Elizabeth Taylor died today, after a long illness. She was considered the most beautiful woman alive when I was a boy, first choice to play Cleopatra and Helen of Troy, a woman whose passions were legendary and front-page news. There was no way I would not be enthralled. I remember the moral disapproval of her, which was a constant refrain in the church circles my family belonged to. My mother thought she was sin incarnate, yet she wouldn't stop me from seeing Taylor's movies, even though it was against her scruples to go to them herself.
Cleopatra--the epic flop that I still consider one of the great films of the 1960s--was restricted to adults and minors accompanied by their parents. So when neither of my parents would take me to see it, I wound up going with Sergeant Sherman, one of the men who worked on jets with my father, and Mrs. Sherman. Nobody at the base theater at Yokota seemed concerned that my "parents" were black. This was in 1963 or '64, sure, but it was also the military, which was integrated my entire life.
Frankly, despite my fascination with her personally, I did not think much of Elizabeth Taylor as an actor--her voice a bit shrill and throaty for my tastes, too sharp even for her career-changing (and perhaps career-killing) role as Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She was her most beautiful and well cast in A Place in the Sun, but it will always be for her flamboyant entrance to Rome in Cleopatra that I will remember her. And in her rare interviews and talk-show appearances, she was radiant, down to earth, and shyly nervous all at once. She led a courageous life, and I can't think of higher praise--or a higher form of moral integrity.