Friday, April 15, 2011

Goodbye, Dear Elizabeth

By Elizabeth Claire Taylor

This is how I dealt with the death of my namesake: I didn't watch "Cleopatra." I didn't watch "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." I didn't watch "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Nope. Not even "Butterfield 8."

I did a photo shoot. Why?

Seeing her in live action would be too intimate – too real. For anyone, watching Elizabeth Taylor on screen is a powerful experience. But for me, as she is whom I was named after, it transcends “watching” a film. Unlike other actors whom we see on screen and feel pangs of longing for their grace, their beauty, etc – Elizabeth Taylor and I shared that direct link: our name.

Since childhood, it has always been impossible for me to sit through one of her films and not feel intense desires: adoration, yearning, jealously, love, fear, sadness. I'd like to confess that I have out grown all of that – that I can simply take her name and nothing else, but that would be a lie. I think her mega-watt bulb was too strong for me to ignore, even as a confused 8 year old, staring at the People magazine covers of her 8th marriage. Recognizing my name in bold purple print but not my face on the cover.

I'm emotional now, even as I write this, realizing that yes, she is gone and yet, you live on. You live on with a name that belonged to as USA Today claimed the “Biggest Star Ever” And yet, you – Elizabeth Claire Taylor – are not an accountant, nor a librarian like my savvy mother. No, you are an actor. A thespian. A drama queen. A diva. And maybe one day, a star.

Going to drama school at NYU's Tisch School of the Arts tore down what I had conventionally thought a 'star' was – they yelled at us Freshman year, “You were ALL the leads in your high school musicals – get over it!” Egos ripped apart, some students made it to graduation, some did not. Greek tragedy was studied – Kabuki theatre – Noh – but more importantly, we were imbued with a sense of duty to our art. The possibility of social change. “Think about it like this: you could be playing Nora in A Doll's House and in the audience that night, an abused housewife could see your performance and say, okay – that's it – I'm going to leave.”

I got chills down my spine the day I heard that, and everything changed. I realized that, yes, you could have the beauty and glamour of a star but it had to be rooted in the right concepts, concepts greater than you. Coming out of the haze of an eating disorder that had crippled my creativity and my spirit while at NYU I started telling my story – I started plus-size modeling – my world and the world around me was changing.

I had always heard of Elizabeth Taylor's commitment to AIDS research and diligent activism, but this was in the present looking back – it was only when I read a ton of biographies did I grasp how bold it was for her to speak out in the 1980's – when celebrity activism was unheard of, particularly in regards to something so taboo and shrouded in stigma as AIDS.

When I realized the through-line of my solo show Finding Elizabeth Taylor was a call to arms for young women to refute the corporate blitz on their bodies and minds, I saw the link. I recently saw solo performer Sarah Jones's work and she mentioned performing for the UN and White House councils on girls and women. Ah! The honor! “One day” I silently said to myself, “One day...”

I want to look back on my life and believe I did the best I could with the gifts I was given.

My show's growing success over the past 4 years has been encouraging - Elizabeth Taylor's name creates quite a buzz, regardless, but people love that it actually IS my real name (why would someone do this to themselves otherwise??) and I have a story to go with it. “So tell me, did you parents really name you after her?” “Did your parents do that on purpose?” “What were they thinking?!” Sorry, you have to see my show to find out!

And I knew Elizabeth was sick. I knew she had just turned 79 on February 27th – a Pisces, born in London to American ex-pat parents. I knew so much about her that her death felt like that of a family member. It was always a comfort, knowing she was alive. Like a guardian angel watching over me. Knowing that I really didn't have to live with that name all by myself. That it still belonged to someone else.

March 23rd I woke up to 5 text messages, half a dozen emails and my Facebook had exploded.

I called my mother and father first – with much tears, my mother saying back to me, “We are so glad we named you after her”. And finally, I called my friend and mentor Camryn Manheim. Sobbing to her I said, “My show – my show! What am I going to do about my show?”

“You have to address it – you have to work it in. And look at it this way – now you're free.”

Free? Free. Free from this name. Free from my life in her shadow. A diamond encrusted, brunette vixen of a shadow, but a shadow none the less. But do I ever really want to be free of it? I can't imagine my life without it. It IS my life. If you take her away, then who actually am I? We're getting existential here, I know – but this is why her death hits me so hard.

I took myself to Spa Castle that cold and rainy day, as ET would have appreciated – (she was known to be quite the frequent bather) and I sat in the lavender jacuzzi thinking, “Well, there will be all the covers of the newspapers tomorrow, then People magazine and Time next week, then the weekend long movie marathons on AMC and the 60 Minutes retrospectives – culminating with an over the top Oscar tribute next year – but's over.” It's over. Then I'm the only one. Just me.

Her legacy will always be there in my life but not as sharp, not as in focus as she has been while alive.

And make no mistake, the timing is amazing – I'll be performing Finding Elizabeth Taylor as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity the last two weeks of this coming June. April was the month my director, Morgan Gould and I were going to rewrite and tweak the script. May was rehearsal and publicity. Think about it: Elizabeth could have passed the week of my show. The morning of my opening night! This was a blessing. I am blessed.

So how I said goodbye to my namesake was a photo shoot.

Over the years I have re-created famous photos of Elizabeth Taylor as publicity for my show. Instead of sitting in bed with my Netflix streaming Cleo or Cat (as I have done numerous times in my life), I sat in front of a mirror and applied false eyelashes and fake nails.

Here's "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof":

 "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?":

and the ever popular "Cleopatra":

The Daily News, The Post, and USA Today all had gorgeous, typical photos of Elizabeth for their obit story. Full color, alluring, cleavage, eyes – the seductress. I got two copies of each – one for my mother – and held them close to my chest as precious bounty. “Only 50 cents?” I said at the newsstand while buying The Post. The man smiled to me and said in a thick accent, “50 cents and Cleopatra” while handing me my change. I cried on the train heading downtown.

But when I spread them all out on my kitchen floor, the one that stood out to me was the New York Times cover. A simple black and white photo, Elizabeth with her head turned to the side – looking far away – a stunning broach on her off the shoulder dress – with the headline “A Lustrous Pinnacle of Hollywood Glamour” underneath.

I stared at that photo long and hard, wondering to myself: will I ever be as beautiful? Will I ever be as talented? Will I ever be as loved? As adored? As idolized? As demonized? If I put myself out there, will I be compared? Villainized? Insulted? Laughed at?

Then I calmed myself down and realized it was just my ego talking. I have my own path – my own story – and yes, they do converge at times – and yes, we do share the same name, much like a line of Queens – but only destiny will decide where the similarities truly begin.

So here is my interpretation of this iconic photo of Elizabeth Taylor – one that may not be as familiar as some of the others – but one that has significant meaning to me as a reminder of the sun setting on one life and rising on another.

Gene Frankel Theatre
24 Bond Street
6/15@ 6pm, 6/16@ 5pm, 6/19@ 4pm,
6/20@ 8:30pm, 6/22@ 5:30pm, 6/25@ 5pm

Tickets and info:

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