movie buffs, Michael Jackson fans and AIDS activists? Something more? Well, possibly. You could use her as a template for the past fifty years I guess.

I like films and often go to the pictures; I can even feign a kind of faux sentiment for the great days of Hollywood, when, in reality, I was born too late to appreciate them fully and, as a youngster, my family weren’t really filmgoers. I suppose what I remember fondly is a diet of old films on black and white television, and some happy evenings in the company of the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby from the olden days, and I have, from time to time, dabbled in teaching film studies, generally as part of various English courses.

The fascination, for me, of the Hollywood myth, lies in the way the stars were created and treated, and the remarkable decades when Tinseltown produced, in volume, and often in mundane fashion, dreams for the masses. Movie magic works, against all the odds, even in today’s high tech pressured world; for the trammelled millions in the 1930s and post war, Hollywood, like its celluloid heroes, saved the day. Maybe it’s the friction between financial aesthetes and creative talent that produced the energy and captivated millions. Whatever was happening in the Hollywood Hills, and however it succeeded, it certainly laid the groundwork for a very different world in the 21st century.

The star system took away actors’ rights, stifled creativity, and led to misery for many attracted by the lights. However, for those who were strong enough, or who knew how to work the system, it was a second Californian Gold Rush. The system had its advantages for those who succeeded. Despite the attentions of the gossip columnists like Hedda Hopper, by and large, the major stars’ lives were protected. Publicity put out a managed, or in some cases, totally fictitious, version of their lives, and, as long as they fulfilled their contracts, they were left relatively unmolested, unless they sought fame or notoriety. For the moviegoers who worshipped ‘star quality’, this was a godsend: they had heroes who were as artificial off screen as on. Perhaps only the McCarthy era with its notorious black list, could have shattered the dream in the end.

So spare a thought then, for Liz Taylor: introduced into this system when young and startlingly beautiful, she had her best days as the studio hegemony was coming to an end and then, in the absence of movie mogul control of the media, had to spend the rest of her life living up to an image that was freely available for debunking and demystification. It’s hard not to see her as permanently stuck in the public’s consciousness as Cleopatra, her most famous role, with an over supply of everything, including husbands, and a fan base who needed it to be then, when the world was emphatically living in now

Anyone younger than 55 will not remember her in her contemporary filmstar heyday; she will be Liz Taylor of Burton and Taylor, mega diamonds, AIDS benefits or Michael Jackson land. Meanwhile she had to carry on presenting an image that was what her original fans wished to see. She was cursed with early success and a long life.

By all accounts, her private persona was relatively grounded and minimally star struck. We read of her getting up to make her own breakfast in small highland hotels, always willing to do the dishes and craving domestic bliss. She said she married so many times because she felt it wasn’t right to conduct a long term relationship without that public commitment.

However, I can’t help reflect on the image of a star famous for being a star, gamely turning up at major events, living up to a dream of years before, the definition of modern day celebrity.

Of her films, I saw only two: ‘Father of the Bride’ with Spencer Tracey and ‘BUtterfield 8’ in which she won an Oscar for replicating onscreen her tempestuous times with Richard Burton. She had acting ability that wasn’t always used to its best effect. Without a doubt, she was stunningly beautiful – not a trait that Hollywood, at its height, handled with any subtlety. Equally, she lived a privileged life that few could attain, and you wouldn’t want to be pitying her. She had, even to the end, a kind of dignity that is totally alien to many of our current celebrities; there was something of the genuinely ‘great’ about her – maybe precisely because she was of another era. She’d reached the top – whatever that is – and was then faced with the choice of how to stay there. She was genuinely famous – but for what, exactly?

It’s difficult not to muse on how the twenty first century treats talent, beauty and fame. Now that they have become ends in themselves, they cause untold damage to private lives and personalities. We can market anything these days, and we have Mad Men to show us how we came to where we are.

I’m sure Liz Taylor would not want such negative thoughts; she gave every impression of living the life she wanted. But whenever I see pictures of that made up figure in a wheel chair, bravely sparkling for the cameras, I wonder all over again about fame and ill fortune.

We have encouraged our young people to seek fame; we have suggested it brings happiness and fulfillment; we have sold millions of pounds worth of print on the back of celebrity disasters; but nowhere do we say what to do with it once it is achieved, and there aren’t too many tv programmes promoting self knowledge and inner peace.

Cleopatra was trapped in her own fame; it can’t be a pleasant legacy.

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