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Liz Taylor: She'll always own that place in the sun

Elizabeth Taylor circa 1958

A Place in the Sun was playing at the repertory cinema on Yonge Street in Toronto. Elizabeth Taylor at her most luscious, only 17 when it was filmed, "the girl on the candy box," as director George Stevens said. She looked older, as wise as time itself, when she reached for Montgomery Clift and pulled him to her and whispered, "Tell mama. Tell mama all."

My mother arrived home, exhausted after a 10-hour nursing shift at St. Michael's Hospital, to find me waiting, clutching the movie listings.

"What's on?" she said.

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" A Place in the Sun. Elizabeth Taylor." I was reading Patricia Bosworth's biography of Clift, essential for any 13-year-old in the grip of a fledgling Elizabeth Taylor fixation. I drew pictures of her in my notebook at school when the teacher wasn't looking, though it wouldn't have mattered if he had noticed: The most beautiful women in the world often ended up looking like Ernest Borgnine.

"Don't forget Shelley Winters," my mother said, hauled herself to her feet, and put her coat back on. The mystery of genetics. How could she have predicted that we would be bound forever by a love of old movies? No matter how tired my mother was, I had only to recite a magical litany - Tyrone Power, Gregory Peck, Gene Tierney, Elizabeth Taylor - for her exhaustion to lift, and we were off to that fantastic dark cave. Perhaps she only pretended the exhaustion had lifted.

We walked from our high-rise to the movie theatre just south of Bloor, bought our tickets, sat with a handful of others: the forlorn, the obsessive, the Cahiers du Cinéma nerds. In those days you couldn't just wish an old movie into existence on Netflix or Amazon or YouTube. You had to comb patiently through the TV listings, stalk Elwy Yost, make a pilgrimage to the repertory cinema along with the other faithful.

It was all worth it as soon as Elizabeth Taylor appeared on screen, ducking into her father's billiard room in that white strapless dress, careless of her own allure. Montgomery Clift took a very Freudian drag on his cigarette. A Place in the Sun is based on An American Tragedy, Theodore Dreiser's angry novel about the futility of chasing the American dream. But the movie loses the subtext, and gains a bosom: It is all about Elizabeth Taylor's excruciating beauty. It's crucial to the story that you believe Clift will give up everything to possess her, that he will lie, and murder, and go to the electric chair, so that he can have her. She is the focus of all his longing.

And that's what separated Taylor from the other stars of her era. She was the focus of endless longing. Anything you wanted her to be, she was: ethereal and gross; majestic and vulgar; maternal and sex on two legs. People loved her from afar - AIDS activists and awkward Canadian teenagers and drag queens - and, famously, from up close. The closeted actors she befriended and sheltered in homophobic Hollywood loved her. Those seven husbands loved her, though Mike Todd and Richard Burton, the ones who gave her the biggest jewels and honoured her with the sharpest insults, were first among equals. Imagine being one of the seven, that rare company of men brave enough to have put a rock on her ring finger (right next to the one that was so often raised to the world).

In the mad landscape of Taylor's life, her talent is sometimes overlooked. Sitting with my mother, watching on a tiny TV screen, I learned many things from Liz that they neglected to teach us at school. In Butterfield 8, she was the bitter call girl Gloria Wandrous (an Oscar-winning role she despised), draped in her lover's wife's mink coat, scrawling "No sale!" in lipstick on the mirror.

"Mom, why did she write, 'No sale' on the mirror? What is she selling?"

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With a sigh, my mother turned off the TV. "Maybe next time we'll watch Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Except next time it was even worse: Suddenly, Last Summer. If your teachers are Elizabeth Taylor and Tennessee Williams, you want to pay attention in class. "Mom, what happened to Sebastian? Did those boys actually eat him?"

My mother turned off the TV. "Maybe next time we'll watch The Inn of the Sixth Happiness. Although that poor Ingrid Bergman, she had a much sadder life than Liz's." Suddenly, Last Summer had it all: Drug addiction, depravity, homosexuality, cannibalism.

Actually, that's the Taylor life in a nutshell, isn't it? Minus the cannibalism, and with a lot more chili. Years later, as I slowly amassed a small library of biographies and Elizabeth Taylor ephemera, I remember stopping in shock as I came across a reference to her being prescribed Tylenol 4s after one of her many surgeries. What? Do Tylenol 4s even exist? Were they invented specifically for her - pills so strong only Elizabeth Taylor could handle them?

I married a man who not only understood my strange obsession but actively fostered it. "You won't believe what the worst Liz has done," he'd announce as he came in the door, holding a copy of the National Enquirer with Taylor on the front page (she apparently hated the diminutive, and preferred "Elizabeth," but the nickname stuck in the public imagination). She was "the worst Liz" because really, anything you'd done - any transgression, any moment of falling-down drunkenness, any instance of stealing your best friend's husband then leaving him for an alcoholic, married Welshman - she'd done first. And better.

There were other things she did first, like being the first woman to receive a million dollars for a picture, for the much-mocked Cleopatra ("an unheard-of price for an actress," wrote producer Walter Wanger, but he paid it - and more importantly, she got 10 per cent of the box-office takings). It's hard to imagine now how frenzied the media attention was during the shooting of Cleopatra, when it became clear that Taylor had left Eddie Fisher for her costar, Richard Burton. A modern equivalent: Imagine Angelina Jolie marrying Charlie Sheen. With Oprah officiating.

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She is irreplaceable. Consider this story, recounted in the book Elizabeth Taylor: My Love Affair with Jewelry (of which, shamefully, I own two copies.) Among many other gifts, Burton gave Taylor a rare, historic pearl called La Peregrina, once owned by Mary Tudor. At one point she thought, to her horror, that she had lost it - until she realized her Pekingese puppy was chewing on it, and retrieved it from his jaws. Who, these days, could be at the centre of a story at once so glamorous and absurd? Who, in these drab times, is left to colour co-ordinate her cigarette holder and her outfit? Who is so eminently quotable? "Success," said the woman who'd been dragged through the mud, "is a great deodorant."

My mother and I sat down at Christmas with my five-year-old daughter to watch That's Entertainment, under the theory that Elizabeth Taylor is best introduced in small doses ( National Velvet and Lassie Come Home are next, and Suddenly, Last Summer … well, I might not ever let her watch that). "She's very pretty," was my daughter's pronouncement as we watched Taylor talk about her long career at MGM, the fresh-faced child star transforming into muu-muu'd icon of 1970s glamour before our eyes. "Yes, she is," I said. To paraphrase Hamlet, who was speaking of another regal and haunting presence: We shall not see her like again.

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