The hedge-lined road leading to Elizabeth Taylor's Bel-Air home winds past places that are as much like palaces as can be found in America. To gain an audience with Queen Elizabeth, visitors announce themselves into a private telephone alongside the entrance way. A light snaps on, a video camera surveys the scene and a big gate swings open on a short, hairpin driveway leading to a large, well-lighted home.
Three walls of Taylor's living room are museum quality--sculpture, ceramics, paintings by Degas, Van Gogh, Modigliani and Monet. The windows of the fourth wall overlook a pool, beyond which the city of Los Angeles, from Downtown to the Westside, sparkles in the cold winter air.
Contrary to reputation, Taylor makes her entrance on time, gliding into the large white room like an apparition in a maroon sweater, skin-tight jeans and pointed black boots. Her face is perfect, reflecting the child in "National Velvet," the adolescent in "A Place in the Sun," the sensuous Maggie of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof."
More deity than royalty now, she extends her hand. The essence of stardom, celebrity, glamour is there at her fingertips. Then she looks down at her feet.
"Is that what I think it is?" she asks.
Chen Sam, her longtime publicist, grimaces, confirming that one of Taylor's dogs has indeed left an unglamorous artifact on the perfect white carpet.
Taylor tosses back her head and lets out a lusty, "Who-the-hell-cares?" laugh.
The goddess is gone. In her place is a middle-aged woman with a relaxed, naughty girl grin, who claims not to care a whit that some might see sacrilege in her descent this month from deity to diet book author.
In past decades, people took La Liz seriously. But after four decades of stardom, six husbands, almost 60 films and two Academy Awards, the classic \o7 femme fatale \f7 suddenly had become "Miss Lard" and America gleefully began tearing her down.
At the nadir of the culture's collective contempt, John Belushi dressed in drag and portrayed Taylor in a notoriously tasteless skit on "Saturday Night Live." Stuffing food in his mouth while responding to an interviewer's questions, Belushi as Taylor began choking, performed the Heimlich maneuver on himself, and--barely missing a beat in the interview--wound up spitting hunks of food across the table.
Now Belushi is dead "of his own excesses," Taylor writes in "Elizabeth Takes Off"--her half how-to, half-confessional discussion of "weight gain, weight loss, self-image and self-esteem"--and the object of his satire has resurrected herself, losing 60 pounds and arguably regaining, at age 55, the title of fairest in the land.
A Strong-Willed Woman
For whole generations, Taylor is still La Liz, a Joan Collins-like figure trivialized by Robin Leach, People magazine and their trashier cousins. The fiery, strong-willed woman with the stirring screen presence has become a cultural bauble who does crummy TV movies.
But Taylor's heroic struggle against drugs, alcohol and overeating gives the legend a dramatic new twist, and as "Elizabeth Takes Off" hits bookstores, her incredible shrinking woman tale--180 pounds to 120 or so--will have been permanently Today'd and Oprah'd and Donahue'd into the collective mythology.
To a skeptical sub-category of Taylor buffs, the star's reason for writing the two billionth diet book of the decade (with the help of ghostwriter Jane Scovell) is as simple as the advance of "roughly" $750,000 Taylor's publicist says she received.
But Taylor cites more noble intentions.
"Too many people would come up to me on the street, in airplanes, in restaurants and gather the courage to say, how did you do it?" she says. "I devised a way that works for me and I wanted to share it. Obesity is a big problem in this country."
Her self-help yarn and the low-fat-diet-with-exercise plan she concocted--in consultation with experts--will help others to regain self-esteem and create a body with which they can feel comfortable, she says.
And the full-circle transformation that occurred, for the most part during her seventh marriage, to Sen. John Warner, is indeed inspirational.
As Taylor explains in the book, she stumped up and down the state of Virginia for Warner. No one doubts that her presence went a long way toward assuring his election in 1978.
But when Warner "headed for the Senate, I zeroed in for self-destruction," she writes. ". . . Being a senator's wife is thoroughly debilitating. . . . After sharing everything with my husband during the campaign, I found myself in a kind of domestic Siberia once he was elected. . . . I don't think I've ever been so alone in my life as when I was Mrs. Senator. . . ."
Social commentator Max Lerner once equated Taylor to Keat's \o7 La Belle Dame Sans Merci\f7 . Her romance with Richard Burton was on a par with the grand passions of Tristan and Isolde. Taylor might have been a part of the classical Greek hetaerae, he wrote.