Mar 1, 2016

Book Review--Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption

Elizabeth Taylor: A Private Life for Public Consumption
Ellis Cashmore
Bloomsbury Academic, 2016

Most people go to the movies to watch characters do things they could never dream of doing themselves, let alone living with the consequences. Elizabeth Taylor behaved that way in real life; the drama she created often more outrageous than any role she ever played. In his new book, Ellis Cashmore explores the actress' effect on her public: how a life with little privacy affected her, how public life evolved throughout her lifetime  and the way her bold approach to living changed the role of women in society and the way we view celebrities.

Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963
Taylor was legendary for indulging in her many appetites unapologetically and with gusto. She took what she wanted, whether it be another woman's husband, expensive jewels or another drink, without worrying about the consequences. Her outrageous acts would frequently make her the center of controversy, but unlike more fragile actresses who found themselves the target of intense public speculation, such as Marilyn Monroe and Rita Hayworth, she was rarely intimidated or harmed by the attention.

Having spent a life in the public eye, Elizabeth Taylor never had to make the adjustment from private life to the heavy scrutiny of fame. Unlike many actresses, she was consistently in control of her own exploitation. Rather than finding it oppressive, she ensured she got maximum personal benefit from the exposure. She is also the rare star who continued to mesmerize her audience long past her screen career, and her ability to manage life in the spotlight has much to do with that enduring appeal.

Taylor and Richard Burton
While Taylor attracted plenty of negative publicity for her transgressions, the most memorable for stealing Eddie Fisher from wife Debbie Reynolds only to embark on another, very public affair with the also married Richard Burton, she was ultimately rewarded for her behavior. It is as if her lack of shame inspired her audience to rethink their feelings about her scandalous ways. By boldly taking sexual and other pleasures for herself, she was inhabiting a traditionally male role, rather than simply consenting to be the object of lust. It was as if she were asking her stunned public, "why not?" 

As Cashmore notes, "she was not just breaking rules; she was disputing their legitimacy." It's impossible to know how aware Taylor was of her influence, but in the screen roles she chose and the way she responded to the press, she seemed at least somewhat aware how intently people were listening and determined to make her intentions known.

Image Source
Cashmore is an academic who writes with the zest of a seasoned entertainment reporter. His well-researched, engaging text covers several decades of popular culture, making a case for Taylor's influence and exploring other groundbreaking public figures in the rapidly changing landscape of 20th century public life, like Jackie Onassis, Princess Diana, Madonna and Michael Jackson. He follows her from screen stardom through her years as an AIDs activist and perfume mogul, and on to the actresses' continued influence after her death in 2011.

The book is dense with compelling research and juicy gossip, as titillating as it is thought provoking. Sometimes the rush of facts and incidents can collapse into a confused jumble, and occasionally Cashmore goes off on bizarre tangents that derail the narrative flow, but for the most part he moves confidently through Taylor's history, the changing face of stardom and publicity, and how she influenced the nature of public life. It's an entertaining and thought-provoking read with fascinating observations about Taylor, feminism and the role of women in society in addition to its analysis of public life.

Many thanks to Bloomsbury Academic for providing a copy of the book for review.


  1. Love the stuff about Rory Emerald and Liz Taylor.

  2. Such an odd guy. You can assume he'd never be boring though.