Blog: Elizabeth Taylor: A Better Friend than We Deserved

By R.E. Frederique

March 28, 2011

Was it 1980 or 81—I can’t remember—that I watched Elizabeth Taylor dance with Montgomery Clift at one of our favorite retro theaters in Manhattan, Carnegie Hall Cinema? The movie was A Place in the Sun, a film remembered for the beauty and youth of Elizabeth Taylor, the sexual vulnerability of Montgomery Clift, all bathed in the sumptuous music of Franz Waxman. Slumped next to my friends José Garcia, an aspiring writer, and Peter Müller, my schoolmate, we were three very young gay men in love with Montgomery Clift.

Yet, the real attraction for us was Elizabeth. Sure, the beauty and her very youth mesmerized us, but there was something else. It was the empathy that the actress obviously had for her gay romantic leading man. That empathy seemed to speak to us personally. We were attracted to Elizabeth because she offered what neither José, Peter, nor I had known in our homes: acceptance. Gays are attracted to acceptance like plants in the dessert need water.

Throughout her life, Elizabeth Taylor offered acceptance. From the time she was a child star on the MGM movie lots, she became lifelong friends with gay co-stars such as Roddy McDowall. It was McDowall who took one of the great, iconic photographs of Taylor in Mexico, wearing no makeup, having just come out of the shower with a towel wrapped around her hair.

Rock Hudson competed for her friendship with James Dean, who confided in her on the set of Giant. Hudson’s death in 1985 gave Elizabeth Taylor the drive to raise funds for AIDS research, and eventually found the American Foundation for AIDS Research (AmFAR) together with Dr. Mathilde Krim. But even before that, she was a major supporter of AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) in 1984. She didn’t just lend her name, she worked to raise awareness, get other celebrities involved, and raise funds to find a cure. Later, she founded the Elizabeth Taylor AIDS Foundation to help other AIDS organizations to provide care to patients and promote prevention education.

Taylor was also a major force behind the passage of the Ryan White CARE Act of 1990, now the primary source of federal funding for HIV/AIDS programs. Taylor’s contributions to the Whitman-Walker Clinic in Washington, DC, allowed for a medical center named after her. As if that weren’t enough, she found time to be involved in other projects, such as the Freddy Mercury AIDS Benefit Concert in 1992. To say that Elizabeth Taylor worked tirelessly for gay men’s health is putting it mildly. Even beyond death – it is expected that her AIDS charities will inherit more than half a billion dollars of her estate.

By the time AIDS came around, Elizabeth Taylor was familiar with the issues surrounding homosexuality. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Reflections in a Golden Eye, and Suddenly Last Summer are some of the movies about repressed homosexuality that Taylor appeared in. Last Summer, Tin Roof, together with Boom were some of the movies she made based on Tennessee Williams’ work. Other gay writers whose work she interpreted were Edward Albee, Noel Coward and Gore Vidal. She obviously had learned and understood the literature of such productions.

My friend José had seen all of those movies. In fact, the night we met him at the Carnegie Hall Cinema, he had already sat through one screening of that movie—in those days, you could stay all day in the theater (and some did). José would often sit through a movie twice—once to take in the “aura” (he said he could smell Elizabeth Taylor’s perfume in A Place in the Sun), and a second time to closely follow the script. Afterwards, we would walk to the Bagel Nosh on 72nd Street to discuss the movie. There, we usually sat for hours under a sign that said “Please move on… Space is limited.” This time, it took longer to get there, as José made pit stops along the way.

When José Garcia died soon after that, we didn’t know enough about the illness to be able to save him. But that was not the case for my cousins and my godfather, who died years later. If our government had been as proactive as Elizabeth Taylor, I am convinced that these people, who were essential to my life, would still be here today.

People who didn’t live through that time don’t understand what it was like. At first, there was confusion. We had no idea what was happening to us, just that people were dying. Then, there was silence. Even after the name “AIDS” had been given to the disease, it was still taboo to talk about it. In order to have prevention education, it was necessary to break that silence. Elizabeth Taylor was one of those who shattered it.

In 1956, Montgomery Clift smashed his face in a car accident as he left Elizabeth Taylor’s home. She saved his life by keeping him from choking on his own teeth. It was the first of thousands of lives she would save in her lifetime. Her goal, she said recently, was the “eradication of the AIDS epidemic.”

Among the many honors bestowed upon Elizabeth Taylor:

• Dame of the British Empire (UK)

• Presidential Citizens Medal (USA)

• Commander of Arts and Letters (France)

• American Film Institute Lifetime Achievement Award

• The Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award

• The Kennedy Center Honors

• 2 Academy Awards for Best Performance by an Actress

• Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award (Special Academy Award)

Essential Films of Elizabeth Taylor:

• A Place in the Sun

• Father of the Bride

• Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

• Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

• National Velvet

Esoteric Elizabeth Taylor:

• Little Women

• Reflections in a Golden Eye

• Under Milk Wood

• The Comedians

• The Taming of the Shrew

• Lassie Come Home